Peter This week, we’re talking to top travel writer and editor, Francisca Kellett about her extraordinary career. She started our pre- and post-uni as an impoverished backpacker with aspirations as a journalist. Her incurable lust for travel to faraway places has taken her to the very summit of her profession.
Fran, welcome to our travel podcast. Now, you’ve been Travel Editor of Tatler and Digital Travel Editor of the Telegraph. You describe yourself as ‘an eco nut and hotel junkie who spends more time than is strictly necessary in Africa.’ And you love writing about sustainable travel and conservation. In 2018, you co-founded Mundi & Co, a creative content agency for luxury travel brands, which you describe as: ‘storytelling with purpose’. You’re regarded as an industry expert and you’re regularly invited to host and speak at events. Why did you get into all this? Where did your endless journey begin?
Fran I suppose I always travelled a lot as a child. My parents travelled a lot and I suppose I thought with the fact that I was born to three passports…so I was born in the States, my mother’s German and my father’s English. So it kind of started with travel really. I was born in States, then moved to London when I was a baby and always travelled a lot with my family. My parents were keen travellers and my father was a doctor who would get to go to lots of conferences and lots of exotic places, and he’d take us with him.
So I always travelled a lot and, yes, I always had these passports. And I always thought travel was something that everyone did all the time, so I was very lucky and quite spoilt I suppose, but it meant that I always wanted to work in travel. My first job was actually working for Thomson Travel in the late ’90s during the first dotcom boom; they were investing heavily in websites and I started one of their first travel websites. First it was called lobster.com and then it was called the First Resort, on which I think we actually worked with you.
Felice I think that’s when we met you.
Fran I think it was the first time we met, yes – working on ski content with you. And then from there I started writing travel guidebooks – I did a stint at Rough Guides and then from Rough Guides I did Footprint and various other publishers. And I went freelance that and sort of took quite a big risk and then took to the road. It’s been a long time travelling around Europe and southern Africa as well. I moved to Cape Town for a while and wrote books about South Africa for different travel publishers, which was an incredible experience. I made absolutely no money. It was very lonely a lot of the time – I was constantly on the road by myself, but I had amazing adventures and a lot of travelling, learnt how to live on a shoestring, which I think is good life experience.
And from there I started writing for newspapers. So I pitched to the Daily Telegraph first and they very kindly gave me my first commission and it sort of snowballed from there. And then I got my job as Digital Travel Editor in…it would have been the early 2000s. And then I was there for quite a few years – six or seven years, I think. And that’s the kind of job where people…I mean, it’s the same as writing travel guidebooks….people think it’s incredibly glamorous and sexy and actually it’s not. It’s incredible hard work and it’s very rubbish money. You do get to do fantastic things. It is tough, but it’s very competitive.
I think especially when I got the job at the Telegraph, I thought I’d be spending most of my time on the road having wonderful, luxurious adventures. But actually I was stuck behind a desk churning out content for the website most of the time and managing a wildly, quickly expanding team, because it was all about online suddenly. So it was desk-bound and stressful and not much travel at all. And then I went on maternity leave with my second child, and I saw the job being advertised at Tatler and I thought: ‘Oh, that sounds a bit more glamorous. Let’s give that a shot.’ And for some reason, they gave me the job.
Felice So what was the job?
Fran Travel Editor at Tatler magazine. Yes, that was my last job. And I was there, I think, six or seven years. And that was absolutely fantastic. I’d never worked in magazines before. It was very, very different from newspapers. Newspapers, as you guys know, are incredibly competitive. It’s very fast-paced, especially working online. It’s absolutely 24/7, there’s no respite at all.
Then I moved over into Vogue House, which is exactly as glamorous as you expect it to be. You’re working on a monthly and so you have much more time. People are really interested in things like headlines and pictures and stories. You can really spend time figuring out what kind of stories you are going to cover rather than just bashing out content, which is a little bit how it was working on newspapers. So I really loved that. And we had a fantastic team, lots of really interesting people.
I mean, the actual subject matter at Tatler was quite strange and different for me, because you are writing for quite a niche audience who are extremely wealthy, obviously, and interested in quite a posh world that I didn’t know that much about. So I had to learn lots of things very quickly. That was a fantastic time because I could go pretty much anywhere I wanted. But of course I had little children, so I wasn’t constantly on the road. But I did get to have some really incredible trips and go to all sorts of glamorous places and meet interesting people. And yes, that was a fantastic time.
