Nikki Vargas on the Highs and Lows of Travel Media
Transforming a side hustle into a splashy career relaunch, with an unexpected crash. But a crash is a kind of landing, after all.
I met Nikki Vargas in 2016 when we both worked as part of the American team for UK-based travel site Culture Trip. That didn’t work out so great for either of us, unfortunately, but we remained friends. Nikki went on to start Unearth Women, a women’s travel publication that launched a print magazine to great fanfare. But print media is a harsh environment in the best of times, and she eventually had to give up on that particular dream. However, it was enough to get Nikki a book deal for Wanderess, an Unearth-Women-inspired travel guide. And she now has a second book deal for a memoir in progress. This is part one of a two-part interview. Read part two.
What was your first job?
I was waiting tables in Midtown Manhattan at the Ainsworth. It’s a glorified sports bar—my uniform was knockoff Converse and ridiculous leggings. I was trying to be a writer, but nobody was hiring. One day I was serving this table. There were these two girls celebrating a promotion at work. When they went to pay their bill, one put down a credit card that had a Chicago backdrop. I grew up in Chicago, and my family’s in Chicago. So I started talking to her about Chicago, and I went off on a monologue about how I came to New York and couldn’t find a job.
She sat there, smiling and nodding. Then all she said was, “Here’s my card. We’re hiring.” And she got up and left. The card was for a company called Havas Media, and her title was “media buyer and planner.” I had no idea what that was or what that meant. But I saw the word “media,” and I also saw it as an opportunity to stop serving tables. I applied, and I got a job there.
It was a crazy world, because media buyers and planners are schmoozed by sales teams of publications selling ads. It introduced such a weird dichotomy in my life where I was totally broke, making no money, couldn’t afford anything, and had to choose between groceries or tampons. But at the same time, I’m being invited to dinner at Michelin-star restaurants and dining with the Vogue team.
There was a lot of stupid money flying around the media business back then. But from there you eventually made your way over into the editorial side?
I kind of did the scenic route. While I was working at Havas, I was trying the entire time to be a journalist, to be a writer, and I was freelancing on the side and started a travel blog. Then we were working with the sales team at Food & Wine magazine, and one of the sales guys there very kindly put me in touch with their editorial team. They got me a freelance assignment about food in Colombia, and that was my first major byline. And that snowballed into an opening on their marketing team. I didn’t want to do marketing, but I was like, “Oh, well, this is an improvement. I’m going to be working at a publication now.”
I took the job at Food & Wine, and I thought I had it all figured out. Like, within a year I’d be able to jump over to editorial. In my first week, I was meeting one of the women on the marketing team, and I confided in her what I hoped to do. And she looked at me and chuckled. This wonderful 50-something woman from New Jersey said, “I thought the same thing, too, when I got here. And I’m still in marketing.”
So then I was kind of lost. I’m still writing, I’m still freelancing, I’m still blogging. I’m just trying to figure out how to flip it so that the things I’m doing on the side are now my career and not just a hobby. I ended up leaving Food & Wine—the job wasn’t a fit, the team wasn’t a fit—and for lack of a better option, I jumped into MediaVest [now Spark Foundry] and back into media buying. It was good money, and my reasoning was that this will be my day job, and I’ll focus all my energy into trying to become a writer.
Meanwhile, my personal life was very tumultuous and hitting a breaking point. I was engaged to the wrong person. I was getting ready for a wedding that I didn’t want. Everything in my life at this point had felt very passive—I had just gone along with it rather than make an effort to make my life what I wanted it to be.
Same thing with my career. I blindly chose the MediaVest job rather than making the effort to get the job I actually wanted. And so I went on a solo trip to Buenos Aires about three weeks before my wedding, and while I was there, I decided I did not want to get married. I came back to New York and canceled the wedding. There was fighting, there was financial loss.
But that was the first step I took in cutting one of the ropes that I felt was holding me down. The next logical step was my career, so I left MediaVest—in retrospect, kind of a crazy move since I left for no job. I was like, okay, I’m going to go and be a travel blogger and make it work.
