For my series on strong female women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Samantha Brown who was born in Dallas, Texas and spent her formative years growing up in New Hampshire. Normal travel back then was loading up the family station wagon to visit relatives in Pennsylvania. Her biggest international trip was driving across the border once to Canada for a Quebec family vacation in junior high school… Oh the things to come!
After falling in love with the performing arts in high school, Samantha decided to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in fine Arts from Syracuse University. The week after graduation Samantha moved to New York City, with her cat, to pursue her dream of being on the stage. Not surprisingly this lead to 8 years of waiting tables, auditioning and various roles in off to off off off Broadway productions.
Samantha’s career as a television travel host happened by accident. A producer spotted her work in a commercial and recommended her to the Travel Channel in 1999 to audition for a new show being developed called “Great Vacation Homes”.
The audition almost did not happen… Samantha missed her first audition in Jacksonville, Florida after she failed to make a connecting flight. Thankfully It was rescheduled again for a week later. Her initial flight the second time was also delayed and Samantha had just five minutes to make her connecting flight. She sprinted to the gate and arrived 10 minutes after the final boarding call.
A sympathetic attendant encouraged Samantha to try to board the plane, so she continued her run on the tarmac toward the small 50 seater jet located about 100 feet away. A dispatcher interrupted her sprint, telling her it was too late to board.
Breaking down and through tears she told the dispatcher she had been waiting on tables for eight years hoping for a dream job like this. He relented, and told her only the flight’s pilot could overrule his decision. As the dispatcher boarded the plane and explained the situation to the cockpit, Samantha ran the 100 feet and positioned herself under the nose of the plane. She looked up at the captain, opened her arms pleadingly and shouted “PLEASE!!!!”
Thank you so much for joining us Samantha! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I went to school for Musical Theater at Syracuse University. I was considered a “triple threat” in that I could act, sing and dance. After graduating I moved to NYC where I realized I wasn’t threatening at all. I waited on tables for eight years, and kept at it auditioning for anything I could get a time slot for. I finally landed a commercial where the writer noticed my improv skills. He recommended me to a production company hired by the Travel Channel. Ultimately, I was hired as a host for the network to do a series called Great Vacation Homes.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I am the host and Executive Producer of “Places to Love” on PBS. We submitted the first season of our show to The Emmy’s. We were nominated for two awards: Outstanding Host in the category and Outstanding Travel and Adventure program. It was a huge honor, and I wondered how long I could proudly boast that we were nominated. Then we won. I won for host and our series won for travel program. It was an amazing feeling being recognized after twenty years in this business for a television series I produce and I could truly call my own.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I made many mistakes when I first started out, and felt like a “newbie” for the first 8 YEARS of my career! I was so green about travel. I remember being in Berlin, Germany trying to get money out of the ATM machine. I was getting so frustrated trying to select the setting for English. I need to select a country’s flag for a language, and I couldn’t find the American flag. I thought “how could they not have English?” I went to three other ATM”s before I realized the Union Jack or British flag meant English.
It taught me to think outside the idea that everyone shares my perspective.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My company stands out in the programs we create. We don’t do a Travel itinerary show in which we give you a list of places to go to, but rather approach each destination as a unique story full of great characters. We tell a compelling narrative that the viewer gets to be a part, since everything I do is accessible to the normal traveler. Almost everyone I meet, the viewer could meet. We focus on the locals, and their effort to create the experiences that we, as travelers, get to have. We have in our show what we call the “Authentic Voice,” and that is when the local talks directly to camera, introduces themselves to the viewer, and tells them a little bit about themselves. It’s away for the local and the viewer to make eye contact and form a connection without me. It tells the viewer, you are a part of this conversation, you are important in the telling of this story.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! Season three of “Places to Love.” I didn’t even think season one was possible. To be clear when you have a series on Public Television you have to raise all your own funding. I am very proud that I am able to support a team of 11 people that have created 39 episodes around the world.
I help people by showing them a way to have more personal travels, to understand that it’s never the top 5’s of the destination that really resonate in our lives, but the little moments where we connect with people and care about their experience. Social Media has begun to erode how we treat one another but travel is where we make eye contact with people not like us, where we have full conversations rather than texts. I like to say that connecting with people is the new “luxury” in travel.
How has seeing different cultures and the world changed the way you brand yourself?
