Q &A: Meet, Plan, Go’s Sherry Ott

Sherry Ott wants Americans to take a break from their jobs to travel. She wants people to do this so badly she has co-founded an organization to make it happen.

Here is a bit of her story.

What do you think are the hurdles associated with either quitting your job or taking a sabbatical from your job to travel?

The first one without a doubt is finances. People always think it [traveling] costs a lot of money. The second one would be, ‘How is this going to hurt my job?’ People are really hesitant about leaving their jobs, especially now with the economy. Taking a career break is very foreign to us [Americans]. The other two things that come into play are ‘it is not the right time’ and fear. Fear of traveling itself. Fear of traveling outside of our borders.

Have you seen any instances where taking a break hurts a person’s career when they return?

Never. I can only go on the only people we talk to and follow, and we follow quite a few. I have never once had anyone tell me they regretted it or that it hurt their career. For some people maybe it takes longer to find a job or they still do not quite know what they want to do when they come back, but I have never heard anyone who had regrets.

Is the concern that people are not going to appear dedicated to their career if they leave or that they are going to lose momentum?

Both of those things. There are concerns about a gap on their resumes. This is very acceptable in other countries. We are very much a work culture.

How does someone go about approaching their boss about a sabbatical?

First, get educated on what is offered from your company. Sometimes, especially with big companies, they have policies which allow you to take time off or to take a sabbatical. You can also talk to a HR representative if you are comfortable with that.

After you review your company’s policies, it is then all about doing your homework. You cannot go into your boss and say, “I am going to go travel for six months and when I come back I want my job.” It is all about how you frame the conversation. You have to talk about it in terms of not what is in it for you, but what is in it for the business. That is the key thing. You need to be very, very professional about it.

It seems like that would be kind of a hard sell.

Maybe not. It depends. If you go in and ask your boss for six months leave and they say no, you are probably going to do it anyways, because you have already made that mental leap.

What they have to think about from a business perspective is, if you are a good employee they have to face losing you and all of the training and time they spent on you. Then, they have to spend X amount of dollars to find someone to fill your shoes and get them trained. That whole process can take six months or longer.

Also, in an economic downturn it might very well be an interesting proposition to have you off the payroll for six months, but at the same time not have to worry about hiring someone else. It might be a win-win for everyone.

What is the average amount of time people take in a career break?

Normally between 6 – 12 months for a career break. For a sabbatical usually 3 – 6 months.

Are there typical travel paths people take?

Southeast Asia and South America are the big ones. I do not find people extensively traveling throughout Europe because it is a lot more expensive. A lot of time people will choose activities that they really want to accomplish. I started off my career break because I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro. We had a whole family organize a career break around trail running. We are also finding that people want to travel slower. Instead of ticking things off the bucket list maybe people will go and stay in an apartment in Spain or Chang Mai and integrate into the culture. If you just go to one or two places you can find work.

How easy is it to be a foreigner and find a job in another country?

It is much harder in westernized countries as there are a lot of rules and regulations. In Southeast Asia it is not too hard. However, you do have to hustle yourself.

I was living in Saigon for a year teaching English. I integrated myself into the expat community. I went to the American Consulate happy hours. The networking in the expat community is fast and furious. Everyone is excited you are there. I had a lot of different job offers. Some were odds and ends type jobs, something as simple as house sitting for three months, or something as big as a Director of Marketing job. The lesser developed countries are easier to find jobs.

Is there a profile of the person you typically work with?

Most of the people who come to our events and our website are women. I don’t think women necessarily do this more than men, but I think women look for community atmospheres to learn and plan. The average age last year at our events was 36 years old. Different cities had different demographics of course. It is about 10% families, 50% solo travelers and the rest couples.

What is your biggest success story?

We have a number of people who attended last year’s event that are now traveling. Some have already gone and returned. It is really exciting knowing we are inspiring people. Last year at the beginning of the event, we took a survey and 23% were in a trip planning stage. At the end of the event we took another survey and that number rose to 41%. We are changing people’s minds to get out there and do it. We have two of the people who attended last year’s event, Skype-ing into the event live.

What can people expect from the Meet Plan Go National Event on October 18th?

There are people out there that have that little spark in them to do extended travel, to take a break, to travel around the world and those are the people we want to talk to. We want to turn that spark into a fire.

They are going to meet people just like them, normal everyday people who have taken career breaks. Hopefully they will see that you don’t have to be rich to do this. It is normal people who do this. They will see that these people [who took career breaks] now have jobs and that they are typically in a better [career] position than before they left. They are also going to meet people in the planning stages or people a week or a month away from taking off.

What are the topics you will be covering at your the National Event?

A lot of the topics that will be addressed will be the hurdles people need to overcome – the financial hurdles, the career hurdles. The Career Break Veterans as we call them, the people who have taken a career break, will be talking about how they overcame these hurdles. That is what the presentations will be focused on. There will also be a number of resources we share. We will introduce them to travel industry people, such as Intrepid Travel.