“Spoiler alert—it’s very hard to make it work as a travel blogger, especially if you live in New York and aren’t willing to relocate to a beach shack in Thailand.”
Spoiler alert—it’s very hard to make it work as a travel blogger, especially if you live in New York and aren’t willing to relocate to a beach shack in Thailand. I kept demanding that my writing pay the bills. And the more I pushed and the more I demanded, the less enjoyable it became. I knew I hated working in a corporate atmosphere, but what if I went back to an office, and I did it in a way that married my passion of travel and writing? And that’s where we crossed paths at Culture Trip.
Had you ever heard of Culture Trip before then?
No, I’d never heard of it. I was on a press trip to Indonesia I had gotten through my blog. Before leaving, I saw an ad for the opening of travel editor at Culture Trip. I honestly didn’t think they would look at my application because I didn’t have bona fide editorial experience. I had this cobbled-together resume of media planning and freelance writing. But I felt it was time to grow up. I had student loans, I was slowly hemorrhaging my savings, and it was not sustainable. So on the flight back from Indonesia, I emailed Culture Trip to ask if they’d filled the role. I heard back that they hadn’t, and the next week I was brought in for an in-person meeting. And the week after that, I had a job.
Your first for-real travel media job! What was it like? What were your first impressions of the atmosphere there?
Oh, my God. I mean, it’s crazy to say, I was so happy. I was like zippity-doo-dah smiling on the way to work, skipping, so happy to get this job. It felt like I had spent the majority of my twenties fighting to get into editorial, and trying to be a travel editor and a travel writer. Culture Trip took a chance on someone who didn’t have a traditional editorial background. And for all the grievances that would come later, I will always be grateful to them for that, because I was able to parlay that job into future editorial positions.
Everybody was excited at the opportunity to build something from scratch. And we all had so many ideas. And this is one of the things about Culture Trip I will always feel sad about. They brought in so many people with so much talent that were so excited to give the company everything they had. And they just let that fall apart.
I arrived there in the newly created job of editor in chief just a couple months after you, but I have to say it felt like things were already spinning out of control. I recall that I spent my first week there listening to a litany of grievances from everyone on the team. Am I wrong about all that?
I don’t think you’re wrong at all. I think by the time you got there, the enchantment had worn away. And I remember realizing that this wasn’t in fact building something from scratch. When I was hired, I was under the impression that our ideas would be listened to. We came to realize that they didn’t really care about our ideas or our visions or what we had to say or the expertise we were bringing to the table. When you came in, there was a lot of discontentment with the situation and the company because we all felt like we came there with the highest of hopes and and all this excitement to bring to our respective genres. And nobody would listen.
“But apparently everybody was having meetings with the general manager. Anyone who was meeting with him in the morning was getting promoted, and anyone who was meeting with him after lunchtime was getting laid off.”
Right. So we had that shared experience there, which didn’t end well for most of us. It went how it went. My role was eventually eliminated along with the other senior manager in New York, and most everyone else got laid off not much later. Remind me how much longer you stuck around?
Oh, gosh, I don’t know. Maybe it was a couple months. I remember I had the day off. I was due to go on a press trip to India in two weeks, and I was due to speak at the Women’s Travel Fest in a week. I was working from home, and I didn’t know what was going on in the office. But apparently everybody was having meetings with the general manager. Anyone who was meeting with him in the morning was getting promoted, and anyone who was meeting with him after lunchtime was getting laid off. They didn’t hide it. The whole office very quickly realized what was happening. But I had no idea. I had a meeting with the GM at 5 pm.
That’s a bad sign.
I just thought it was a check-in! So I get on Google Hangouts, and just right off the bat, I’m talking about India, I’m getting excited. And he’s just staring at me. There were no apologies, there was no “thank you for your time.” There was nothing respectful or human about it. It was just like, “Yeah, you don’t need to come in on Monday.” And I was like, “Excuse me?” Then the call drops because they shut off my Google work e-mail.
I had to get on my personal Gmail to get back in touch with him, to get back on video, so that I could ask about my stuff. I’m a big nester. My desk had all these personal effects. I had photos, I had all these things to make myself feel homey. And he goes, “Oh, we’ll ship it to you.” And I said, “You know, I’ll come in after hours or on the weekend. I’d like to just get it.” But he said, “No, no, no. That’s not necessary.” And then he hangs up.