Felice So do you have a favourite trip that you went on? A favourite place?
Fran That’s really difficult, I have so many favourite places. I always say my favourite place in the world is Cape Town because I actually lived there and I had a really happy time there. And it’s a fantastic city which has everything that you need in life – it has wonderful outdoors, it has incredible beaches, it has a fabulous food and wine scene, a really interesting cultural scene as well. I love Cape Town.
In terms of trips I’ve done for work, well, lots of crazy things. I got to go to Necker Island when I was at Tatler, which not very many people get to do. Necker Island is a really incredibly beautiful tropical playground for the super-rich, essentially, it’s sort of like Butlin’s, but gold plated. It’s just fantastic. Everything is on tap, so you get to do anything you want at any point. You can go off sailing with some fantastic sailing coach, you can have a tennis lesson whenever you want, you can eat whenever you want. There are bars dotted around the place with friendly bartenders leaning there waiting for you to come up and ask for a cocktail. It’s all laid on there 24/7. It’s just absolutely incredible. I mean, it’s quite strange and it doesn’t feel particularly authentic or real or even Caribbean. But for those that have the money, I can understand why they enjoy it there.
But then I also got to go to places like North Island in the Seychelles, which was absolutely beautiful. I got to have incredible adventures. For example, I got to dehorn a rhino in South Africa as part of an anti-poaching team. I got to go to Tanzania and spend a day again with another anti-poaching team, learning about how they train their dogs to prevent rhino poaching. I got to go to all sorts of places and stay in really fantastic hotels as well. So I’m quite an expect now on luxury hotels so, yes, lucky me.
Felice So how do you dehorn a rhino?
Fran With a chainsaw. It’s a big endeavour. They basically track it via helicopter and they dart it from the air. Then on the ground the team moves in very quickly and the rhino crumples down onto its knees, and in comes the vet and they do all sorts of tests. And then, literally with a chainsaw, they saw off the horn. It doesn’t hurt them at all because it’s just made of hair – the rhino’s horn – and it grows back so it doesn’t hurt them. But they are crumpled on the floor asleep while their horn is being chopped off. And then we got to do things like take blood from behind its ear. So I’ve never done anything like that obviously, never even held a syringe, and then I was there with this unconscious rhino taking a blood sample from behind its ear. I got to touch it and feel it; it was an absolutely extraordinary experience.
Felice Sounds amazing.
Fran Then, of course, once they wake up, which is only about five minutes after they go down, because they can only have a little bit of this stuff in them, and otherwise it actually effects them…once they wake up, you have to run very, very quickly because they’re angry and confused. So we had to dash back to the Land Rover and tear off while staggered around angrily. Yes, incredible.
Felice And this stops people from poaching them because they only want the horns?
Fran Yes, they only want the horns. Exactly. So I actually held this horn in my hand afterwards, and it wasn’t even a fully-grown horn because he’d been dehorned before. But this little sort of nub of the horn in the palm of my hand was worth something like 200,000 dollars. I mean, it was absolutely crazy. So they take these straight off to some safe – they’re whisked off to Jo’burg to be put in a safe, never to be seen again.
Felice On your trips, have you had any really bad ones where something went wrong?
Fran One of the most memorable trips I had was when I was a young backpacker, because before I started out working as a journalist I spent lots of time travelling. I spent six months in India once and we got stuck in a place called Aurangabad, which is in the middle of nowhere, but is actually also a city of, I don’t know, five million people in that very kind of Indian way. And it’s an incredible place called the Ellora Caves, which are these beautiful Indiana Jones style caves which are built down into the rock. Absolutely incredible.
So we saw the caves and that was wonderful, but then we got stuck in this very ugly industrial town for a very long time in this bizarre Catch 22 situation where we couldn’t buy train tickets and we had to get to the train station each morning to a certain time to buy these tickets. But we couldn’t actually get there in time before they sold out. It was all very strange and complicated and Indian, and no one could speak English. And we just kept going around in circles in the city for days on end and got stuck there for quite a long time. So that was one experience.
Another one was actually on my honeymoon. This was when I was still at the Telegraph. We went to Guatemala and Belize and I won’t name and shame, but we did end up staying in this really quite well known, very beautiful hotel. And as I went to bed on my first night, I lifted up my pillow. And having spent a long time in India, I’m very good at recognising bedbugs and there underneath the pillow were bedbugs. And I thought: ‘My God, my honeymoon first night in a luxury hotel, there’s bedbugs.’ We went and complained. They moved us to a room, I lifted up the pillow: bedbugs. So every room we moved to had bedbugs. So that wasn’t ideal, especially as it was our honeymoon.
