Shirley Vernae sat down and spoke with founder of Soul Society & Essence’s Senior Marketing Manager, Rondel Holder and got tips for her future travel experience and learned his many reasons behind the start of Soul Society 101.
Check out how he uses Soul Society 101 to encourage more black travelers to see and experience the world through his own Brooklyn backyard, how he travels all over the world with a small budget and why it’s so important for the black traveler to be educated before traveling.
How did you get started?
I started Soul Society 101 in 2012. At the time I was traveling a lot for work and for personal reasons and I couldn’t find a lot of advice or recommendations or guides specifically for the black traveler experience. I had experiences when I would go to a new city or a new country and I would go to Yelp and I got a recommendation that was terrible or I could tell that people were reviewing negatively on things that don’t make sense. Things that you just have to understand what you’re looking for from the experience in order to know how to rate it and it wasn’t from the black person’s perspective. So at the time, to my knowledge, there were no other black travel guides and city guides out there so I just wanted to create that platform for people to reference and have a guide where they go to new places, get inspiration—all from our voice, our perspective and our experience. Also for people to be inspired overall by seeing black people all over the world, doing different things.
Who is Soul Society targeted to?
It’s targeted towards the young black professional. So those between 25-40 would probably get the most out of it. We have featured women for a series called Traveling Beauties and for men it’s called Fly Guys. So outside of my own personal experiences we also have a series for young men and women to talk about their experiences, their favorite places to go, which countries have the best beaches, the best food and the best nightlife. One story was about how people have experienced racism in China and India, where people there have just never seen a black person before. And a gay traveler who shared that Thailand is the most open to gay and lesbian travelers. Everyone just sharing their experiences and what worked good for them, where they stayed and inspiration.
Do you promote travel deals?
We don’t tweet out travel deals every day like some of the black travel sites just because in my personal belief it’s already out there. We share the best sites to get those travel deals. Like TheFlightDeal.com, AirFareWatchdog, those type of sites and we encourage everyone to follow and to subscribe to those pages. But for us we’ve gotten a few exclusive deals—when the Abu Dhabi flight deal came out, I actually had someone reach out and say hey can you promote this hotel deal through your network—specifically they wanted to reach the black traveler. And within certain date ranges they had like 75% off hotel deals in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. We definitely have those deals out there and we also have a full budget travel series specifically around budget travels –so hotels through AirBnb that are recommended. The best travel discount sites, and just overall people’s experiences. We had one story of a guy who went to The Maldives for 50 bucks all together so to hear his story I was just like wow, I have to step my game up. Also educating people on travel credit cards, the different options, the best reward points programs. There’s a whole system out there for the black traveler, most of us may have not grew up in that system of the well versed travel family so there’s a whole education process that needs to happen and the goal is to get that out there. There’s no need to spend 3-4x more money to travel to the same place where you can get an amazing deal.
Why is being educated on traveling so important to the Black Travel movement?
For Cuba, we had one person share their experience. Everyone’s excited to see the doors being opened to travel to Cuba but there’s a lot of regulations. So instead of people thinking ok, I can just book this ticket and go, there’s really strict guidelines that you have to adhere to. For people who are traveling internationally and discovering new experiences it sucks because more of my first experiences were trial and error. You get somewhere and you’re like I wish I had known x, y, z or if I had known this then I would have done that differently. So sort of putting the information out there in a fun and engaging way. And to share everyone’s experiences so it’s not just coming from my perspective but it’s sort of coming from this travel movement and honestly that’s why I think it’s been picking up so quickly, the black travel movement, because we’ve all been interested, we’ve all tried a few things, and messed up a few ways but I don’t think we’ve ever had this movement in our voice to talk about our experiences. So I think that’s why the buzz is so big right now for black travelers.
Can black travelers contribute to the site?
So I have a set of contributors but I also leave it open if people have stories that they want to contribute so long as it doesn’t replicate something on the site already, I’m usually pretty open to it. I put it out there that I was looking for contributors like 2 months ago and I got a ton of feedback and I’m super backed up trying to get everyone’s stories up and out there. As long as it’s a unique angle that tells a good story that I think people want to hear I’m pretty open to posting it.
