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Not Your Mother's Travel Agent: Meet Whitney Shindelar, Founder of Undiscovered Sunsets

Whitney Shindelar_Undiscovered Sunsets

Whitney is amazing. She's one of those individuals that you meet and try to figure out what European country she yields from. Is she Dutch? Is she French? Nope, she's from Iowa. Yet her love of travel has brought her to living in multiple countries, learning three languages and starting her own traveling planning business helping individuals plan their ultimate getaway. When she's not planning her next adventure with Undiscovered Sunsets she is working as our LA ambassador meeting and operating incredible Six Degrees Society LA events. 

1. From Iowa to China to LA living. How did you catch the travel bug and what keeps you motivated to travel?

Studying abroad in New Zealand really turned my life upside down in the most beautiful way. Looking back, I can’t pinpoint what motivated me to study abroad because I had never traveled outside the US, I didn’t have a passport, and I definitely didn’t speak any foreign languages. For all of these reasons, I chose New Zealand because I thought it would be an easy transition. One of my four roommates was German and with her, I was almost immediately immersed in a group of new friends all coming from different countries and different backgrounds. Germany, France, Mexico, Korea, Sweden, Chile, Spain...I was suddenly in a world that I had never experienced, but that I was immediately so in love with.  I was the “ignorant American” in the room that “only spoke one language”. My closest friends were French and German, and out of frustration that they were always forgetting about me in the room and reverting back to their mother languages, I purchased a stack of language books for beginners and started teaching myself French.

I have never cried when leaving friends and family like I did on the day I left New Zealand. I was devastated and was certain that I would never see these amazing people ever again. (Fast forward 10 years, we all see each other every 2-3 years and it’s fantastic.)  Upon arriving home to Iowa and registering for my upcoming semester, I enrolled in French, Italian, Spanish, and Chinese classes, I promptly booked a 1-month trip to visit my roommate who was volunteering in South Africa, and made a plan to move to France as soon as I graduated, less than 2 years later.

The beauty and wonder of cultures, landscapes, wildlife, languages, religions….all of it keeps me motivated to travel. There really isn’t a place on Earth that I’m not interested to visit. I believe that travel makes me a better person. With each trip, I come home a little more open-minded, a little more empathetic, and a little more curious about the next destination.

2. After crunching numbers professionally in a hotel setting, what inspired you to create your company Undiscovered Sunsets?

I grew up with one parent working from home, so the idea of starting my own business one day was always there, in the back of my mind, but I had no idea what it would look like nor did I have the business experience to know how to take action on that idea.

Analyzing financial statements, contributing to monthly strategy meetings, and managing improvement projects within the 5-star hotel where I was working gave me an opportunity to learn about the service industry and what it truly takes to succeed in such a competitive environment. Everywhere I went after accepting this position, I was thinking about the profitability of different businesses, I was paying attention to the quality of their materials, and I was noticing whether or not their team seemed engaged with their work.

The true inspiration to create Undiscovered Sunsets came during a family trip to Germany. My father booked this trip without consulting me in the slightest and I was quite upset with him because as you might remember, I had friends living all over Germany and I was working in hotels, so I had a long list of Design Hotels I wanted to check out. This ended up being quite the blessing in disguise. Upon arrival, the service and attention to detail of Distinctly Deutschland, the company that designed our itinerary, was astounding.

In side conversations, throughout this trip, I shared with my parents how unhappy I was living in China and working for a large corporate company that wanted me to climb a ladder in which I had no interest. I originally went to China for one year to teach English as a foreign language and I was now approaching year six. I was ready for a change. My mother began to put all these pieces together and suggested that with my experience of having lived abroad in three different countries for a total of eight years, speaking three languages fluently, and having traveled to more than twenty countries myself, I could offer a service to design vacations, similar to the service that had planned that very vacation we were on!

Everything came together from there. The idea had been planted. I had the hospitality experience that enabled me to write a business plan. I had the motivation to take action and make a big change in my life. And so Undiscovered Sunsets began.

3. What are 3 misconceptions people often have about travel agents?

1. Travel agents are dead (the job, not the people).

People are often surprised that “travel agents” still exist. “Can’t I just book everything online?” is the response/question I hear most often. Traditionally, travel agents sold packages that were one-size-fits-all and then booked them for you. The interaction was extremely transactional. Your options consisted of the 5-day, 7-day, or 10-day trip to Hawaii and the hotel you stayed in was just part of the package.  Today, you’ll hear more about Travel Advisors than you will about Travel Agents. Our role has shifted to offering suggestions and recommendations based on our personal travel experiences and getting to know our clients personally in order to design unique itineraries that highlight their preferences and their travel style.

2. It must be cheaper if you book with a travel advisor.

With so much attention put on last-minute bookings and seemingly awesome deals for luxurious hotels and Caribbean cruises, a conversation about travel often includes questions and assumptions that a travel advisor should have the secret, magical potion to make things drastically cheaper than what they really are. With travel, just like anything else, you get what you pay for.  The best hotels, the most amazing experiences, and the cruise lines that offer the highest quality service, sell out long before they need to offer a last minute discount. A discount or a promotion tells you two things: 1) either this is a very large hotel or a very large ship that has too many rooms and just wants to fill them, because a discounted customer is better than no customer. Or 2) The service or quality of this hotel/cruise/tour is declining and is not meeting the standards of their competitors. Rather than focusing my efforts on saving money for my clients, I work really hard to make sure we’re utilizing their investment in the best way possible.  We do this by working with companies that we know well and that we know will offer a high quality experience. We also advise clients on hotels and experiences that are worth the extra $$$ and those that aren’t.

3. We travel around the world for free.

Ha! Wouldn’t this be incredible? I promise you, if this was true, everyone would be a travel advisor. We definitely have industry perks, just like most jobs. People working at The Gap receive discounts on clothing from The Gap, but they’re not taking home shopping bags of free clothes. Or at least I don’t think they are. We certainly have opportunities to travel for discounted rates, but it can be expected that if we want to travel during high season, hotels and tour operators are going to tell us to go away or pay full price.

4. If you could go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?

Morocco. Or Norway. Or Iceland. Portugal has been tugging at my heartstrings as well. I used to be really intrigued by entire countries or specific cities--India, France, Thailand, London, Hong Kong, Mexico City. Now I find myself more motivated to travel for the sweeping landscapes of the world, to see wildlife in their natural habitats, and for specific experiences, such as polar bear safaris in Canada, gorilla trekking in Uganda, arctic expeditions where you can see narwhals.

5. Thinking to the future—where do you see Undiscovered Sunsets and who are your customers/what trips are you planning for them?

My clients are open-minded, are willing to try new things, and they want to get the most out of each of their vacations. I’m working with everyone from honeymooners in their late-20’s, to families with young children, to retirees ticking off big chunks of their bucket list each year. Each of my clients’ love of travel and desire to see the world is more important to me than their age, their budget, or their chosen destination.

I really believe in the power of stepping out of our comfort zones and in the power of seeing the world from a different perspective. My dream for Undiscovered Sunsets has always been to inspire people to travel, most especially to places they would have never considered, had I not suggested it. I also look forward to one day being able to offer the opportunity to travel to those who wouldn’t otherwise have the resources.