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TURNER Q&A: Heather Greenwood Davis

TURNER Q&A: Heather Greenwood Davis

Toronto's Heather Greenwood Davis is an award-winning freelance writer, an on-air personality, and keynote speaker. Above all, she's a storyteller and explorer who is committed to the idea that travel can be an agent of change. With bylines in such esteemed publications as National Geographic and the Globe and Mail, a role as the resident travel expert on The Social on CTV, the Globetrotting Mama blog, plus many other activities, Heather has a packed schedule. She took a little time to chat with TURNER about what's been on her mind lately.

How did you fall in love with travel and why did you want to make it central to your career?

I grew up in a family that traveled. My parents immigrated from Jamaica in the 70s and they did not grow up with travel as a part of their lifestyle. But they were intent on their kids knowing Canada, so every August, we were going to go somewhere. They wanted us to see each province and have an understanding that this country was bigger than the place where we live.

So, travel was always there. I always wanted to be a writer, but I did not really know that travel writer as a profession existed. I was already working at a newspaper covering hard news and was working as a lawyer at the same time. One day, I came across a Fit Pregnancy magazine which had an ad on the back of it for a spa catering to pregnant women. A lightbulb went off. I thought, "This is a great story!" So, I pitched it to the newspaper I was writing for, and that led to a column in the Toronto Star. Along the way, I became a lawyer. It didn't suit me, but I just kept it up until at some point, I said, "Enough." I left my job at the law firm in 2007 to focus on travel and family. 

How has covering travel changed in the last few years as a result of the pandemic?

It's changed a lot of things for me personally as well as in bigger picture ways. Like most travel writers, before the pandemic, I was on the road regularly, probably two-and-a-half-weeks out of every month. Being grounded for almost two years does change things. But what's helpful for me is that the type of writing I do tends to be pretty introspective. I'm always sort of looking for what's the lesson is. You know, how can I take this trip and make it relevant for people who may never go to this place? So, not traveling actually turned into an opportunity to do more writing. I probably wrote more over the last two years than I had while I was traveling, because as we know, travel itself takes up a lot of time!

The nature of family travel has changed. In 2011, I took a year long trip around the world with my kids. My husband and I thought, "Now is the moment!" So, we took off for the year traveled to 29 countries and six continents with a six- and eight-year-old. It was amazing. Looking back now, I'm not sure how easy it will be to replicate in the future—at least for a little while. A lot of the world is closed or restricted in ways it wasn't before. But the things we learned in that year, I've been trying to talk about through my stories and appearances—the importance of spending time together, why travel matters, understanding that we're a global community. All of those things were suddenly hammered home by the pandemic. Suddenly people were more receptive to those types of stories. They could relate in a way that they couldn't before.

You've spoken of travel as an "agent of change"—why is that concept so important?

Fairly early in my career, I really became aware of the fact that my passport is a privilege. Where I was born and the nature of my job—all of those things are privileges that allow me access to the world in a way that most people don't necessarily have. Because of that, I feel a real responsibility to bring the world back to them as best I can. The notion that my parents had about the world being bigger than your neighborhood is one that I really lean into a lot.

So, if you're not going to be able to go with me to this island in the Caribbean, then I not only want tell you what it's like to visit there, but I also want to let you know how I might have changed as a result of visiting. I want to tell you what the people there are like, and how my coming there affects them. It's important to look for opportunities to tell stories from all those angles. Sometimes travel stories can open people up to the possibility of thinking differently.

That ties into my next question—what types of travel stories are exciting to you in 2021 and going into 2022?

I'm hoping to be able to tell the kinds of stories that we've been talking about. I've never been a guidebook travel writer—you know, just the facts, turn left, turn right. I don't think that's where my strengths are. Those stories are important, but I'm all about how experiences can give us opportunities to be better and do better. I think that's fairly representative of what people want to read. Now, people are leaning into sustainability, inclusiveness, and diversity. The pandemic and events like the murder of George Floyd made people think about equity. It created this cataclysmic thing where people are willing to go further.

I don't think [travel writers] have to reinvent what we do. I think we just need to look for the other side of stories and dig into the stories that have never been told. I've been really enjoying digging into some indigenous history here in Canada. I've been learning about the other side of some of the big historical milestones in this country—and some of the tragedies. That's been empowering to learn about and to share with people. [caption id="attachment_21225" align="aligncenter" width="2443"] Photo by Vijitha Bahadur Photography Photo by Vijitha Bahadur Photography[/caption]

On your website you have the tagline "Let's Tell Better Stories Together." How can PR firms like TURNER can make your life easier?

Sometimes, PR can take a very generic approach to things. It can feel like, "OK, we have a new property or a new destination that we're representing, so let's just tell everyone that we have a new property or destination." Speaking for me personally, what's more useful is if you have a sense of what I write about and how I write. And that you have some trust in what I do. Often, trips that I'm offered come with a really defined goal on the part of the PR and their client. It's like they've already written the story for you, right? The trust factor is really important. You have to give us space to find the story. I recognize that it's a balancing act!

Another thing: respect my inbox! I get hundreds of emails a day and most of them do not relate to what I'm doing. I don't need a press release telling me someone has switched to a new role, or that a hotel has a new general manager. That's just not what I write about. I also don't like phone follow-ups. I've been in destinations like Costa Rica and my phone rings and it will be someone from a PR firm saying, "We sent you an email two days ago and we're just following up to see how we can give you more info." I say, "I'm in the rainforest!"

One more thing: I get a lot of emails that say, "Here's this new thing, here is why it's great, if you're interested and you like more information please reach out and let me know." And I take that very seriously. I will file it—I keep most emails that have any sort of reference points that I might use later. I won't reach out to a PR person until I need that extra information—just like they said in their email! But often those people follow up and they say that they haven't heard back yet …

What progress would you like to see in terms of diversity and inclusiveness in the travel space over the next several years?

What's happened so far has been what I expected—that there was sort of a panic. Like, organizations suddenly were asking, "Do we have a DEI initiative in place, who's on our diversity team, and if we don't have one, let's find someone with some color in their skin and start one." There was this quick action. Which is important—you have to start somewhere. That's great. What's happening now is that you're seeing the burnout. "I'm so burnt out from these conversations." I can see that some places that were really gung-ho in the beginning and making real efforts to have conversations and talk about storytelling and figure out how to move things forward have dropped off a bit. They've fallen back on some of the old habits.

I'm really hopeful that it will not take something as drastic and tragic as what started this whole thing. It doesn't have to be in panic mode all the time. Nobody can operate at that level. But [organizations] have to look at what sort of initiatives they've put in place and ask if they're working, or if they've brought about real change. It's not just that you can have a meeting once a month about it. It has to be on a day-to-day basis. Are you going beyond where you were a year ago? Are you looking for new voices? Have your hiring decisions changed? Then, hopefully, it becomes part of the overall DNA.

There's sort of this idea that we were going to snap our fingers and suddenly be A non-racist society. That's not possible. It took a long time to get here and it will take a long time to get out of here. It has to be an ongoing conversation.

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