Alex on the Map [AOTM]: Hey guys, it’s Alex from Nomads on the Map and today we’re talking with an amazing guest. I’m so excited to have her. Her name is Keighty Noreen and she has done a whole bunch of amazing things in her life with National Geographic also on her own and she’s starting a new blog. So thanks for joining me, Keighty. I’m super excited to have you today.
Keighty Noreen [KN]: I’m so excited to be here. Thanks, Alex.
AOTM: Aw, it’s great. When she contacted me, I’m like, I can’t wait to talk to this girl. So do you mind telling listeners a little bit more about who you are and where you’re based now.
KN: Yeah, so right now I’m currently based in Chicago, which is my hometown and recently as you mentioned, I’ve been working hard. I’m launching my new blog Discover Everyday and this blog was really born out of my love for foreign language and cross-cultural communication, which I studied in school and then traveling. I got into [it] professionally and have made my career out of and then most recently getting my MBA in marketing and kind of honing in my ability to promote travel and communication in a way that’s going to get people excited about exploring outside of their usual bubble.
AOTM: I love that. I think especially now people are really going to start looking for those experiences once we can get back on the road. They’re gonna be like, “Keighty, help me!” You are in Chicago. You said it’s your hometown.
KN: It is! Chicago is so great because it really is just a large group of neighborhoods. You could be in one area and have a completely different experience, whether it be culinary or culturally or even just environmentally then going 20 minutes to the east or to the south…[y]ou know, it’s a really interesting place with so much green space along the waterfront.
But then also you have the loop with total city vibes with the really tall buildings and then out west and up north, you have these many communities within the city. I’m currently an Avondale which is historically a Polish neighborhood, but now has a lot of Latin American influence. Chicago is a really diverse melting pot of different groups of people and that’s one of my favorite things about it.
AOTM: I think people automatically assume New York is the most diverse place and that’s not necessarily true. I think Chicago and some places like Houston that are out west are definitely a lot more diverse than people give them credit for.
KN: Yeah, it’s one of the things I notice the most every time I’ve been somewhere traveling and then come back to Chicago. I love taking the train here. We have a great public transportation system and when I hop on the train, it’s like you look around and every single person in that train car looks different from you. And that’s how I know I’m home. It just feels so good to not be in an area with the same people all the time. It’s just a good reminder of how diverse the city is.
AOTM: Absolutely. And I think that’s why it’s so important to have that diversity. Especially, you know, we are in the United States. So we have an opportunity for that, which is great.
So when did you first start traveling? What was the journey that really got you excited about travel and having travel in your life long-term?
KN: So my I’ve been fortunate enough to have parents who also were really excited about travel. I had an opportunity to do a study abroad thing and it was like my grandpa’s number one priority. Like, “My daughters are going to go on this study abroad program. They need to see outside of their bubble, they grew up in Kansas City, Missouri.” So, you know, he’s like we gotta get these girls out there. They need to see the world. They just see that you know life is bigger than just Kansas City where they’ve been growing up. I think that instilled a sense of importance for travel in my mother’s mind so when I had the chance to travel with them or even to travel on my own, they’ve always been really supportive of it.
I think as I got older, they were like, “You have to start taking a foreign language in middle school.” I had the opportunity to start and I chose to study French and my parents really were excited to see how excited I was. They planned a trip to study in France. I think that coming back from that trip that really got me excited about travel. I learned this thing and now I get to go actually use it and apply it and that was just such a cool feeling. We also went to like London afterwards and I remember seeing the Rosetta Stone and I was like, “Oh my gosh, we just learned about that in history class!” and seeing what you learn in school every day coming to life.
I think was what really got me first thinking about, “Travel is important. Travel’s fun. Travel’s something I need to have it in my life on a bigger scale.”
AOTM: Absolutely. And I think it’s such an enriching experience when you can have that as a part of your travels. You spend time studying something that’s important to you and you can somehow incorporate that into where you go and what you see. How old were you?
KN: I was in middle school. So maybe like 12 or 13 or something like that. We’d been on family vacations around the United States a bunch before that. That was always more about relaxation and almost more of a break for my parents from work. It was less about me being able to explore more about just a break for the family, but that was the first trip that really was centered around the idea of exploring the culture a little bit deeper. [It allowed me to] really think about the local area and the local history and that brought to mind the idea that travel can be more than just sitting around the pool all week.