Oh, and I’ve got another another story about a bad experience. Probably one of my worst travel experiences is actually one of the stories I like telling the most because it always makes people laugh. We were in the Kalahari Desert in this banged-up old car, which I was driving around all of Africa in, and one of the wheels fell off. We were very worried because there was a lion pride nearby, so the big worry was the lions would come and attack us if we tried to get out and change the wheel.
But then some guys drove past in a backy, a pickup truck as they call them in South Africa, and kind of saved us. We were tearing through the desert, trying to get to this camp before it closed for the night. And then suddenly out of the bushes, we saw this enormous giraffe which tripped at the sight of us tearing through the desert and fell onto the back of the backy. And its neck swooped over my head and it really very nearly crushed me. So I’d have been killed by a falling giraffe, which I think is a strange way to go.
Peter Yes that’s a pretty strange experience, to put it mildly. One of the things that has always interested me is if you work for a large luxury magazine, how much of where you go and the content is influenced by advertising?
Fran That is a good question. There is some influence, certainly. It depends on which section it is. When I was there, we didn’t ever have to write about anyone. But if there was an advertiser that had a particular relationship with someone in in the building or with the publisher, they would perhaps say: ‘This advertiser has this wonderful new hotel. Would you perhaps consider giving it some coverage?’ And while there’s no need to actually do so, it would then almost be churlish to say: ‘No, I’m not going to check that out.’ So that was kind of an understanding that those people who advertise would at least get a sort of viewing or an airing. But of course, then if we experienced a property or a company that had advertised, which we didn’t like and didn’t think lived up to the standards of Tatler, that wouldn’t have made it in.
Felice And sustainability is a big interest of yours?
Fran Yes, sustainability has always been an interest. When I first started out, I actually volunteered at an organisation called Tourism Concern that doesn’t exist anymore. They were very shoestring back then, but it was just something that always interests me from having travelled a lot as a child. And then also when I went backpacking before and after university…before I left university I went off and spent months on the road. You could see very quickly the impact travel had, especially the backpacker.
Back then, every single backpacker used Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. We’d all go to the same place to stay in the same hostels and eat in the same places. It was very much the backpacker route, and you could just see the impact that was having, not just in those places we visited and we stayed at…those places that didn’t get featured in the books and the sort of local communities, you could just tell very quickly the kind of impact that you were having as a traveller.
In terms of things like…I remember noticing things like plunge pools and even little hostels, I’d be staying in southern India or South Africa with plunge pools while outside there was drought. And you think this isn’t something not quite right about this. So I’ve always been very interested in it. And like I said, I volunteered for Tourism Concern right at the beginning and I did quite a lot of work for them, I did some writing and some research over the years.
Then when I became proper travel writer, I just started trying to sort of subtly weave it into what I was writing because it was quite a quite dry subject, something that people don’t find particularly sexy or interesting, especially back then talking about carbon credits and so on. Not many editors wanted to run stories on the kind of things you wanted to write about, or even community tourism or anything like that.
So I tried to subtly weave a few things into my stories. And then as I actually became more successful and I suppose had more power, it was easier for me to commission stories like that. I was interested and tried – especially at Tatler where the readers obviously have a lot of money – to encourage them to spend their money in the right kinds of places. So perhaps feature more heavily the sort of hotels that might be smaller and family run, or those companies that have a strong sustainability story within them, or do quite a lot in terms of conservation or local community. So I just tried to give that more and more presence in my pages.
Then as a freelancer, that’s pretty much all I try to write about these days. I think there’s a much bigger interest and demand for it now. I think travellers are much more savvy and much more aware of their own impact when they travel. So I think the travel media has changed accordingly and now commissions a lot more pieces about conservation and community and sustainability, thank goodness, because I think it’s really vital. Tourism is the biggest industry in the world; it employs more people than any other industry. It can have a huge impact if it’s done right. So I think it’s really important as a travel journalist to try and influence our readers to be spending money in the right places.
Peter Now, travel has changed in ways we could never have imagined in 2020. How do you see 2021?
