Empowering Female Communities: An Interview with Mar Pages
Every year on the 8th of March, we celebrate International Women’s Day – a day that is set aside to acknowledge the achievements of women across the globe. From their social and economic impacts to their excellence in culture and politics, we have so much to thank women for. So, what better day than this to highlight the importance of supporting female communities.
To learn more about how to empower female communities, we chatted with Mar Pages, one of the Community Managers of Solo Female Travelers, a solo female travel group.
Traveling solo since 1991, Mar Pages jumped at the chance of taking over a fast-growing solo woman travel group in 2020. Since then, she has been on a mission to bring together female travelers from across the world to discuss their experiences, travel tips and strategies for staying safe while traveling solo.
We talked to Mar about how her community has become more than just a place to make new friends and gained insight on how she’s become a successful community manager by facilitating rewarding connections within her community.
Panion: Can you tell me a little bit about your professional background? When did you get involved in community building?
Mar: I have a degree in International Business and an MBA. I started my career as a strategy consultant in the telecoms industry traveling for work in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. After 8 years, I decided to reduce the weekly travel I had been doing and took a global role at Google in Singapore. In between the two jobs, I started a luxury travel blog as a way of keeping a record of all the amazing stories that happen when you travel to unusual destinations. As the business began to generate revenue, I quit my job at Google in 2018. Since leaving my corporate job, I have been working on my blog and advising travel brands on how to successfully work with influencers and content creators.
At the beginning of 2020, I took over a fast-growing group on solo female travel along with my business partner, and fellow blogger, Meg Jerrard. My intention was to expand the community into a more meaningful platform with the mission of empowering women to travel solo on their own terms.
Panion: How did you end up leading the Solo Female Travelers community? What inspired you to take over?
Mar: I have been traveling solo since 1991. At that time, I decided that I was going to spend the entire summer in London. So, I packed my bags and with limited knowledge of English, headed there on my own. As a traveling consultant, I spent many weekends exploring countries I was working in, or some other nearby destinations. I have always been passionate about traveling, and if I didn’t have a travel companion, I traveled anyway. This never stopped me. So, when the opportunity came up to take over the group management from a friend who didn’t have the time to manage such a fast-growing group, I did not hesitate. Since we took over, the group has grown from around 20,000 members to close to 80,000 in less than a year. While it requires the equivalent of a full-time person to manage, moderate, engage, etc, it is a very rewarding experience and very fulfilling to me to know that I can help other women travel solo through the group.
Panion: How many countries did you travel solo to and where did you have the best experiences?
Mar: I have been to more than 40 countries on my own and close to 120 in total. Usually, I explore a country with someone and then add a few days before or after the trip, to explore some hidden parts of the country.
One of my most memorable trips was to Bhutan, a country I explored on my own for about 9 days. You can only visit Bhutan with an escort, so I booked my own magical itinerary, guide, and driver from Amankora and had a deeply peaceful and very spiritual experience traveling across the country and having meaningful experiences.
Panion: How important is it to belong to a community as a solo female traveler? What are the top benefits?
Mar: Many women join the community in search of like-minded people, advice, and encouragement to travel solo. It can be challenging to set off on your own if nobody around you is doing that. It may even be something you never thought was possible until you realize that so many other women do it too. You’ll hear all the negative stereotypes, the cliches, and the worries of everyone, and it can feel very lonely and discouraging. Unfortunately, solo female travel is still taboo and rare in many countries. So, when our members join, they realize they are not alone and that solo travel as a woman is not a rarity, and have an “aha moment”.
Being a part of the community also helps to stay up to date with developments, share tips for destinations, and generally get safety advice. A survey we ran at the end of 2020 showed that 73% of women worry about their safety when traveling solo and that it is the highest barrier to getting started. Our community contributes significantly to reducing this fear by providing knowledge, awareness, and support and we also share lots of advice and tips on safety.
Often, these are our own tips, but we also gain great insights from the expertise of the community which is much greater than our own, despite the two of us being very experienced solo travelers. We firmly believe that the power of the community lies in its members and we are regularly amazed and humbled by everyone’s willingness to share and support each other.