AOTM: I love that and to learn that at such a young age is fantastic. I think that you’re right. Most people’s experience going abroad or young people’s experiences going abroad is study abroad. So it does kind of shape your relationship with travel differently when you’re younger. You’re also looking at travel through a completely different lens than you are when you’re an adult.
KN: There’s nothing wrong with looking for different things in travel, but I’m always like, “Is there an underground bar around or this really cool new resort?” When you’re younger, you’re just fascinated by the little things that are in front of you just those small details and the small little moments. I’m always going to remember that when I’m traveling to not get caught up in the big tourist destinations, but just kind of enjoying the space around me when I’m wandering through alleyways and side streets.
AOTM: It’s true. And I think you know when you’re a child you’re so in wonderment when you’re when you’re in a new place and the smallest things are kind of the most influential as opposed to “Oh, I’m seeing the Eiffel Tower.”
You mentioned that you are into creative travel. So what does travel and creativity mean to you personally and where you are in your life right now?
KN: I feel like your day-to-day routine is the enemy of a creative mind and you need to get yourself thinking outside of your normal realm of possibilities. There’s no better way to change your mindset than going somewhere new and exploring and for me. I have always been a creative person. It’s kind of I always tag team between my passions for studying foreign languages or focusing on my art and I really make an effort to make those connected.
There’s no reason that they need to be so separate in my life or anybody’s life. I’ve tried to keep an open mind different ways. I can be present when I’m traveling and notice kind the small details and the colors and take in more when I’m wandering around. I try to digest more what’s around me and then incorporate that into my work.
Some of the ways that I do this are looking for patterns as I wander around and capturing anything interesting. When I was in Budapest recently, there was this iron fence that went all along side of a church and it was such an interesting pattern. I took a picture like I would with like any twisting things I see while traveling.
I was like, “How can I use this pattern in some of the art that I’m making when I come back home?” I took a minute to sketch those patterns out and try to incorporate them. I think you see things you’ve never seen before when you’re abroad as when you are at home and also just color palettes like in travel writing–I’m sure you see this all the time. People talking about creating a sense of place and the biggest part of creating a sense of place in a lot of situations is just color palettes and really thinking like what color embodies this destination and how I can reflect that destination in my work when I’m back home.
It’s really just trying to shift your perspective and really taking in the new sights and sounds and smells, you know. It’s not just what we see but it’s what we hear, what we smell, what feel when we’re there and bringing that back into your work so that it’s not as stagnant as [it would be if] you just were using the inspiration from your living room every day.
AOTM: By the way, if anyone listening wants to check out Keighty’s Instagram, it’s beautiful the way you’ve curated your pictures. I love your eye in the way you’ve Incorporated different themes within your pictures and talk about a sense of place.
KN: Thank you. I’m really drawn to bright colors and kind of unexpected color combinations and I think you kind of see the variety of different color palettes when you travel. It’s one of the things I can point to and say, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
AOTM: Do you have a place that a specific a color palette just jumped out at you?
KN: Yeah. The images that I have in my mind of Madagascar will never leave my memory. They have such interesting colors, especially when you get out of the city and into nature. I felt like every day I saw multiple things that I’ve never seen in my life and never will see again. They just have such unique flora and fauna there. In nature, there were a lot of colors that I truly had never even seen before. There were lot of interesting bugs [that had] really vibrant reds or purples and things you don’t always see in nature, especially in Chicago–there’s very limited wildlife. In the capital Antananarivo, they have such a wide range of colors on their buildings and I was such a stark contrast to back in the United States.
You know, every building on my block is some variation of beige or brown and so fun to see how abroad color is just used so much more freely and it’s an interesting way to individualize your own space in your own home. The reds on the rooftops is really iconic. There’s a lot of teal used on buildings and there’s green. There’s like green everywhere and I think that teal, red, and green is really Madagascar for me.
AOTM: It’s just incredible how some places imprint on you like that. One of my favorite places to go is Morocco because the patterns and the earthy tones and the blues. It’s just funny how different places have that specific feel to them.
KN: You’re so right that blue and ochre combination screams Marrakesh. It’s like I know exactly where I am.
AOTM: You were formerly at National Geographic, which I think we’ve all heard that name before. You were the operations manager for Africa and the Pacific regions. Is that correct?
KN: Yep. That’s correct.
AOTM: Wow, that’s that’s a lot. That’s a big undertaking right there.