Fran Oh, God, it’s all been a bit bleak really, hasn’t it? It’s really hard to know. It was all feeling very positive just a few short weeks ago as things were starting to open up again and Covid corridors turned into open borders. But that, as of this week, has changed again with with new rules on quarantine and so on. So it’s very tricky to know.
Obviously, this year, I think it’s all about staycation. I think most people aren’t going to be going abroad or want to get onto a plane. I personally am going to be jumping into a car next week and driving to my family home in Germany. I’m very lucky that I’ve got family there and can just drive over there and see them, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m not getting on a plane any time soon either. But I think it’s a terrible tragedy, really, because so many countries rely on us, rely on on tourism, and so many companies are absolutely on their knees now because they haven’t got the people coming. And I think it’s dreadful. So, yes, this summer, I think, is about the staycation.
I think hopefully in autumn, a few more people will be travelling a little bit further afield. Europe obviously is opening up, but with limitations. I think long haul is the big question really – when are people going to be flying long haul again? The risk associated with being on a plane for a long time, being in airports, obviously, and then also being far away from home. Most of us are quite risk-averse at the moment and want to be somewhere where we can get home quickly if we need to. So I think it’s going to be tough, I think it’s extremely tough this year. I think next year will be even harder for companies to try and build up that trust again and build up those clients.
Peter We’re going to see a high percentage of those travel companies disappearing?
Fran Yes, I think that’s true, I think they already are. The large hotel companies that have war chests to rely on, I think will be OK. It’s the smaller kind of family-run hotels that are having to close down. I think it’s very sad. Not just hotels of course, but tour operators, travel agents and then all the jobs in transport, in aviation, train routes shutting down, all sorts of things. And that’s not even covering travel media, how that’s been affected, because obviously advertising has plummeted. So that affects the newspapers and the magazines with various publications closing down. It’s a fairly bleak picture I think for travel at the moment…it’s not a good time to be a freelance travel writer.
Peter No, not a good time to be a freelance journalist.
Fran I think everyone needs their plan B or that plan C.
Felice But you started up Mundi & Co; when did that begin?
Fran Yes, that’s right, I launched Mundi & Co just after I left Tatler in 2018. I sort of saw the writing on the wall to a certain extent, for travel media. I could tell that the landscape was changing dramatically and had been changing dramatically really my whole career in terms of websites and online and social media. More and more publications were closing down, sections were getting smaller, the pool of freelancers was getting bigger. And I sort of thought if and when I become a freelance travel journalist again, I’m not sure that’s entirely going to work long term, and I needed a plan B.
I could also tell, having worked in travel for so long, that there was a real gap in the market in terms of how luxury hotels and luxury travel companies talk about themselves. Most of them are really quite bad at it. They use dreadful marketing or PR-speak, which doesn’t really speak to clients at all. And especially with travel media on the down, I thought that was perhaps an opportunity there to fill that gap. I launched with my managing editor from Tatler, who had also left that year, and we decided to create a content agency which tells those stories on behalf of brands. It basically uses a very journalistic approach to find the stories and the people behind hotels and behind travel brands to try and bring this to life for their customers.
So we do everything from launching a magazine for a five-star safari company, we’ve created websites for luxury hotels, we do social media campaigns and strategy, all sorts of things really, anything where brands need some kind of help with their storytelling, with how to talk to their clients. And our USP is the thing that we’re really passionate about is sustainability. Lots of these five-star hotels and tour operators do fantastic things in terms of conservation and sustainability, but mostly they’re quite bad at talking about them. They’re not very sexy, not very engaging, but very interesting – it’s often quite dry and preachy. So we try and come in and make it a bit more engaging, a bit more personable and a bit more human.
Felice Are there any properties that you’ve come across that really stand out as being good at sustainability?
Fran Yes, absolutely. There’s lots of fantastic places. One of my all time favourites is a hotel in South Africa called GrootBos. And it’s a really quite small lodge in the Western Cape, but they do absolutely fantastic things all about sustainability and conservation and community, and they’ve done everything from create fantastic sports camps for local township children to these huge organic gardens where they grow all of their fruit and vegetables.
They have training schemes for local youths who wouldn’t have access otherwise to further education. They have a partnership with Kew Gardens where of the best of the people on their training schemes are then flown out to Kew Gardens to learn about horticulture. They do absolutely fantastic things. And, of course, they’re completely plastic-free and they have all their own filtered water. They basically do everything you should do. But it’s all wrapped up in this incredibly luxurious and fantastic experience for people as well. So you still get to have your thousand-count bed sheets and your fantastic food and beautiful wine and brilliant experiences, but you’re also doing good just by being there.