Again, I didn’t realize this was also happening to other people in the office. I called my friends, and they said, “Come on down! A lot of people just got laid off.” They were at a bar around the corner from the office.
I went and had drinks with them, and it was devastating. I had just enough cocktails to think to myself, “You know what? Screw this guy, I’m going to get my goddamn stuff back.” So I went to the office at 9 pm at night. I didn’t think anyone would be there, but the GM’s right-hand man was still at his desk. He looked at me, clearly uncomfortable and surprised, and I simply said to him, “I’m here to get my stuff!”
Oh, I never heard this story.
I start packing my stuff, and another person who was still working goes to help me with the door, and I’m like, “I’m good, I’ll be fine.” But I look over at the GM’s right-hand man and say, “And you can tell [the GM] to go royally fuck himself.” I was glad I added the “royally” because I felt it was a nod to both the GM and the London-based management team. In the end, it wasn’t my most professional moment, but it was reflective of the pain I felt of investing so much time and effort into this company I believed in, only to be unceremoniously shown the door
I’m always amazed at how bad people can be when firing employees. I heard another person was asked to step outside the office with no preamble, and the manager just said, “Let’s just call it a day, shall we?” That was code for “you’re fired” apparently.
It wasn’t so much about the layoff itself—it was the lack of humanity. To not have the skills to communicate something like that, why is this person in that position?
Similarly, when I showed up for my first day of work there, they asked me to meet with another candidate for my job who they had forgotten to inform that he didn’t get it. They still had a meeting scheduled with him that they had also forgotten to cancel, so he showed up completely unaware of the situation. I was asked to tell him the news—and this was a guy who was reasonably well known in the business, who I had heard of. I said, “There is no way I’m doing that.” So the CEO told him, and then asked me to sit in on a weird secondary conversation, where the prospect of consulting was dangled in front of the guy. To his credit he tolerated the whole episode with composed professional grace, which I’m not sure I would have been able to do.
Oh my God. That is so wrong, and a perfect example of their attitude. It was just a very robotic process.
I guess I should have recognized that first incident as a bad sign from the outset. But yes, they were weirdly hostile about layoffs pretty much across the board, from what I’ve heard. I’ve certainly had much more positive layoff experiences! But for you, this was the first time getting fired, right?
Yes. I was very sad. I had spent most of my twenties trying to break into this industry, and Culture Trip was the first time I had successfully, finally broken in. And so when I was laid off, it felt like there was no possible way I would get another job as an editor.
But I was all set to go on that press trip to India. And I was also set to speak at the travel conference for women in New York. And I ended up doing both.
The Women’s Travel Conference came first, and that was very interesting because it was right around #MeToo, when women were speaking up and having their grievances heard. And there I was speaking on a panel about sexism in travel—not just sexism women experience when they’re traveling and moving through the world, but also sexism within the travel industry.
The women on that panel, talking about our experiences, made me look back and realize there were a lot of moments throughout my career that were not cool. All these moments I had brushed aside at the time. The overwhelming response from the audience, from all the women who were there, was that they’re dealing with the same crap now. It was over 200 women in this room basically picking up their pitchforks and being like, “Yeah!”.
“The overwhelming response from the audience, from all the women who were there, was that they’re dealing with the same crap now. It was over 200 women in this room basically picking up their pitchforks and being like, ‘Yeah!.”
So then I go to India. I’m working through the emotions, I’m touring the country, and that’s when this idea of what I wanted to do next was coalescing. I had this defiance that was sparked at this conference. I had frustration from my experiences within my career. And I had this desire to keep writing about travel, and in particular, women’s travel.
When I came back from India, I had an interview in Brooklyn for a startup. I’m sitting there telling this man, who’s maybe a couple of years older than me, all the ways I can take his company off the ground. I’m pulling everything in—the writing, the marketing, the advertising, everything that I’ve done so far, I’m packaging it all. When I left the interview, I remember feeling very sad. I wondered, what would it look like if I took all of that and invested it in myself instead? That’s what started Unearth Women.