KN: Travel is a 24/7 space to work in. Travel never stops. It’s definitely pretty crazy to work in tour operations because every day was different and you always have people on the ground. It was a crazy experience, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It really was such a fun opportunity to be able to do professionally what we all love to do for fun, which is plan trips, plan your next adventure.
AOTM: How did you get started doing that just out of curiosity?
KN: When I was in school, I really just leaned hard into studying foreign languages and French was primarily what I studied, but also Spanish and German. When I graduated, you know, people always joke when you study a foreign language, “What are you going to do with that degree?” I told everyone, “You just watch and see what I do with it!” Because this is my dream. This is what I want to learn so I had to get practical about it and thinking about what I could apply that skill to and travel was an obvious fit.
I hit the ground running looking for different roles. I used to do more guest services work in terms of working directly with the travelers. I really found my niche in trip operations, which is more behind the scenes and more relationship building with our local partners. Our guests really never knew who I was exactly, but I was the wizard behind the curtain, making sure that everything on their trip went off without a hitch.
AOTM: I love how you seem to have a combination of both left and right brains because I could see that being like a very logical and technical–everything needs to be in its place. But on the other hand you are also extremely creative.
KN: It’s so funny you say that because it very much is a unique role that requires both. You can cross the t’s, dotting your i’s and make sure that every single thing that you have planned is in place. But as I’m sure you know, travel’ s unpredictable.The only thing you can predict traveling is that something is going to pop up that you didn’t plan on and to be able to have success in an operations manager role you have to be able to just creatively problem-solve. [You have to] shift gears quickly and figure out what your best options are going to be–to pivot.
That’s actually [how I feel about] the travel and hospitality industry right now, even though it’s a difficult time. I feel like I have all the confidence so they’ll bounce back because it’s an industry full of people that know how to just pivot and be creative and change at the drop of the hat.
AOTM: I think that’s especially true and there are so many great travel creatives out there who had pivoted and done an amazing job of it…just their ability to see travel in a new way and make it still a part of their brand but also make it applicable to now.
So cross-cultural communication is something that you mentioned you were interested in. When we first sent out an email to talk I love that you mentioned you speak several different languages. Why is that important to you that we do have that communication when interacting with other cultures?
KN: So I think cross-cultural communication is the key to connecting others and I always say that you could be the smartest person in the room, you could have the best ideas, you could have the cure to cancer. But if you don’t know how to communicate that cure in a way that’s going to resonate with different audiences across the board, the value of your message is going to be diminished. It used to be a buzzword like, oh, global business/international business. It was a niche thing that you could focus on studying but now inescapable.
I think like every company is even if they’re not currently in an international market. That’s a long-term goal of theirs to move towards that. On a more personal level, I think we’re able to connect with just other people around the world way easier than ever before in history by social media and email and things like that. So I feel like the world is more connected than ever and not just having good ideas isn’t enough anymore.
You really need to know how to communicate and in travel specifically: whether you’re personally traveling or if you’re a travel business. Learning really what the norms are in the areas that you’re going to or you’re working with…[it’s] really important have that background because when you’re travel planning simple mistakes can come up. When you’re getting to know someone who might be a different market, you know, you might accidentally make a faux pas that you didn’t mean any harm.
I just think having this general understanding, you don’t be expert level, but just having a general understanding of the ways that different cultures communicate. [If you] can kind of proactively seek out understanding the person that you’re talking to and their background, the better you’ll be at building relationships and communicating effectively.
AOTM: I love that and I absolutely agree. It’s such an important part of being a traveler. I would say taking a break from travel has made it more pressing than ever for us to come back with these ideals and with these goals of having that communication and being kinder to the environment when we travel. Not saying it was totally great that this happened, but it did give us a chance to rethink some things.
KN: Totally. I talked a lot about businesses having the understanding and travel companies, but I think just on a personal level you should really just improve your experience by understanding some of the context surrounding the way people communicate in an area. Like in Morocco, it’s rude to interrupt someone or hurry them along while they’re traveling. Oftentimes when you’re with a guide in Morocco, the guides aren’t going to be like, “Okay, we need to stay on schedule! Chop-chop!”
They’re really going take their cue from you about when you’re ready to leave or you’re ready to move on and if you don’t really understand that context before you visit, you might accidentally miss something exciting that you have planned on your trip. Just because there was a miscommunication about the timing and the intent on wanting to stay there longer versus moving on. It’s to your benefit to do a little bit of research and have that general understanding before you arrive somewhere to make sure that you don’t run any issues inadvertently.
