Inside The Stay is Room5’s Q&A series, seeking to get the scoop from some of the world’s most well-traveled personalities and experts on their particular passion and what they look for in their ideal hotel stay.
Samantha Brown is inarguably one of the most prolific travelers to come out of the United States in the 21st century. She’s inching closer to 20 years of hosted television experience, bringing remote destinations across the globe to her audiences on the Travel Channel and now Places to Love, debuting on PBS on January 6th.
She joins Room5 to share how she got her start in travel television, what to expect in her new show, and what she looks for in her ideal hotel stay.
Room5 Rumor has it your career in travel started by chasing down an airplane. Could you tell us about that?
Samantha Brown I was waiting on tables at the time in New York City. I got an audition for the Travel Channel. The audition was to be held down in Jacksonville, Florida. They had me on this really impossible-to-make connecting flight. I left LaGuardia and I had maybe 45 minutes to make it through Washington Dulles. At the time I had no idea how terrible LaGuardia was and how even worse Washington Dulles is, so I outright missed the first flight. Travel Channel wouldn’t settle for just a reel and instead wanted “to see people specifically audition for this hosting position” in order to make a firm decision in the following days. They said, “If she’s not in that roundup, then she won’t be considered.”
And so the production company put me on the exact same fight, and just like the first flight, the LaGuardia flight left like an hour late. When I arrived in Dulles I just ran because I knew this was my last chance. I thought I was going to throw up, I was running so fast, my heart was in my mouth, but I’m like, “I gotta make this flight.”
I get to the gate and I said, “Is this the flight to Jacksonville?” The gate agent said, “Yeah, but I called final boarding like five minutes ago, but go down and see. Maybe they’ll take you.” So I ran down the jetway. I see a plane as I come out of the airport on the tarmac and I just start running toward it.
This man was like, “Whoa! Where do you think you’re going?” I said, “I’m supposed to be on that flight.” He said, “No you’re not” and he showed me his clipboard and said, “I already called it and once I call it for takeoff, it’s done.”
I just started balling. I had run so fast and far, there was so much emotion, and I just started crying. I was like, “Listen, I’ve been waiting on tables in New York City for eight years and I think I can get this job, but I have to be on that plane.” He was not sympathetic at all, but he did say, “The captain can overrule my decision. I will ask the captain and if he says no, you can’t get on.”
So I picked up my bag and I just ran and I put myself under the nose of the plane 75 to 100 feet away and I held my arms out and looking up at the captain, I shouted, “Please!” He looked down on me and just gave me the thumbs up. Literally, that’s when I knew I got the job.
R5 Before you started with the Travel Channel, you were an auditioning actress. At what point did you realize that being a travel host wasn’t just your next job but the start of your career?
SB It was probably many, many years. When you are an actor, you’re always thinking that the job is the last job and you’re just gonna go back to waiting on tables. So I felt like I had job security at the Travel Channel. It was also when people started doing what I did and following my advice and that’s something I totally did not anticipate with my role in this. I just thought I was entertainment. But people were going to Prague and saying, “Where was that person, the man who made strudel and sold it out of the window of his home. Where was that man?” It shocked me. This was the beginnings of social media when we had forum boards and you could go on the forums and see how people responded to your shows and that really resonated with me.
It also coincided with me stopping a European show. We were done with doing Europe and then moving on to Latin America. That’s when I really felt like I became a traveler. I don’t think I was a traveler in my European days. I felt like I became a traveler when I went to Latin America. All those things gelled together to make me think, I love this. I can’t do anything else at this point. This is my passion and I’ve never looked back.
R5 You started hosting just before 9/11. Air travel has changed significantly since then and we’ve had four presidents since you started. How do you believe attitudes toward traveling internationally have changed among Americans?
SB Anecdotally in my own experience, I would say that people who want to travel internationally, they’ve become even more emboldened. 9/11 no doubt changed the world and it made us more fearful of what happens in the world even though it happened here. I think people feel like, “I’m gonna travel. I don’t care. No one is going to dictate to me that I can’t. This is my joy.”
