Petia Whitmore is the Founder and Chief Narrating Officer of Flying Raconteur – a travel resource and customized travel planning service for Bulgaria. She was born and raised in Bulgaria and has been living and working in the United States for 17 years. Most recently, she was the Dean of Graduate Admissions at Babson College, where she frequently canvassed the globe in search of the next best and brightest candidates for the Babson MBA. As she puts it herself, wanderlust is her number one vice – liberally cultivated and indulged. So far, she has visited 45 countries and the list keeps growing. During a recent rare extended visit back to Bulgaria, she identified an unexplored opportunity to introduce the culture, history, nature, and food of her homeland to fellow US and world travelers. In 2017, she leveraged her entrepreneurial training to launch Flying Raconteur. Her goal is to help independent travelers discover Bulgaria and have a memorable, highly personalized travel experience. While she firmly believes that travel should incorporate a level of serendipity and chance, she also knows that with the right planning approach one can have a richer trip. As a child, Petia was dreaming of being either a writer or a personal investigator. She believes that her work as a Flying Raconteur in a way combines both since she meticulously researches her travel suggestions and writes extensively about Bulgaria on her web site and blog.
Tell us about what led to starting Flying Raconteur. What need did you see in the market?
I’ve been dreaming of traveling and writing about places since I was a child. So in this sense, Flying Raconteur has been decades in the making. From an early age, I loved reading books about travel and foreign lands. Growing up in a communist country in Eastern Europe meant opportunities for travel were extremely limited so books were my substitute. One particular author – Gerald Durrel, who writes about his travels collecting animals for zoos and has a great, wry sense of humor – was a major inspiration. I must have read his books about a few dozen times each! Then the times changed and I was able to liberally indulge my insatiable wanderlust, especially after I moved to the US and had to travel for work, too.
In a more concrete sense, Flying Raconteur was conceived last summer, when I had a chance to spend several weeks in Bulgaria. I have been living in the UnitedStates for 17 years and that was the first time I had an extended vacation back in my homeland. I was reminded Bulgaria had so much to offer – history, culture, nature, food, wines. All of it is still so undiscovered, so unsung. So I embarked on changing this – helping travelers discover Bulgaria.
How do your recommendations set travelers up to experience unique perspectives on the history, people or culture of Bulgaria?
The way I work with travelers to Bulgaria is based on two main premises. I create and publish useful, relevant, carefully curated and researched content that can help travelers plan a better trip. And to those who hire my services, I offer highly customized advice. My recommendations are tailored to their preferences – areas of interest, comfort level, preferred pace of travel. Both are based on my extensive knowledge of the country, personal research and wonderful network of friends and collaborators who help me source and arrange truly unique experiences. Also important is that I have extensive business training so my services are professional and delivered with the highest standard for customer service.
How does the company philosophy, and in turn the experiences that you offer, align with your personal interests and passions?
The company philosophy is a deep reflection of my personal travel manifesto. I travel with an open mind and welcome any chance to veer off the traditional path. I believe in deep immersion, in getting lost, in dining at restaurants with no written menu and no English-speaking staff. And I believe that the travel experience starts long before you leave and doesn’t end when you land back home. I read books and watch movies with a connection to my destination. I use every opportunity to get travel tips from locals and fellow travelers. And I have a system of coming back with unusual souvenirs that bring back the memories of a trip in a very profound way. So I can guide my customers in a way that doesn’t simply result in a great itinerary. I can help them have the sort of travel that makes for a great story – one they will cherish, tell and retell over the years.
What do you wish every traveler knew as they consider visiting Bulgaria?
Bulgaria is always a surprising discovery for travelers. It’s so underrated and people don’t expect that it has such long history and rich culture. In a way, I wish they knew what a revelation visiting Bulgaria can be. The country was founded in 681 but the territory has been inhabited for millenniums. Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, is the 4th oldest in Europe and the 8th oldest in the world. And scientists recently discovered human remains that helped them establish that human life, until now believed to have originated from Africa, in fact started in Bulgaria and Greece. How’s this for a reason to visit your ancestral cradle?!
What is one unexpected piece of clothing or equipment travelers should have to maximize their enjoyment of trip to Bulgaria?
Since Bulgaria uses the cyrillic alphabet, Google Translate, especially the photo translation option, is critical. Also, the app TaxiMe is super helpful, especially since there are some illegal cabs with exorbitant rates.
What is one travel trend that really excites you?
I am really excited about peer-to-peer travel – the journeys that are pieced together based on advice and services from other individuals. It’s the ultimate personalized experience. There is tremendous value in being able to access the insights of fellow wanderers and interact with some of them. The degree of unpredictability and serendipitous encounters are a guaranteed way to have an unforgettable experience.
What is one insider’s tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?
It’s one that I use myself when I travel, with unfailingly wonderful results. I call it “the rule of three”. In order to really get to know a place, you need to do three things – chat up a local bartender, shop at the farmers’ market, and stroll through a graveyard. The neighborhood bartender has the potential to be a source of unrivaled expertise. He or she, especially if they take a liking to you, will tip you off about the best secluded beaches, the non-touristy restaurants, or what the local’s choice for an after dinner drink is. The farmers’ market will supply not just some fresh local food but a slice of people’s lives – what they eat, how they pick it, how important food is to them. And nothing gives you a sense of the history of a place with all its heartaches and dignity the way walking among tombstones does.
What has been one of the biggest hurdles you have faced in launching this experiential travel company?
The biggest hurdle has been fairly predictable – leaving behind a well established and well-paying career to dedicate myself to a venture with unpredictable chance of success. But that’s also what makes it such a stimulating adventure.
What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?
I am a person with an intentionally, rigorously developed entrepreneurial mindset – I am a Babson MBA, the number one MBA in the world for entrepreneurship. I had the great fortune of being taught by outstanding academics and practitioners and be surrounded by amazing peers. It inspired in me a relentless pursuit of opportunity. At the core of my training is a profound belief that action trumps everything. You need to get out there, try things and adjust your course as you learn. So I embrace ambiguity and I can pivot like nobody’s business!
Petia on LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/petiawhitmore
Petia on Twitter: twitter.com/petiapw
Flying Raconteur on Facebook: facebook.com/FlyingRaconteur
Flying Raconteur on Instagram: instagram.com/flyingraconteur