Seeing the world hasn’t changed the way I brand myself as much it has reinforced the person I am and the brand that is an extension of that. I used to think I had to be an expert in travel, that I had to know everything about a place and culture before I arrived. But my real self was someone who was much more human, imperfect and caring. Travel brings that out in me in ways other parts of my life don’t.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Don’t think you have to be the best at something or naturally talented to make a go of doing what you want to do. I know our society makes it seem like if you are not a winner at something right from the beginning than you shouldn’t be doing it, but the fact is success takes an amazing amount of hard work. It never gets easy. And the people who may look like they have it easy probably don’t. So fail, make mistakes, move on and grow.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I’m an ensemble person. I like to lead by showing that I am a team member first. It’s all about the team and I have let a talented person go when they weren’t. I also convey to my team that I am here for them and I am not above any help they need. I help carry and load heavy gear, I get coffee, I’ll take the 4am driving shift to the airport. I’m not above anything for my team. (when 22 cases went missing on a flight from NYC to Switzerland) I bought everyone their underwear of choice and toothbrushes. 😉
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The first person to really believe in me was Jerry Smith. He and his wife Cindy are the owners of the production company Pine Ridge Film and Television in Jacksonville Florida. I worked with them for the first 8 years of my career. When I first got the job for Travel Channel I had no idea what I was doing. It was a series called Great Vacation Home and like all my shows there is no script just notes to follow and it’s up to me to create the story, drive the action, be informative and entertaining at the same time. I felt like a total failure but Jerry kept lifting me up reminding me I had something and needed to be myself.
I’ll never forget being at a funeral for my camera man of 8 years Stan Murphy. Jerry was there and I had just been fired for the second time by the Travel Channel. I was just standing there behind Jerry and he turned back to look at me and said “Samantha if there’s ever a time people make you think you’re not special, that you’re not worth it will you call me so I can tell you they’re wrong.” Then he turned back to a conversation he was already having. I couldn’t believe how much that helped me. he knew just by the look on my face.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
This is what I’m most proud of. When I decided that just because a network didn’t think I was worth it that I could still do what I love (host travel shows) I kept thinking what would that show look like? What would the approach be? Then I met a woman named Kara Wilson who runs her parents Cattle Ranch in Oregon. She’s a 5th generation Oregon trail family and grew up in a Sears Robuck house from 1910 that came in pieces on a Well’s Fargo Wagon. It doesn’t get more cowgirl than Kara. But what makes Kara a phenomenon is that she has been in a wheelchair since she was 8 and that has not stopped her from getting up everyday at 4am, getting on a horse and driving cattle. I was in awe of her. Turns out she turned her childhood home into B and B and accepts visitors to spend time on the ranch. I thought that was incredible that you could spend time with a woman who personified GRIT. That’s when I knew what my show would be about. I wanted to make sure that people like us knew people like her exist and that we can actually spend time with them. Eifel Towers, Cathedrals and Museums are important but they’ve got nothing on the people that made them so. My series is unique in that we really drill down to the human side of any great travel attraction or experience.
Is it important to you to expose your children to different experiences around the world? And How so?
Children’s minds and perceptions are wonderfully wide open. they have little prejudice, a ton of empathy and a ferocious sense of curiosity. Travel keeps them in that open state of being. Unless it’s food, then they only want French fries.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Never make a decision on an empty stomach. Many times I’ve blown up or didn’t do the right thing it’s because I’ve been hungry. I’ve blown up at colleagues, front desk clerks and you feel AWFUL after. Sometimes the difference of doing the right thing or not is 200 calories. So I always travel with food. Trailmix, chocolate…a banana.
- Hire people you like. In my world when you work with a travel crew you live with them, get stuck in airports with them, have 15 hour days with themand are away from your own families for weeks at a time. Difficult people who don’t understand the give and take of being human on the road make this impossible. Now I get to hire and work with the team I want to spend my days with, I don’t care how talented you are at your job if you’re an asshole I wont work with you.
- Being a leader is never a solo act. I have a background in theater and have always known the importance of the ensemble and that there are no small parts just small actors. Like I stated before I am never above anything when it comes to the task of creating a travel show: host, write, carry gear, go on a coffee run whatever anyone needs I am there for them.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think the movement would be that Travel is Everywhere. We have this notion that travel is in the top FOMO destinations, that it’s about going to the top 5’s of the world. But travel is in smaller cities, towns, it’s a day trip from your home on one tank of gas, it’s a two hour family dinner at a restaurant that serves food from another part of the world: Vietnamese, Lebanese or Ethiopian. The importance of Travel is not measured in how many miles you have traveled or how many Instagram selfies you got. It’s about interaction and that can happen anywhere and everywhere.
Can you please give us your favorite ”Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Dive under and let the full force of the wave roll over you.” I was told this by a surfing instructor who noticed I was jumping over the waves with my board. I am scared of being in the water and was not enjoying it. He told me that I was taking on the wave at its strongest point and that was just unnecessarily exhausting me. “Surfers dive under the crashing wave and come up when it’s calm,” he said. He went on to tell me that I probably do that in my real life too.
He was right.
So now when life is coming at me, I’m overwhelmed, and feel out of control…I tell myself to “dive under and come up stronger.”
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Every woman from Saturday Night Live. I grew up watching Gilda Radner and Jane Curtain to of course the brilliant Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler. Strong women who make people laugh rule my world. Comedy is such a powerful tool. Nothing unites us more than shared laughter It makes us human, it allows us to understand a perspective we don’t share, it allows an in when a door was shut.
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