I think helping that attitude is absolutely social media and Instagram and Facebook and people posting their pictures and that fear of missing out. This younger generation, the Millenials is loving and really embracing travel more than material goods. I feel like it’s gotten better. I don’t know the specific numbers, but I don’t think it moves the needle anymore. People are like, travel is not a luxury, it is my right and I’m going to do it.
R5 How have foreigners’ perceptions changed when you visit their country? Do you find yourself having to explain the United when meeting people abroad?
SB Never. Never. And that’s what I love about being a traveler is that when you are in another person’s country, all that goes away. You’re just a person and people want to make sure you’re having a good time in their country.
One time that I thought, “Ok, we’re gonna get it now” as an American TV crew was right after George Bush was re-elected. There were some hard times there with Paris and France. We were going there and it was over Thanksgiving. I thought after he was re-elected that we would get a lot of pushback. It was the exact opposite. I was on a street and a woman came up to me asking for directions. I said, “I’m sorry, I’m not Parisian. I’m not from here.” She said, “Where are you from?” I said, “America.” She said, “Why are we fighting? We should get along. We have so much in common. ” I’m like, “I totally agree!”
We were in Lyon over Thanksgiving and someone heard our accents and they said, “It’s your Thanksgiving, right? Do you have cranberry sauce? We know where to find cranberry sauce.” They knew our traditions and they knew [Thanksgiving food] was very hard to find because they don’t have cranberry sauce, they don’t have turkeys. So we were just helped, and so I feel like when you’re a traveler, again, people just deal with you as a human being and not what your political affiliation is — the baggage goes away.
R5 You’ve held pandas in your lap, but your new show, Places to Love, takes a more simple, down-to-earth approach to travel. Could you tell us about the show?
SB It’s basically my 18 years of travels and what I’ve loved most about it and now I’m putting it in a show. What I’ve always loved is meeting people and getting to know them. Usually on camera when I’ve done stuff for the Travel Channel and I meet people, I’m there with them for a good 40 minutes before the cameras start rolling, finding out about them, understanding where they came from, why they went into food, why the went into the arts. It was just never kept in the show. I always felt that was the most interesting part, is the effort that it takes to create these experiences that we as travelers get to be a part of. It also ties into this huge local movement that we in the travel industry have been seeing for close to 10 years now, people wanting to go where the locals go.
With this show, I just wanted to look into that more and say that the reason we want to be with the locals and go where they go and do what they do is that we want to be part of that effort, that effort it took for them to succeed. Whether it was opening a restaurant or it’s composing a piece of music, we want to celebrate that. We want to support that. That’s what the local movement and traveling as a local is all about. The show really focuses on the people who you will meet and the experiences that you have when you’re in these destinations.
R5 The show is much more people-focused and I understand it was an experience in Latin America that started pushing you in that direction. Could you tell us about that trip and what happened?
SB I had spent two years traveling all throughout Europe for Passport to Europe. I loved it. It was amazing, but being in Europe for the first time is all about museums, and monuments, and castles, and cathedrals. You just spend more time in the past. At least that’s what I did.
When you go to Latin America, none of that infrastructure is there. Where Europe has five must-see museums, a Latin American city may have one. Where there might be block after block of beautiful architecture and little villages here and there [in Europe], in Latin America it’s all really centered around that main plaza.
When we arrived to start shooting a series there, I was nervous, because I wondered, “What are we shooting? What are we here for?” But I found that when I just relaxed and I got to spend time with people just in their everyday lives, who they were that day, not who they were in the past, it changed everything for me. I loved it. I loved spending time in people’s everyday lives because for me it was extraordinary. I didn’t need a castle, I didn’t need a cathedral. And so I think Latin America really taught me that lesson of what it’s like to have a more intimate travel experience and not expect all the exclamation points of travel and that the commas are just as important.
R5 What kinds of destinations can we expect to see on the first season? How will you be involving locals?