Then are lots of brands doing really good things. I’m a big fan of a lot of the African safari companies. People like &Beyond do fantastic things, Singita, one of our clients at Mundi is Asilia Africa – they do really interesting conservation work. I’m a big fan of Soneva Fushi in the Maldives – they’re very interesting in terms of of everything from reducing waste to employing locally, training locally, helping local communities reduce their waste, phasing out single-use plastics, which is a huge problem in the Maldives, all sorts of things.
Then there’s places like Fogo Island and in Newfoundland, I’m not sure if you’ve come across that, but that’s a fantastic lodge which was opened by a woman called Zita Cobb about eight or nine years ago. And it’s completely sustainably-built, sustainably-run, and it’s all about providing something for local community in terms of new employment. So it’s basically an island where all the people that worked as cod fishermen, and then as cod fishing declines they were all employed in this lodge, which opened to provide a new form of employment for local people.
So there’s lots of really interesting brands doing fantastic things. Some of them are tiny, some of them are much larger. But it’s very easy if you’ve got the money, certainly if you’re a luxury traveller, to spend that money in the right places.
Peter Is there anywhere in the world you haven’t been to and you want to go to?
Fran There are so many places I haven’t been to. I’ve got such a long list. I don’t know South America very well. I’ve only actually been to Brazil in South America, so I’d love to go to Chile and Argentina. Bits of Central America I’d love to go to. Oh, goodness me, so many places. I don’t know Scandinavia very well, I’ve never been to Norway, I would have love to go there.
Asia again, I don’t spend a huge amount of time there. I’d love to go back to India where I haven’t been in about a decade. I’ve never been to New Zealand, I’ve never been to West Africa…lots and lots of places, I mean, the list is endless, isn’t it? But it’s tricky when you’re trying to travel responsibly and you’re trying to fly less so that your carbon footprint is smaller. You know, that sort of long bucket list needs to get shortened, basically, because I can’t get to all these places.
Felice You also write a philanthropy column for LUXX magazine?
Fran Yes, that’s right. I started writing my philanthropy column probably about 18 months ago. And that is really fun because I basically get to interview fantastic people who do amazing things. And again, because LUXX Magazine is aimed at high net worth individuals, this column is very much about trying to encourage people with lots and lots of spare cash to give it away to worthwhile causes. So it’s a really fun thing to write and I get to speak to really interesting people who’ve done incredible things.
Peter What keeps you motivated to keep on travelling?
Fran I don’t ever get bored by travel, I’m just endlessly fascinated by it. I don’t ever stop getting excited. But driving to an airport, getting on a plane, going somewhere new, it never gets boring for me. It’s always hugely thrilling, which is bizarre given how long I’ve been doing it and how much I’ve done it. I still just get an absolute thrill from going somewhere new, it gives me pleasure and a rush like nothing else does in the world.
Peter But you’re always glad to get home again?
Fran I just think it is wonderful to see my children again. Yes, I had one trip January – thank God I took that trip, I nearly didn’t. It was just to the Alps, but that’s the longest I’ve gone without travelling in…forever…decades.
Peter So what’s your vision of yourself for the next few years?
Fran Well, again, it’s a little bit tricky with the current situation. My vision was my company and I should mention the website, if I may, it’s Wearemundi.com. We’re also on social media @wearemundi. The company was going from strength to strength, we just moved into our own office, we had a raft of fantastic clients that we were really passionate about and we loved working with, and obviously quite a few of those have gone. We did manage to hold onto a few and actually have managed to get two new clients in lockdown, God knows how that happened, but it did. So things aren’t going quite the way they were meant to at the beginning of the year.
So I was expecting in a couple of years’ time to have a team and to be churning out fantastic, inspiring magazines for the brands that we loved and respected. I’m not sure if that’s going to happen quite as quickly as I thought now. So I suppose my vision is to be to be still writing as much as I can, and to be working with companies and clients that I respect and admire as much as possible – and hopefully get back on the road soon and do some proper travelling.
Peter Francisca Kellett, thank you very much indeed for appearing on the show. And we wish you the best of luck with your travels in the future.
Fran Thank you so much for having me. It’s been an absolute joy.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes, Stitcher, or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can also find us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Stay safe and we’ll see you next week.
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