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As more people begin to eye safe opportunities for travel, VCU Alumni offers the webinar Adulting 101: Traveling on a Budget from 4- 5 p.m. May 18, where you can learn how to stretch your travel budget from experienced alumni globe-trotters. The event kicks off with a mixology demo by alumni-owned Belle Isle Moonshine. Register today to be entered to win a cocktail kit from the distillery (must be 21 to win). 

We caught up with two of the panelists — experienced traveler Gabby Backford (B.S.’17/H&S) and travel agent Ciera Pope (B.A.’10/A) — to learn more about how they got their start and what advice they offer for traveling or becoming an entrepreneur.

Gabby Beckford

Gabby Beckford (B.S.’17/H&S)
Owner, Packs Light

After graduating from VCU in 2017, Gabby Beckford (B.S.’17/H&S) made a three-year plan to switch careers from a full-time quality engineer with a four-hour-commute in northern Virginia to a full-time travel blogger with a ticket to see, and share, the world.

Beckford grew up with a love of travel and adventure; her mother was a travel agent and her father was active duty military for 25 years. The family moved around the U.S. and spent three years in Japan on one of her dad’s deployments.

“It was instilled in me that travel was a way to learn about each other, learn about the world around us, establish confidence and learn about ourselves, too,” Beckford says.

The time came to execute her plan in 2020, but two weeks after she ended her lease and packed her bags, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Beckford did not give up and instead pivoted, staying stateside to pitch and pour more into her blog, Packs Light, which provides resources, information and tips for aspiring travelers. Her work has been featured in “Good Morning America,” the New York Times, Forbes, National Geographic and more.

What inspired you to travel full time?

While I was at VCU in 2016, I was going to graduate early; I had one semester left. I had a choice: I could graduate and be 20 years old seeking full-time employment, or I could study abroad. I ended up working with the VCU National Scholarship Office and was awarded the Boren Scholarship, which allowed me to study abroad in Dubai for an entire academic year at no cost to me. The experience changed my life and made me realize that I did not want to work as an engineer. I set a timeline for myself of three years. With the scholarship, I had to work one year in government service after graduation. Once that year was done and I spent two years in the field preparing for traveling full time, it was February 2020.

What has been your favorite place to visit or live?

Dubai because of my study abroad experience. It is the first city I experienced with an incredible amount of diversity. There are so many different ways to live life, and you can see them all in Dubai. It reminds me of my time at VCU. Going to university there was the first time that I could deeply see how others experience the world. VCU is the reason why I wanted to go to the Middle East. I was surrounded by Persian, Egyptian and Saudi international students, and I did a language exchange program with someone who didn’t speak English well. I realized I didn’t know anything about the Middle East as a whole, only what is shown on the media and news. So I wanted to go to Dubai to get a view for myself, and ended up falling in love with it.

How did your biomedical engineering and statistics classes apply to traveling full time?

Having my own business and having a degree in statistics helps a lot because I can do so much with data. For example, when people ask me for post-analytic reports from campaigns or partnerships, I am able to produce something that is palatable, but detailed. People who are travel bloggers usually come from a background in writing, journalism or marketing. For me, to have a statistics background brings a different edge to the partnership. 

Do you mind sharing some travel tips? 

One of my favorite tips is if you’re traveling solo, always have an app phone number that can be accessed via Wi-Fi. This is an easier number to give to hotels and other places because it is not your personal number. It also helps if you do not have service with your usual SIM card because you are out of the country. I recommend Google Voice.

Another top tip: For those traveling on a budget, start planning your trip about three months in advance. Usually, the prices are still ideal and activities are still available in this time frame.

What does your life and Packs Light look like in five years?

I hope in five years my business is fine-tuned where it runs itself. When you start a business, you are wearing a lot of hats. I hope to be wearing one hat by then! I want to be able to delegate really well with a team I really like that supports the administrative side of what I do. Most importantly, I want to help people experience the world again and help the tourism industry recover from the pandemic.

What would you say to others looking to travel full time?