AOTM: Absolutely. I remember the first time I went to Morocco and I just remember thinking, “Wow, we drink a lot of tea. We sit around and drink a lot of tea.” By the end of the journey, I loved it. It was something that I was not used to, but you do have to keep an open mind and you do have to [acknowledge] that you are putting yourself in someone else’s culture. So you also need to be willing to meet that culture where it’s at.
KN: Yeah, and the tea example is so great because for them that’s literally their way of saying, “Welcome to my home.” So by not partaking in that it’s like, “I don’t care.” Even if a traveler wouldn’t mean that. But without knowing how that culture communicates different sentiments, how would you ever know that that’s not an appropriate way to respond? That’s a classic example. I feel the same way. I definitely had to take a break in the aftermath. I’m not a big tea-drinker myself, and that was definitely tea overload.
AOTM: It’s so funny. By the end of it you’re like, “I’m never going to have tea again.” It’s funny though because sometimes I crave it. I’m like how I really just would love some mint tea right now.
KN: Yeah. I also had a thousand tagines because I’m a vegetarian. They were everywhere we went it was vegetable tagine every meal. One time they were like, “Would you like vegetarian tagine or do you want spaghetti?” And I was like, “Oh my god, spaghetti! Please, spaghetti!” I really needed a break and I go to eat the spaghetti and I swear that Moroccan allspice was in the sauce. So it just tasted like vegetable tagine. It was like, I can’t escape this flavor. It was a great flavor, but definitely tagine overload. But I think I’m ready to jump back in. It’s been a year.
AOTM: I think as Americans we’re so used to having variety in our food and we go to other places and we realize that this is just not a part of that culture and that they don’t have the same variety. So that’s always a hurdle that we have to overcome.
So how do you think we’re going to be planning trips differently speaking to the professional trip planner? How do you think things are going to be a little bit different now?
KN: I think the way people travel is going to change in a few ways. I think first off we’ve already seen this starting to happen, but people are going out and exploring places closer to home. They’re exploring in their communities. I’m actually really excited that this has spurred people to do that, because I love to go off to far-flung places and step out of my day-to-day, but I also love exploring in my own backyard. And that’s one thing I try to do on Discover Everyday is not just, “Hey, look at me in Italy or France.” But also, “[Check out] this cool coffee shop down the road.”
I already think that’s a positive of the situation. It’s forcing people to explore state parks instead of going to national parks out West in the U.S. I think the other thing that we’re going to see is that private travel–I think it’s going to become very popular. When I was working at National Geographic, I mostly worked with group expeditions and I think that’s going to get harder and harder because people aren’t going to really love the idea of getting on a giant tour bus with 30 people at a time.
I think that we’re going to see a rise private travel and I think people who are able especially to do customized trip planning and taking into account different health or dietary needs right now. People are really concerned about staying healthy and being as safe as possible. I think that once people feel comfortable traveling again those areas going to see a lot of success.
Finally, the last thing I think is people are just going to want to have trips more set in stone before they go abroad. I know for myself, I’m still kind of on the edge about getting in taxis or Ubers and if I could just in advance know that when I get to the airport someone’s already going to be there waiting to pick me up in a clean car with a company that I can vet beforehand. Knowing that they’re following special cleaning procedures, I’m gonna feel a lot more comfortable.
I think for travel advisors and boutique travel companies that are able to assist people in these customized itineraries and make sure that everything is kind of set in stone, it takes some of the stress of traveling off the travelers since they already have enough that they’re stressing about right now. Those three areas are going to really see some popularity following the current situation.
AOTM: I totally agree. I was thinking the other day too, I plan on pretty much all my trips by myself, but I actually was thinking it would be kind of nice to have a travel agent for some of this stuff. Even though travel agents haven’t had the best business since you can book everything online anymore. I’m wondering if that might change.
KN: I do think that because I’m the same way. I mean, I used to plan for a living so I’m always tempted to just do it myself when I travel but I do also think there’s a lot of value in travel advisors and even in destination management companies that are in the destination. They have such specialized knowledge about the different places you are going to and they’re going to have their finger on the pulse of the latest news with getting visas or airport restrictions and what airlines have started to open up new routes.