Through the community, we also recently launched two initiatives. One to tackle the issue of finding structured data and the other to empower women to travel solo safely. As you know, groups are great, but it can be hard to find information. Safety is a major concern, and questions around the topic are frequent. We wanted to be able to have a repository of safety data in a place that is easily accessible, so we created it. The safety index is like a TripAdvisor of safety by destination. You can signup and share your experiences as a solo traveler and rank the destinations based on four variables. This will help others find first-hand reviews from other like-minded solo travelers. The second is Empowerful, an always-on festival on safety, wellness, and sexual wellbeing that equips women with all the tools and advice to stay safe when traveling solo. Both of these are an extension of the community, powered by the members and for their benefit too.
Panion: What makes your community unique and special?
Mar: There are a lot of other solo female communities and ours is not the largest, but it is one of the first ones with a global focus. We believe that what makes us different from the rest, is that we do not shy away from the difficult conversations and that we believe in our mission of empowering women to travel solo on their own terms. This means that we allow conversations that we know are complex and difficult, that we invite experts to talk about topics that we believe are important (e.g. animal tourism), and that we have tough conversations with the objective of gaining insight and education.
We believe that travel opens the mind and the soul and that we can learn a lot from having such a diverse community with women from over 100 countries. The beauty of the group lies in this diversity. With it come opposing views, but we want to use these disagreements as a way to foster cultural exchange and deeper understanding.
Of course, to facilitate that, and ensure that the group remains valuable and respectful, we are very active in moderating discussions that are complex. While we don’t censure these discussions, we do remove members or content which does not follow our guidelines on mutual respect, politeness, and kindness.
And as you can see from my previous response, we also launch and constantly work on many projects that empower women and no other group has the same commitment to a real altruistic mission.
Panion: Do you have a favorite community moment? Any unique stories that you can recall?
Mar: So many! We are humbled that every time we send out a newsletter to our 17,000 subscribers asking for help with something we get so many volunteers offering. It is heartwarming to see the level of involvement and appreciation from the members. We recently sent a newsletter asking for guinea pigs (and I used these exact words) to test the safety index and we got 70 women volunteering within 24h!
We also love to see members post about their first trip when they return and share how much the group helped them to take the first steps, find encouragement and feel safe and confident.
We recently had to post reminding everyone to be kinder and more respectful considering the group is so diverse and misunderstandings are possible. Following this, we got an incredible response with more than 800 people taking the time to respond, thank us, and agree with us.
Panion: How difficult was it to maintain and engage a community around something we couldn’t properly do last year?
Mar: The last 12 months have been a challenge. Not so much because members are not posting; surprisingly, the engagement levels are still really high, despite the fact that most of the members can’t do what the group is all about. Unfortunately, the constantly changing rules, the lockdowns, and the many personal losses have made this a tough year for everyone and we have seen the mood in the group evolve as the global situation did. It is difficult to remain globally-sensitive while locally-respectful when you run such a diverse group.
Panion: What is a mandatory skill for succeeding at community management?
Mar: The ability to manage conflict.
The rest of the skills required to run a group are the same you need to do anything on social media: good content development, good management, good organization, ability to engage, etc. However, managing conflict is a unique group skill that you don’t need in any other social media and it is something that not everyone has the patience and ability to do. We see many admins in competing groups or elsewhere loose their cool or address conflict in the worst way, by antagonizing other members, simply removing members without explanation, or even creating fully-fledged dramas. We are quick to intervene and don’t let conflict ever escalate. We pre-empt issues by setting the tone in conversations that can get easily sidetracked and we leave Admin notes to remind members of the rules before anyone attempts to break them. We find this is very effective and sets the right tone, keeps the community safe, and creates a precedent.
Panion: What are your three top tips for people hoping to start a community?
Mar: Make sure your community has a purpose and serves a real need; look at the competition, analyze what they do and then see if you can really lead that community successfully.
Make a plan; I build business plans for everything, even for my life. Don’t underestimate the time it takes to build and manage a community and don’t overestimate your ability to monetize it. Community management is a marathon, not a sprint.