It is more possible than you think. Remote work is much more widely accepted and available now (I would know, I wrote an ebook on it). Traveling full time may not be exactly as glamorous as you think; it’s a lot of juggling time zones, jet lag, etc. But it is worthwhile.

How do you distinguish yourself?

From the very beginning I have been extremely authentic in my content. Yes, my social media is curated and can be scripted, but I have never been the type to stand in front of the Eiffel Tower for an hour to get the perfect shot. I’m the type who will forget my suitcase at my hotel and detail my scramble to get it back. People like authenticity; Generation Z appreciates the good and the bad. My advice is to be courageously authentic and raw.

Where are you going next?

I am hoping to go to Sri Lanka, if they don’t change the border restrictions.

Ciera Pope

Ciera Pope (B.A.’10/A)

Owner, Champagne and Cabanas

Ciera Pope (B.A.’10/A) initially pictured her career as a fashion buyer among the busy streets of New York City. She majored in fashion merchandising at VCU, where she gained project management and event planning skills. After graduation, she put those skills to work, first in retail management and then in the field of managing residential new construction.

“With the gas company, I was essentially a project manager. I was managing multiple large-scale projects at once, and I didn’t realize until later that I was applying that business sense learned in school, to my everyday life,” she says. She soon realized those same skills apply to wedding and travel planning. Ultimately, she quit her job and started her wedding planning business, working with the Hive Wedding Collective, owned by friend and fellow alumna Christine Haines Greenberg (B.A.’09/H&S).

As she grew her business, she saw a niche need for a reliable travel planner, thus Champagne and Cabanas, a custom honeymoon and destination wedding planning service for millennials, was created.

What encouraged you to become a wedding planner and travel agent?
When my friend opened the business, I joined as a wedding planner in the summer of 2014.  In 2017 after years of juggling both a full-time role and planning weddings, I decided to quit and do wedding planning full time and subsequently launched Champagne and Cabanas Travel.

With the fashion merchandising major, I had experience with fashion show production, which was a new class at that time, and I worked with RVA Fashion Week for many years producing events. I had experience from those events, so when I started, I was just like, “I will just figure out how to apply those same things to planning weddings.” That’s essentially how I became a wedding planner. I never wanted to be a wedding planner because I didn’t want to get into such a specific style of events, but almost eight years later here I am, and I love it! With travel, I was always asked by peers about my experiences and how to get rates and deals because I travel a lot on my own. Initially, the travel planner role came about because I wanted to show other people how they could travel and make it affordable, however, I realized a niche market for this was better. I said, “Well, if my wedding planning clients trust me to plan their weddings, I need to focus on something that is more relatable.” So I decided to put more emphasis on honeymoons, and this past year has been more emphasis on doing destination weddings.

What has been your favorite place to visit?
Bali. I could see myself living in Bali. It isn’t so much of the people as it is the environment and area. There is always something to do, the food is amazing and the culture is relaxed. In Bali, you have the beaches, the mountains, you can go visit a volcano in the mountains or visit the countryside. I’ve always enjoyed the Asian culture and cuisine, and actually visited Vietnam as well, but Bali is my favorite.

How did VCU prepare you for this journey?
I went to school for fashion merchandising, which is more of the business side of the fashion industry. The organizational and project management classes taken are very applicable, because like classifications of inventory, I’m managing multiple vendors per wedding and activities per honeymoon. I have to utilize the organizational skills learned at VCU in my everyday life, especially because I’m planning for many different clients at one time.

What would you say to other women looking to start their own business?
Just do it! Which is easier said than done. In starting a business, you need to understand that there are going to be times where it is going to be difficult, times where you question yourself and you may feel alone; but trust the process. When you put your best foot forward, you realize there are so many individuals who are doing the exact same thing, and they are extremely amazing resources. Now that I’m a full-time female entrepreneur, my network has unconsciously become all female entrepreneurs, and so it’s easier to have a conversation with them about different things. Don’t be afraid to jump out there and ask questions.

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