480 Madeline Jhawar:

Imagine. You run a profitable travel agency you built around your passion for finding off the beaten paths and epic custom-crafted experiences in Italy. Then, the Coronavirus Pandemic strikes down one of your favorite places in the world… and puts your business in a tailspin.


I’m Melinda Wittstock and today on Wings of Inspired Business we meet an inspiring entrepreneur who is finding creative ways to pivot in fast-changing circumstances – and retain her optimism for the future.

Madeline Jhawar founded Italy Beyond the Obvious, 11 years ago, after living and working in Italy for 5 years.  Today she shares what she is doing to keep her team members in Italy and here in the US safe and motivated, how she’s worked with vendors with all the cancellations – and how she’s adapted her online travel business course to help people through the crisis. You won’t want to miss this dose of inspiration!

Melinda Wittstock:         Madeline, welcome to Wings.

Madeline Jhawar:            Hi, Melinda. Thanks so much for having me.

Melinda Wittstock:         I was thinking of you when this coronavirus first broke and Italy was one of the first countries to really take the brunt of it, and I recalled you had a business called Italy Beyond the Obvious. How has it been for you?

Madeline Jhawar:            Well, it’s been tough, but I’m not the person suffering the most. I mean, Italian businesses are small businesses, and this is severely impacting the vast majority of Italy’s businesses, including most of… A lot of tourism industry businesses obviously are just closed. But I was watching this for a couple of weeks before people were aware of it in the U.S., because I have been talking to my team in Italy. I have one team member based in Milan and one based in Assisi, and so I was really watching it very closely. The first tip of the iceberg were clients asking about travel insurance, because regular travel insurance wasn’t covering cancel… It wasn’t canceled for any reason unless you specifically bought the cancel for any reason insurance. So those were the first conversations, and then it morphed into, well, now my flight is being canceled or changed, and now we’re obviously into full-fledged shutdown on everywhere.

Melinda Wittstock:         So, are your team members safe and well?

Madeline Jhawar:            They are. They’re both in lockdown, and I talk to them. It’s important to maintain a rhythm and momentum. One of them I had just hired two weeks before this started, so she was in training mode and I said to her, “Obviously our cash flow has stopped and so we need to pause this, and how would you like to proceed?” And she said, “I’m so excited to be a part of this team. I’m really happy for this job. I intend to keep being part of this team when this all gets back up and running, and it will.” And she said, “I don’t want to lose the momentum,” and so she has chosen to keep our weekly calls. And so I do, I keep my weekly calls with the team, and there is still the work of canceling to be done, so that’s what they’re working on too.

Melinda Wittstock:         How have you handled all the canceling of things? I mean, is it now getting resolved where you can easily do that and people can get refunds, or how are you managing that?

Madeline Jhawar:            Yeah, the vendors have been absolutely amazing. I should say first of all, that none of our clients want to cancel outright. Everybody wants to postpone. Everybody is looking at me and saying, “Madeline, when is Italy open for business? When can we go? When should we rebook?” I don’t have the answer to that, and so what I’ve been doing is canceling as needed. Obviously, it’s March right now. All of our April and our May trips are being canceled. Our June departures are still… We did have one June say they want to move ahead to cancel, but the other June departures are saying, “Let’s just wait and see.” Everybody’s very hopeful, and so they really are just looking to rebook.

Madeline Jhawar:            And on the other end of it, vendors that ask for non-refundable deposits are refunding those deposits or they’re giving us credit for future use and they’re being… The more time that passes, the more generous I found those vendors are being and just being super flexible with their roles. For example, we had a trip that was canceled in March and the hotel was prepaid. All of this was new and just starting in March, and Italy hadn’t yet been on lockdown. Actually, this trip was departing March 1st. And so the hotel said, “Well, we’ll give you a credit, but you have to use it by the end of the summer of 2020.” And clearly, now… I was talking to a hotel this morning and they said, “You can use the nonrefundable deposit as a credit anytime through the end of 2022.”

Melinda Wittstock:         Oh, yeah, that’s great. I remember the last time you were on the podcast, we talked a lot about the fact that you were pivoting to and creating this online course, which super smart. Smart to do anytime, but especially now. How are you finding that? Because I guess it’s not top of mind for people right now to figure out how to replicate your amazing business. Are you still able to keep that online course going?