SB I’ve got 13 episodes. It’s a really nice mix of very well-known, huge metropolises, like Shanghai, to up and coming, you’ve never heard this, you can’t believe this is actually a travel destination, like Huntsville, Alabama.
I wanted to do a cross-section of that to show that travel isn’t just about going to these ‘A-Side’ cities or these ‘A destinations’; that there are the B destinations as well and they can give you these very wonderful experiences.
What I loved about Huntsville is it had this incredible confluence of science and tech and the arts, and those two can rarely co-exist because if there is science and tech, that drives up real estate and housing prices like we see in Silicon Valley. The artist can never exist in that environment, but it does in Huntsville.
One of the people we focused on was a man named Danny Davis. He makes guitars, but his background was that he was an engineer for NASA for 30 years. He helped build the space shuttle and he uses the same type of testing of a space shuttle in terms of its vibrating frequency and he applies that to making guitars and he explains that process [on the show]. It was just brilliant to me that these two not only exist in the same place but in the same person. That’s what we try to find.
I would say with my show, Places to Love, what I really wanted to get away from, and really totally refresh and rethink, was the travel show. What you won’t see is an itinerary-based show where it’s “I went to the Pantheon, now I’m going to get gelato.” I really wanted to weave in the stories of all the people that you would meet as a traveler and see how they connect. It’s just this wonderful narrative of people and places.
R5 You’ve stayed in hotels from Alabama to China. Is there a style you most identify with? What do you look for in a hotel?
SB I love hotels and I love to try them out. I love fancy hotels and I love hip hotels, but I would say what it really comes down to is: I want a hotel that works. I want good services. I don’t care about a hip lobby and pumping music. I do get a little weary of that. I want the people behind the desk to know what they’re talking about. That’s what I want in a hotel. Great services. Airbnb is great, but you’re on your own. That’s what’s great about a hotel. You’re not alone.
If I travel with my family, I’m always looking for hotels that have the free breakfast in the morning because we just can’t get our crap together that early and I just need to go down there and have eggs and toast and coffee and I need that.
I really worry, you know, you’re hearing these trends about hotels now taking people off behind the desk and making the whole check-in process automated. So you just go to a kiosk and you check-in and that’s going to expedite the whole process, and I agree it would, but my fear is that those people behind the desk are then going to go away. What they should do is just bring them out so they’re always helping people, and they’re always giving other people better advice like where they can go eat or, “Hey, do you want to order room service right now so it’s in your room, delivered when the bags arrive?” So I hope the hotel industry, as it becomes more automated in terms of the bigger chain hotels, that they don’t forget that it’s always been personal service that makes their hotel.
R5 Your most memorable hotel stay — GO!
SB I was in Peru and we actually changed hotels from a luxury hotel, which was very posh and lovely, to a more local spot called Casa San Blas. It was extremely paired down. You walked in, it was maybe 30 rooms. The rooms were just basic, bare wood furniture. Really monks quarters kind of stuff. But the staff was phenomenal and everyone staying there wanted to be a part of everyone’s experience. Down at breakfast in the morning, you were just talking to people at the tables next to you. They found out it was my birthday and when I came back, they had a cake for me.
Those little things and this was just a family-run, a tiny hotel. But again, the personal side of it and just the feeling of really, like you were in this place. Luxury hotels, what they don’t do well is make you feel like you’re in a destination. They sort of take you out of it. That medium-priced, even budget hotel does a much better job of making you feel like you are in the location. You are nowhere else but there.
R5 Could you leave us with one last tease of the show?
SB Everything I do in the show is accessible to the traveler. I don’t have VIP experiences, I don’t have exclusive, made-for-TV experiences that look really great on television but 99 percent of the people will never have access to. For me, Places to Love is about showing you what is possible. It becomes a real call-to-action to travel. I work hard to make sure that the people I’m talking to are the people you’re going to meet when you walk into that store when you take that tour. Everything you’re seeing is available to you and that was really important to me; that I didn’t have a different experience than everyone else.