Be genuine with your interactions and make sure you manage conflict early on, as I mentioned before.
Panion: What are some of the challenges people face when building a community and how did you overcome them?
Mar: At the early stages, growing a community can be tough. Depending on your starting point, you may have to spend a lot of time in other groups, money on ads, or think out of the box. Be smart and make an achievable plan.
Conflict management again, if not handled properly, can cause you to lose lots of members, and your group can descend into spam and lose its value very fast. It can also take a serious toll on your mental health.
Panion: What do you think it takes to create meaningful and rewarding connections in an online community?
Mar: Being authentic and genuine, being kind and empathetic, and never assuming the worst of anyone. Online, we all lose several degrees of context and it is very difficult for us to interpret something written down by someone we don’t know. Community Managers need to do better and give members the benefit of the doubt.
At the same time, they also need to be firm with rule-breakers and not give them any leeway. When someone does not add value to your community, you shouldn’t be afraid to remove them.
Beyond being authentic and fair, you also need to ensure you provide value. Members joined for a reason and you need to keep giving them what they are looking for. Maintaining engagement, quality, and continuing to give value will eventually be your recipe for success. And don’t give up. Most people fail because they don’t stay for the long run and quit before they can succeed.
Panion: How can Panion improve community management? What features do you think are most powerful for enhancing community building and why?
Mar: As someone with a long career in the consulting world, analytics and numbers are my forte and some platforms fall short on the data side. I would like to have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t and the ability to test features and types of content and see response rates. Moderation tools are also key, and can significantly reduce the time requirement from the community teams.
Panion: What is the vision going forward for the Solo Female Travelers community? Are there any goals or milestones that you are looking to achieve in 2021?
Mar: We just launched the Safety Index and Empowerful and want to continue focusing on the main challenge women traveling solo face: safety.
The Solo Female Travel Safety Index will serve as the tool for women traveling solo to assess the kind and level of danger of a country. The data will is built half with third-party data and half with personal reviews from other solo female travelers. Something like this does not exist and it will greatly solve the issue most solo female travelers have: understanding how dangerous and what kind of safety issues they could experience in a specific country.
Empowerful consists of 30 sessions led by 35+ experts who are also solo female travelers and who provide practical and realistic advice on everything related to safety, wellness, and sexual wellbeing. The festival is already available for purchase and materials will go live for International Women’s Day. Participants are able to complete the sessions at their own pace. Empowerful will solve the other dimension of safety for women traveling on their own which is, how to stay safe on the road.
Panion: Are you working on any new projects?
Mar: We are always working on lots of things at Solo Female Travelers and want to launch interesting and unique group tours when we are allowed to travel again and also a course on solo female travel.
My business partner and I also launched Online Group Success, a company that helps community leaders create, grow, engage and monetize their online communities. Since we jointly manage 15 groups with more than 100k members and this has grown into a nice business. We published an e-book on creating and growing a group and will be working on launching books on managing, moderating, and monetizing communities this year.
Lastly, we have also joined Clubhouse (@solofemaletrav) and are assessing the potential for a voice-only community on the platform.
Panion: How do you see the future of community building in the context of ever-changing technology and the “new normal”?
Mar: We are optimistic. The pandemic has really propelled online communities and we have all seen a huge surge in participation and engagement. As long as the technology doesn’t get in the way of connections, humans are designed to interact and if we can’t do it in real life, online is the next best.
In our businesses and industry, we have seen technology really bring people together and bridge the distance and it is enabling us to put together all the initiatives and projects we have in a way that would not be possible in real life. Even my own teams are entirely remote. I have not seen my full-time employee in 3 years, he lives in Seoul and we have only ever met in person once. Meg and I have also only met in real life once five years ago. If used properly, technology and online communities can be a source of joy, education, and connection.
With extensive experience, both as a solo female traveler, and a community leader, Mar Pages has created a valuable network of support for female solo travelers. Building a platform that not only encourages meaningful discussions but also provides safety advice, allows adventurous females to travel with confidence. Creating communities that solve real problems, while enabling meaningful connections is what Panion is all about, and we are thankful that Mar Pages has taken the time to share her thoughts with us today.