Madeline Jhawar:            Yeah, so we have current students who are working through the course. It’s a nine lesson video course. We go into a private Facebook group to support those students as they’re working through the course. I do a Facebook Live Q&A with them once a week and they always want to know what’s it like on the front lines, like once you’ve got this business up and running, once you’ve caught this consistent stream of clients, once you’ve got the team, how do you manage the team? And so the past few weeks live Q&A has been about how are you handling cancellations? What’s the deal with travel insurance? And so they want to know more of those details, like what’s it like on the front lines to have a travel business in this era.

Madeline Jhawar:            And I keep them on top of the news as well, like there are several big travel insurance providers who have now stopped offering cancel for any reason insurance because probably they would go bankrupt if they had to offer it. So that’s been the kind of support and dialogue I’ve had with those students. I do agree. I personally think this is a fantastic opportunity to take this gift of time that we weren’t expecting to have and use it to invest it in yourself and take the time to learn and to just invest in something so that when we get through this, because we will, you come out stronger on the other end.

Madeline Jhawar:            But I do understand that that’s a tougher sell to somebody who’s just changing industries, and so what I’ve done actually is I’ve just pivoted again, and this was in response to a travel agency. I’m part of a host agency, and so this is a travel agency full of travel agents. I’m not a typical travel agent, but I am affiliated with them. And in these daily newsletters there were updates on the virus and various… One day the update was the borders of Peru have closed, and the next day the update was this cruise line has filed for bankruptcy. And the whole tone of these daily updates was we are here for you. We want to help you, we want to help you get through this, we want to support you. And I thought, you know, there’s a piece of my course that can really help travel agents, and that piece of the course is how to attract clients online by writing content that is SEO-friendly so that customers who are searching for you online find you.

Madeline Jhawar:            And in my experience, travel agents are… If I have to generalize, many of them don’t have websites beyond something that has their name and their phone number and an email address and a few pictures of destinations. They don’t usually have online content, and they have so much to offer. They’ve done a lot of traveling with familiarization trips. They might have a specialty in Disney or in cruises or in family travel or in 10 things you should think about when booking a spot on a group trip. I mean, there’s umpteen articles that I can think of that they could be writing to showcase their experience that would actually be interesting and useful, and customers looking to book travel could find them online. And so that’s what I’m going to teach. So I’m doing a webinar for travel agencies. Then I’ve got my first one booked already and then I’m going to support them in just a four week pop-up course.

Melinda Wittstock:         You acted really swiftly, seizing on expertise that you had that wasn’t necessarily like your main deal, but you had the expertise nonetheless. I think this is an interesting lesson, because if we actually take that time, as you are saying, this time to look within, really take a full inventory of all your life skills, and also calling, your calling, your higher purpose, but also think about all the things that people often ask you but you haven’t actually turned into a course, all those sorts of things. There’s always something there that we can do. It’s so interesting. So I wanted to pick up though on what you were saying about that time, like we have this extra time, and in a way we can choose how we look at that. We can choose to see it as, “Oh my God, it’s delayed my plans,” and we can fight with it or we can accept it and take the good from it. So how else is that manifesting in your life, that extra time?

Madeline Jhawar:            I am using the time to reach out to my existing clients. Usually right now I would be running at breakneck speed planning Italy trips, and I found myself with the time to reach out to people and say, “Hey, how are you doing? Do you want to schedule a call? Do you want to talk about your Italy trip some more and get more excited about those details that you eventually will be booking?” So that’s one piece of it.

Madeline Jhawar:            I’m using that time to reach out to family that I usually don’t get to catch up with at 2:00 PM on a weekday. I’m working on my marketing, I’m creating my own content. I’m populating the template of my email newsletter so that I get a leg up on that. I’m doing live Q&As in my Facebook group more often. And I’m also really, really careful with my own energy. I have a lot of self-care going on right now. I meditate at least once a day. I have a gratitude journal. I do a Zoom. My gym has switched to Zoom workouts, and so I do a Zoom workout in my office with my trainer. I’m just really careful because it’s easy… You know, it’s so easy to get sucked into fear and spiral, and if I notice myself doing that, I just shut it down and go write in my gratitude journal.

Melinda Wittstock:         Gratitude is one of the most powerful tools I think we all have to use, to actually sit with it because there is a lot to be grateful for, I think even in this coronavirus. I look at it and I think, my goodness, it’s shining a light on a lot of the things that aren’t working in our society, aren’t working in people’s lives. There’s so much that’s almost in sharp relief, and if you take it all in and drink it like a fire hose, it can seem overwhelming. On the other hand, if we can quiet our minds a little bit, do the things like gratitude, meditation, all of that, we as entrepreneurs will start to see and are already seeing ways that we can really innovate to rebuild, but rebuild in a better way.

