TURNER Q&A: Gabby Beckford, Packs Light
Others have made the “quit-your-day-job-to-travel-full-time” move, but few have done it with the style – and success – of Gabby Beckford. Her Packs Light blog is packed with terrific content: tips, trends, resources, photos, news and more. The travel world is taking notice, too. Lonely Planet just singled Gabby out as an Emerging Voice Storyteller in its highly anticipated Best In Travel 2021 List. In between trips, TURNER talked with Gabby to get her point of view on a variety of hot topics…
Congrats on the Lonely Planet Award! How did you feel when you heard the news?
It’s great — of course I’m very happy to win the Lonely Planet award! I’ve only been full-time travel blogging since February of this year, even though I’ve been blogging and writing [part-time] since my sophomore year of college. So, it feels like a long time coming and very sudden all at once. To be an Emerging Voice Storyteller is just the best thing I could have hoped for. I try to represent young women and Black travelers specifically, so it feels like the message is starting to stick. It feels like this is our time.
You quit your job to become a full-time content creator. How did you make that big life decision?
My junior year of college, I won a big scholarship and studied in the Dubai for a year. In that year, I decided that I did not want to sit in a lab or an office all day. The STEM route was where I was headed. I was getting my degree in statistics, and I had experience as an engineer. And I just thought: That sounds terrible! So, I came home and shifted gears. My plan was to graduate, work two years as an engineer, be miserable and then go full-time. Which is exactly what I did. I quit my job in February — and then the pandemic hit. So, it was a whole other pivot.
How has the pandemic effected your life as a travel content creator — other than the obvious fact that traveling itself is much more complicated now?
The ethics of travel writing right now are very complicated. The question of how and when to encourage travel has been touchy. Also, you have to ask yourself: what do you talk about as a travel content creator if you’re not actually traveling? That’s been a challenge, but also an opportunity. That’s where most of my success has been in the past several months. No one has any ideas. If I can be the first to have an idea, then people will get excited about it. There’s a chance to be innovative and creative.
Have you been able to travel since the pandemic began?
I just got back from Antigua, which was my very first international flight and trip since it all started. I’m still hesitant in my travels and I had internal struggle about going on that trip. Is it ethical, is it not ethical? At the end of it, I decided, this is my job and if anyone’s going to go, I want to go and be able to share my story. I want to show how I did it as safely as possible and set that as the trend. People are traveling still, but they might not be posting about it. I wanted to travel and show that it can be done safely and responsibly. You can wear your face shield and still have fun on a trip. It’s about setting the new norm.
Antigua required a COVID test seven days beforehand and I did a rapid test just before the trip. Those were negative. So, I got on the United flight and was excited to see that they kept the middle rows empty. I landed and they checked my COVID test at every stop. My hotel got a copy of it, all that type of stuff. Everyone was wearing a mask, and everything felt very socially distanced. It felt great to go. And when I came back, I got tested again and it was negative.
You’re an authority on the travel habits of Gen Z. What’s different about how your age group travels as opposed to other generations?
I cannot lie – social media plays a big role for Gen Z. Half of any trip now is wanting to experience the culture. The other half is that you want a good picture. That’s just the truth of it – and that’s OK! You want to have good memories of any place you go to. It sounds a little sad to say, but we do have short attention spans. We’re very visual. It might seem like we’re devolving, but we’re not. People just want as much information as they can get, as fast as possible.
TikTok is obviously very hot because it’s so visual and it’s so quick. You aren’t forced to watch a 10-minute YouTube video to get a little bit of information. Instagram is still really popular, despite all their annoying changes. Twitch is big with Gen Z now. I’ve seen people, just very recently, moving into livestreaming their travels which I think is very interesting. You feel like you’re right there with them. It’s as immediate as it gets.
Also, I think Gen-Z is a lot more intentional about meeting people when we travel. It’s less about the destination itself and more about who you might meet or what experiences you could have with your friends. It’s leaning even heavier into a sense of community, which I think is great to see.
Diversity and inclusivity have been major topics of conversation in the travel space this year. What progress have you been seeing?
I’ve seen a lot of progress being made by the people affected by it: Black travelers have organized more efficiently and intentionally this year, which is fantastic. The Black Travel Alliance, obviously, has been really important.
There’s no way to tell if the conversations coming from the positions of power are actually going to result in the changes they’ve promised. What I would like to see is those brands and businesses continue the conversation without us having to ask. I’d like them to continue to call in consultants and to continue to pay influencers and creatives. The circumstances of the Black Lives Matter movement are horrific, of course, but from a data standpoint, it’s been helpful this year to have a reference point. One of the Black Travel Alliance’s pillars is accountability. We can say: “OK, you said this in 2020. What progress have you made since then?” It’s not just a general goal. We have the numbers now.
It would be great to see those businesses focus on serving their local Black population as well. I’d also like to be able to look at an ad and not be shocked that there are all white people in it, or just one Black person in it. I’d like it to look refreshing and proportionate to the people that live in a place or travel there.
How do you see travel evolving in the upcoming year, post-COVID?
Of course, I can’t see the future. I do see sustainability trending heavily from a tourism perspective – Thailand and Vietnam, for example, are temporarily closing down some of their most popular tourism spots just to get a breath of fresh air. And some places like Bali are limiting tourism, and travel businesses and operators are going back to farming and more traditional ways of making money. It’s complicated. On the one hand, it makes tourism less accessible in terms of budget travel. But at the same time, it protects destinations. It makes travel more sustainable.
I’m also thinking that community pod travel – like with your six best friends — is going to be very popular. Before, I was all about solo travel and meeting up with anybody in each destination. That’s not as possible anymore. Group travel is going to be the future. You have to have your six to eight friends or family who can travel with you.
I do have international travel hopes for 2021. We may be going back into quarantine this winter, which is probably a smart idea. But I do have plans for next year. I’m holding out hope. I expect the world to be different, but I still think we’ll be able to travel safely for ourselves and for the local communities we visit.
Photos via Gabby Beckford / Packs Light.
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