What are some of your favorite places you’ve been?
I just came back from Turks and Caicos a few weeks ago. That was an amazing experience. Definitely one of the best in the Caribbean. I also really enjoy Grenada in the Caribbean. London is awesome, obviously, it’s very similar to New York. It’s like New York times a million. If you really like that adrenaline rush. I’m heading to South Africa through another flight deal that I found and told everyone about in the Soul Society community. It was $500 round trip to Johannesburg with a day in Abu Dhabi. So that’s going to be exciting and I’m looking forward to that. And all of the experiences are on the site—I can’t wait to go to Japan and there’s so many experiences that people have had that I haven’t had yet that I’m really excited about too, so as I post photos and share stories I’m like, man, I can’t wait to do that. I have my fair share of passport stamps but I definitely have so much more to go.
Places with the best dishes?
Thailand has amazing food. I love Thai food in general. They have amazing food. The Caribbean—my family is from the Caribbean so I’m pretty partial – of course Jamaica and Grenada have some amazing food. I haven’t been to Brazil but one of my contributors told me Brazil has some of the most amazing food too.
Is there anything special that you do when you travel?
Everywhere I go I try to collect a piece of artwork. I have like a shrine that’s getting kind of crazy and hefty. My idea is that one day I’ll have a house big enough to create like a wall of travel from the different countries around the world. But you know in New York City that’ll be pretty awesome to find a wall that big. I’m dreaming big, I’m dreaming big!
What work do you do with Essence? Do you share your traveling experience with their readers as well?
I’m a Senior Marketing Manager over there and I actually just did, in their June travel issue, a travel smarter story. So a lot of those trips I share online I was grateful for the opportunity to share those and some new tips with the Essence Magazine reader. The best times to fly, the best time to book travel. So one of the tips I shared was that it’s really smart to try to book a trip before or after holiday week. So if you think about it, travel is all about supply and demand. If you travel the week of Christmas, flights may be 2x as much as they typically cost but if you travel the week before Christmas you might get half the cost because no one’s really traveling that week because everyone’s saving that time in December for the week of Christmas. So I’ve gotten ridiculous deals the week before Christmas or after Thanksgiving. There’s no need to travel for 2x as much if you can figure out a way to go for cheaper. People always think I have so much money because I’m traveling all the time but it’s just that you have to be smart about it. Another thing I shared is if I go somewhere, to a region I’ve never been to before—I’m going to Iceland at the end of August. There’s also a free layover if you do Iceland Airlines. So you can tack on a trip to Italy or Germany or Amsterdam. So I’m doing Amsterdam for 3 days. I’m knocking out 2 countries in one trip which saves a ton of money. I try to see the world as much and as long as possible.
Who has the best nightlife?
Thailand has some of the best nightlife scenes. It’s on a different level! One of the great things about Thailand is that there’s so many different ways that you can do it. There’s amazing beaches, they have the elephant park and tiger kingdom but there’s also a ridiculous nightlife. So if you want to go and have the most turnt up time of your life you can totally do that in Bangkok. Ibiza might have the best nightlife too.
What’s next for Soul Society 101?
Our next thing is to start working on events. We have a mix and mingle Meetup series that we’ve been doing since the beginning of the year but we’re going to start planning cultural events. So there’s a ‘Taste Of’ series that I’m starting and it’s bringing that experience of another country to the US. We’re going to start in NYC because that’s my home base, so the first event will likely be Taste Of South Africa so we’re working with the Tourism Board and our experiences overall to bring the food, the music, the culture, the whole experience. For South Africa specifically it’ll be the Brookyln Braai, so bringing the Braai experience to South Africa which is like a big cookout that everyone always has on the weekend. Bring that experience to Brooklyn so people can, you know, taste the food, the drinks, see performances and have that whole experience. And from there hopefully do Taste Of Italy, Taste Of Jamaica, taste of all these different countries of the world and bring that experience to the people. And hopefully this will encourage people to see the world. The goal is to bring the authenticity of the country to the people.
What is your IG and Twitter Handle?
Instagram: @SoulSociety / Twitter @SoulSociety101