Madeline Jhawar:            100%.

Melinda Wittstock:         You know when you get those nudges that, “I don’t know,” like you shouldn’t really be going down this path, but you ignore it or something happens. I don’t know, there’s all kinds of different signs, and if you ignore them, they get louder and louder and louder. And some people, including me, had to be knocked flat on their ass, right? To be able to wake up and like, “Oh, oh. Oh, I see.” I almost think that’s happening to the whole country, like at the same time it’s like this.

Madeline Jhawar:            Yes, and I have a friend who is deep into astrology and she wrote this whole article about how astrologers predicted this, and it is kind of amazing. The stuff that she writes, I’m like, “Well, so maybe there’s something to that.” And she writes about how this is a huge wake-up call and some people predicted it and they didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. But yeah, it’s very jarring. All of that, it’s discombobulating.

Melinda Wittstock:         Yeah, well, there are a lot of opportunities, and I think of our institutions and things that aren’t trusted now. Say with things like fake news or politicians that aren’t trusted or all these different institutions, healthcare system’s broken, like a whole bunch of these things. You start to think, “Well, okay, so we had all the warning signs for all that kind of stuff, but we didn’t do anything about it, so here we are.”

Melinda Wittstock:         This is where I think there’s such a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs. I’ve always believed that entrepreneurs are really at their best when we’re able to create businesses that also solve a social problem or a challenge, or really just… We wake up every day as entrepreneurs and run towards problems, right? Because we create solutions to a problem that’s out there that either we’ve experienced ourselves, very personal or something that we see. So what an amazing opportunity for innovation right now.

Madeline Jhawar:            Yeah, and it’s also… Along similar lines, my teenage children are doing distance learning at home, and my son was saying to me, “I’m really having trouble with this because nobody makes me go sit in a classroom and tells me I have 15 minutes to do this.” You know, they have no structure. And so I’ve said to them, “I could impose an external structure on you if you want me to,” and they’re like, “No, mom, we don’t want that.”

Madeline Jhawar:            I remember when I started my business 12 years ago, I struggled with this. It was about me pushing forward, only me. And I had the same challenge of making sure that I was productive even when it seemed like nothing was going to happen and even when it seemed like I was not going to make any progress and I had to put together my… Make sure that I got up and got dressed and adhered to a schedule and kept all those healthy habits. And I realize that what my kids are going through right now is something I had to figure out when I started as an entrepreneur. And you look back and see okay, I’ve come a long way, actually. There’s a lot of benefits, lessons learned. But yeah, one of them is for sure innovating and problem-solving.

Melinda Wittstock:         What a great point though about kids, because in a way we’re teaching them not only the resilience but also how to really be self-starters. We’re creating a bunch of mini-entrepreneurs, I think.

Madeline Jhawar:            Yeah. I have a list of healthy habits on my fridge, and I’ve just said to my kids, “Your schoolwork is at the bottom of this list. Higher up on this list is eat three healthy meals a day and go to bed on time and wake up on time and get exercise and fresh air and walk the dog and call your grandmother, and if you have time for schoolwork, great.” Yeah, it’s about motivating and motivating yourself and moving forward.

Melinda Wittstock:         So much easier though with teenagers though, like mine 13 and 16, and so much easier. I think when they were toddlers… I remember I launched one of my first businesses, my daughter was six-months-old.

Madeline Jhawar:            Oh, my gosh.

Melinda Wittstock:         That was crazy even in normal times, right?

Madeline Jhawar:            Yeah.

Melinda Wittstock:         Had this been going on… Because I was just one of these people, I thought, “Oh, how hard can that be?” Right? Okay. But yeah, I had help like a nanny and stuff like that, but all the same, it was hard then. And so I think of all the female entrepreneurs with young kids, how on earth?

Madeline Jhawar:            I know, who are supposed to be homeschooling them, no less. They’re supposed to be making sure that they’re… If they’re in first grade, third grade, they’ve got homeschooling programs. I know, I applaud-

Melinda Wittstock:         I would have failed at that. I would have just absolutely failed. I don’t know, just things like if my kid asked me a chemistry question or something, I’m just lost. Just even the way they teach math is different than they used to teach math.