Were you imagining Unearth Women as a print magazine by that point?
It’s funny in retrospect because you must be batshit crazy to want to launch a print magazine today, with zero funding, while unemployed.
I mean, it’s maybe not the first thing I would try.
I had always wanted to have a magazine, and I wanted to do a magazine for women. The way I thought about it from a business standpoint was like, okay, there are so many blogs and travel websites out there, the market is saturated. But there’s not a lot of women’s travel magazines. The idea was that if we can put out these magazines, it would in turn boost the digital side—rocketing it to the forefront, gathering awareness and a following.
Did that work? Was it successful?
Was it “successful”? Hmmm...
Not the overarching success of Unearth Women—we’ll get to that—but I meant, was the print-as-marketing strategy successful. I seem to recall it had a pretty splashy debut.
It had a meteoric rise right out of the gate—more than I think anyone anticipated. Definitely more than we were prepared for. The first issue came out, and we had raised funding through Kickstarter. We printed about 500 copies that we sold independently via unearthwomen.com. And then my cofounders and I threw a launch party to congratulate ourselves on having put out one issue of a magazine. After that party, it was like just a rocket launch.
We got a piece in the New York Times. We were written up in Travel & Leisure. We were written up on Good Morning America. We got an investor who put thousands of dollars into the company. And then we got national distribution for the second issue, which was completely redesigned, and scaled from 500 copies to over 15,000 sold in 800 Barnes & Noble bookstores across the country.
“When we folded the print magazine after a few issues, it took me—and this is no exaggeration—it took me two years to get over that emotionally and mentally, because I had put so much into this magazine and into growing Unearth Women.”
But in terms of “success”? When we folded the print magazine after a few issues, it took me—and this is no exaggeration—it took me two years to get over that emotionally and mentally, because I had put so much into this magazine and into growing Unearth Women. It felt like I had come so close to this field of dreams I had constructed. It felt like I was right there. And when we couldn’t sustain the print magazine, and we bottomed out financially, and we had to fold, it was such a difficult moment that felt like a big failure.
What was the idea in terms of the mix of revenue, from subscriptions to advertising to sponsorships or whatever?
In its heyday, Unearth Women had 15 to 20 remote employees, some of which were a dedicated sales team. At the same time we were pulling together the magazine, we were out there hitting the ground, trying to get advertisers, trying to get partnerships. We were also building the digital site, trying to get people excited for online. And then of course we had a subscription model for the print magazine.
You get these brands, you get these partnerships, and they just love what you’re doing, but they don’t want to give you a penny. It’s always like, “I’d love to find a way to work together.” So you get on a call, and you’re so helpful, and you send over your rates, and you don’t hear from them. Or if you do, it’s like, “Well, we were thinking more of a tit-for-tat arrangement, you have to align yourself with us, give us a free spread, and in return we’ll give you awareness.” It just wasn’t sustainable. The cost of producing the magazine, the designers, the writers, sending it to print. We weren’t getting enough in advertising, so every single issue was hemorrhaging money.
Print is not easy, to say the least.
No, but I got it out of my system.
Yeah, it took me about 15 years before I tried to work in print again, with similar results. Where did Unearth Women go from there?
There were a couple things that I learned. Looking back, I wish I had slowed down. I wish I had focused on building the local market as opposed to papering the United States with a magazine they hadn’t heard of yet. I wish I had started small.
Later on, when I started working a new job at the Infatuation, I was talking to the CEO and cofounder. He said when they started that company, and they decided to really take it to the next level, they got like $50,000 from a family member or friend. They just went slow, and they built it locally, and it got to the point that it blew up. I will never forget him saying that, because the amount that he got to start the Infatuation was the same amount that we got from that investor for Unearth Women.
If I had just gone slower, if I had just done one issue a year, if I had just focused on the New York market, maybe Unearth Women magazine would still be going today. But the fact is, it just exploded out of the gate, and I ran so far ahead of myself. And that meteoric rise just got to my head. It felt like if I didn’t move at the speed that it was moving, the whole thing would fall apart. And inevitably it did.