They really can put all their time and attention into staying up-to-date and that’s just not realistic for a lay person–we got enough going on in our lives. I can’t keep up with like every country’s opening and closing procedures. As much as I would love to just take that on myself, but I think I think people are going to benefit from relying on these people who truly are experts and are the best at what they do byvkeeping up-to-date with the latest just so that you don’t run into an issue by getting somewhere and realizing you have to turn around or the hotel closed because we had an outbreak.
AOTM: I think that’s completely true and honestly, whatever it is to take that pressure off. It’s probably worth it to make it easier on yourself. We have enough to worry about right now. How did I get from the airport to the hotel? You know what I mean?
Which is always my least favorite part of travel. I don’t know why that is. Every time I’m like, “Oh we gotta do this again?”
KN: It’s also the part of the trip that I feel like is the least reliable to work out. When I worked at National Geographic, you know for our travelers we have on-call assistance 24/7 to make sure if any issues come up, but I mean also in the case of an emergency, but obviously, you know that doesn’t happen. But the most common calls I used to answer were people who couldn’t find their driver at the airport. It was the most common thing because every airport’s design is different. It’s impossible to tell people exactly where to meet their driver. I totally agree that my least favorite part of travel is finding that first driver when you get to the airport.
AOTM: That’s so funny. That’s definitely me calling. Now, you’re starting a blog. How exciting is that?
KN: I am yes. It’s so exciting. You know all the things we’ve talked about today, like creativity and travel and cross-cultural communication. These are things that just constantly are floating around my mind and I swear everyone in my life is sick of me talking about it because the wheels are always turning and right now, you know because we’re social distancing and we’re home a lot.
But I really had a chance to finally take these ideas and package them in way that I can share with others because I have a lot of tips about travel planning that I’ve learned from doing it professionally that I think could really help people up their game. And I’ve also I’m a passionate creator. So I have a lot of ideas that I can share with people about how I take what I see when I’m traveling and incorporate it into my work.
Finally, obviously the best part of traveling is the food. So also excited to share some of the best things that I’ve had while traveling and different ways. You can try to recreate them at home, especially as a vegetarian as I mentioned. [It’s] kind of a struggle because you have to do a lot of planning in advance and I think knowing what destinations are going to be vegetarian-friendly or how you can navigate those different nations and finding menus and resources to use can be really helpful. So those are kind of the three things that we’re going to talk about on my blog and I’m really focused on getting people out there to explore and indulge and just stay curious about places a million miles from their home or in their backyard.
AOTM: I love that and honestly, I know people say, “Oh the the travel blog space is so oversaturated, but I think it’s oversaturated in the sense people aren’t telling their stories. So if you’re telling your story and that makes it your specific market and important to you and there are going to be people looking for that.
KN: Yeah, there’s so many travel blogs out there. You know, it’s sometimes you think, “Does the world really need another one?” This has definitely gone through my head, but you know, I think but I also think there are so many different types of travelers that you need that variety because travel is a really personal experience and not everyone’s way of traveling is always going to fit what you’re looking to get out of a trip. There’s a lot of bloggers out there doing amazing things in terms of sharing tips and bringing interesting content, but it’s just kind of like not resonating with me, even though they might have three million followers.
Not everyone will be interested in some of the things that I’m sharing, but I hope that a lot of people will find it resonates with them and give them ideas about how to rein in that childlike wonderment that we talked about earlier. In just staying present, keeping your eyes open, and just absorbing your surroundings so that it’s truly a break from your everyday schedule.
AOTM: That’s very much in your name, Discover Everyday. I love that because it’s a reminder saying even if you are home, even if you’re in your hometown, really you can still discover it in a new way. Where can people find you if they’re interested?
KN: Yeah. The best way to find me right now is on Instagram @discover.everyday, and that’s going to be the best place right now to stay updated on how the blog’s coming along and you can find color inspiration there for your next projects. You can learn about different foods around the world and highlights on interesting places. We also do something fun on Wednesdays that you can check out
AOTM: Well, thank you so much, Keighty. I loved talking with you today. You just brought a whole bunch of warmth over here. It’s wonderful to meet someone who’s so creative, and so interested in helping people have their best journey. So thank you so much for that.
KN: Thanks. It was so great sharing my thoughts and takeaways with you today. It’s really exciting. And I’m just excited to share with you and your listeners. So really appreciate the opportunity!