Madeline Jhawar:            Oh, yeah, the Common Core is they don’t teach the carry the one thing. And so I think children across America are now learning to carry the one. It’s like if mom and dad are in charge to teach you math, guess what? You’re going to learn to carry the darn one.

Melinda Wittstock:         I mean, this is a little bit prediction mode really, but how do you think this is going to play out? This could go on for quite a long time. Do you think that things will get back to normal or will there be a completely new normal? Because all these habits are changing, like the way families are together, the way we organize our work. Virtual working, for instance, all these different things. All these new tools to connect people, even though we’re physically distanced. Do you see things really just a fundamental shift in how we work and how we go about our business?

Madeline Jhawar:            So there’s a few areas that in my mind are going to shift significantly. One of them I think might be business travel. I think people are seeing the effects. Mother Earth right now is so happy. Let’s just say that.

Melinda Wittstock:         Yeah, cleaner air. You can tell that the air is actually cleaner.

Madeline Jhawar:            Yes, there are fish and dolphins in the canals of Venice swimming around. There are animals exploring Italian towns because they’re empty. And you can see, if you’ve seen the satellite images over China, the pollution is essentially gone. Airplanes, of course, cause a lot of that damage. And I think with people adjusting to working from home and working remotely and using tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams or Skype or whatever it is, I think people are just going to say, “That was just fine. I don’t need that business travel.” So my prediction in that sense is that with the kind of climate considerations and the new habits, that business travel might reduce.

Melinda Wittstock:         Yeah, we’re inadvertently solving climate change right now.

Madeline Jhawar:            I hope so.

Melinda Wittstock:         But isn’t that funny? Like despite ourselves, that that may be one of the impacts here. You look back at all these different pandemics through history, and on the entrepreneurial side you had Isaac Newton with calculus or watching the apple fall from the tree, and like oh, yeah, right, gravity. But it fundamentally, each pandemic through history wildly changed the way society was organized and led to all kinds of improvements. And so one of the biggest existential threats of course is climate change. And if these habits really change, that could be good news for us.

Madeline Jhawar:            Wouldn’t that be amazing? That would be such a silver lining. The other interesting thing that I’ve seen, and this is just dialed into the travel industry, is that with all these empty hotels, there’s such a… I don’t want to say pivot… A new creative use for hotel space. Here in San Francisco, for example, the mayor has used hotels for homelessness. So oh my God, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could repurpose hotels and solve the homelessness issue? Incredible, right? And in Seattle, a friend of ours who has a hotel, an empty hotel, is giving it to the hospital, so he’s increasing hospital beds. Now, you still need the doctors and nurses and the ventilators and the equipment and all of that. But there’s just a real creative use. There are these structures that are staying empty and they’re just being repurposed for the greater good. And if this work from home thing continues, there might be office buildings that can be repurposed for the greater good. So that’s another real hopeful trend that seems to be coming, seems to be emerging.

Melinda Wittstock:         Wow. You see? So there are lots of things, and I think this is such an important conversation. I think there are lots of conversations like this blooming, just like with the cherry blossoms here in Washington, where people are connecting and thinking in new ways. And I think that happens when there’s such a massive habit change. Everybody got dislocated. Their world’s turned upside down, so new habits are being created, and deeper connections are being formed in what I call physical distancing. Because we don’t have to be socially distanced. We can be physically distanced while maintaining and deepening our relationships, like with teams and customers, and what a good opportunity to do that.

Madeline Jhawar:            Yeah. And it’s just a great opportunity. I’ve been telling my people in my travel course, people are available now that usually aren’t available. There’s that super busy person, that you can never get on their calendar. Now is a great time to reach out to that person.

Melinda Wittstock:         Gosh, this is so true. Well, Madeline, how can people find you and work with you and take advantage of the new things that you’re doing? So valuable.

Madeline Jhawar:            Thank you. I am at travelbeyondtheobvious.com or italybeyondtheobvious.com, and I think I’m the only Madeline Jhawar on Google, so you can Google my name and pages and pages and pages of me will come up. I’m not hard to find.

Melinda Wittstock:         All right, well, thank you so much. A challenging time, but also great to hear your voice and the optimism in it. I think we all need that. So thank you so much for putting on your wings and flying with us.

Madeline Jhawar:            Thank you so much, Melinda. Great to talk to you again.

Madeline Jhawar
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