Shannon O’Donnell is an advocate for grassroots volunteering and slow travel. In addition to being recognized as Traveler of the Year by National Geographic last year, she recently published The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook and writes for her blog, A Little Adrift. In our conversation today, Shannon and I discuss her consulting and public speaking work and her passion for inspiring young people to travel and become global citizens. Enjoy!
Shannon, you were named National Geographic’s Traveler of the Year in 2013. Congratulations! What did it take to receive this prestigious award?
Thank you! It was such an extreme honor to receive from a magazine that I have read for more than two decades. The Travelers of the Year program focuses on individuals who travel with passion and purpose, and NatGeo honored me for the work I am doing to promote grassroots level travel and tourism. My Grassroots Volunteering site looks to encourage ethical independent volunteering opportunity alongside the chance for travelers to find and support local organizations—restaurants, social enterprises, boutiques, tour companies—that are creating positive change in their communities.
You are a former actress. Have you been able to bring any of that part of your life into traveling and blogging? If so, how?
I’ve always felt that my acting training has benefited my life in intangible ways—from an ease with people in unfamiliar situations to networking at travel industry events. I have a strong background in improv, for years that was a focus of my training, and it’s that training that has helped me feel confident moving my travel blog success into speaking to students at universities and high schools. After honing a narrative about myself as an actress in LA—that took work to find a story arch about characters and my role in the industry—I was ready to bring that same idea of having a public persona to blogging. Though my site, A Little Adrift, is an authentic outlet for my thoughts and ideas, I also think successful blogs take this a step further and the bloggers create and follow a narrative line within their own story that makes them compelling to readers and their community. Years navigating the overwhelming sea of other red-headed actresses in Los Angeles taught me how to form a narrative voice that stands out.
Since you don’t run ads or sponsored content on your site, how do you make traveling full-time possible? Is it primarily through public speaking and training?
Speaking at universities about travel is part of my income, but the majority of my funds come from online marketing and running social media for small businesses. The breakdown is about 30% from speaking and freelance traveling writing and 70% from online consulting. When I left to travel in 2008, 100% of my income came from my online work, and I was able to work from the road for years with this income and travel for the better part of every year.
How do you see your income mix changing in the next few years?
My income will likely remain at roughly this ratio; I enjoy the consulting work and generally have a good mix of speaking and writing every month that fulfills the travel and creative side of my life. I have long found that it was easier for me to gain well-paying expertise by focusing on consulting work versus trying to make an income from my blogging.
What advice would you give to someone near and dear to you who wanted to start a travel blog today? What do you wish you knew when you started that you know now?
My best advice is to decide up front if you are building a business or a blog—they are not necessarily the same thing, and the way you build them is likely a different path. I offered up some ideas here for bloggers on how I built my online community, it really came down to identifying what outcome was most important to gain from the blog; for me, that was building a community of like-minded travelers interested in culture, food, and language overseas.
Oh, and I wish I had taken everyone’s advice to start a newsletter list immediately. This direct communication with my community is one of my most valuable ways to communicate and I wish I had built that community sooner!
Shannon O’Donnell is a long-term traveler on the road since 2008; she travels slowly and supports grassroots tourism along the way. She published The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook and founded GrassrootsVolunteering.org to help travelers connect with ethical volunteering and travel opportunities. She also founded the award-winning travel site A Little Adrift to share stories of culture and inspire others to travel. She regularly speaks to students at universities and high schools around the country, striving to ignite in the next generation a passion and interest in global citizenship and travel.
Interview conducted in November, 2014 by Kristin Winet.