The single most important thing they will get is they will meet other people in their community that have that same spark, the same dream or who have done it. When you have a big goal like this, that may go against the norm, it is good to surround yourself with other people who also want to do it. Very often when people want to do this, they have problems because their family and friends do not understand it.

I think one of the the biggest barrier to getting people to these events is actually getting them to overcome the fear of walking into them. I think people have a lot of hesitation about actually walking into a room of people they don’t know and not knowing how to network. There is just kind of an awkward “Where do I look? Where do I do? Do I introduce myself?”

Travelers are great. It is a really open environment. The host will be there, the people that will be speaking will also be there. We have ambassadors who are eager and really excited to talk to people, to engage them and learn about them.

How is the structure of the event going to work?

Each event [in the 17 different cities] is a little different because of size, location, resources, etc. In the beginning there will be networking and then there will be a presentation portion, at the San Francisco National Event we are doing a moderated panel and then a Q & A session and then about 45 minutes at the end of networking. Some locations will have individual presentations instead of a moderated panel.

How do people figure out budget?

It is very personal. The thing to figure out is where you want to go and how fast you want to travel. These things have a big impact on budget. I started to plan out where I was going and timing and then I used different websites to figure out costs and different locations. Some people save for a year or two. Some people have money saved and instead of buying a new car, a new house or remodeling the kitchen they decide to take that money to go travel. Some want to travel and realize they do not have enough money to do everything they want and decide they will work on the road.

How do people figure out where they want to go?

We recommend you do not plan out every step. Plan the first two or three months and then after being on the road for that amount of time, take a step back and listen to yourself about what you learned. My guess is that you are probably going to change your initial plans. Once you are on the road, away from the day to day stuff, you learn more about where you want to be and how fast you want to travel. That is really hard to do when you are planning from home and still in more of a captive lifestyle.

With that said, do you recommend people do not buy around the world tickets?

I have never bought one, but I really like to have open ended travel and flexibility. Many of them are very good deals. I would just say make sure you know all the details and all the restrictions and try to keep it as flexible as possible. Understand what it costs and what it means to make changes to those tickets. Try to pick big anchor points, big cities, which allow you to travel around those points. It was easier for me to go to somewhere like Singapore or Malaysia as there are all kinds of budget airlines [to other locations] there that I had never even heard of in the US.

Where is the cheapest place in the world right now?

I would probably say there is nothing cheaper than Southeast Asia. I would also say India, but you can go through India in a five star way or on a very budget way. The budget way through India is very cheap. I was just in Mongolia and that is very cheap if you are willing to camp and such. I would also say parts of South America.

What is the most expensive place to travel?

Europe. Antarctica. The United States.

Since a large majority of your audience is women, do you have any thoughts on the safer parts of the world for women to travel?

Only based on my own experience traveling as a solo female, I personally think Southeast Asia or Asia, in general, are very safe places to travel. There will always be petty crime. I lived in Saigon for a year and traveled extensively throughout Asia. I always felt safe. You have to be careful with pickpockets and things like that. It is all common sense and a little luck.

The other place which really surprised me was the Middle East. Jordan in particular was extremely safe for women. The strange part was when I was in Egypt I had the opposite. Not that I was scared, I just got more hassled. Kazakhstan and central Asia I felt good in.

Where is the least touristy place in the world?

Kazakhstan. I actually drove through it when I drove from London to Mongolia with three other travel bloggers during the Mongol Rally. We would pull up to a stop light and people would roll down the window and ask us, ‘Are you a tourist? Why are you here?’ They are not used to seeing tourists.

Do you find the culture shock to be bigger for most people when they leave the US or when they return?

I would say when they come back. I have been doing this for five years and every time I come back I find it gets harder and harder for me. Your world has changed. When you are traveling you are not watching TV as much and you are not getting bombarded by consumerism. You wonder how to hold onto all of the great things you gained while traveling and how to not just get back into the regular day to day. It is always a challenge.

How do you hold onto that?

Surround yourself by people who value travel and have stories to share. We hold Meet Plan Go events once a year, but we also have local Meet Ups that meet all the time.

When you come back most people are going to have no idea how to grasp what you have been through. What generally happens is they ignore it. They ask you what was your favorite country and what was the grossest thing you ate and that is about the extent of it. The problem is you have all of these great stories to share and no one is asking you about them. If you find other travelers, you have an outlet to share them and you do not need to bore your friends and family to death.

What are the main things people need to know about traveling around the world before they leave?

One of the main things is that you are never alone and it is never as scary, unsafe or as hard as you think it will be. You are no worse off going to Vietnam than you are commuting to work every day. The world is not as scary we think it is. It is also really, really important, and sometimes it is hard to understand when you are planning it, but travel slowly. Do not treat your trip as you do your everyday life here.

What are the ways people can get involved with Meet Plan Go?

We have the National Event on October 18th. We have the Meet Plan Go website where we have three stories a week of people traveling on their career break. Our website also has all kinds of resources to help people plan. We have a newsletter. If you want to be involved in a much more dedicated we also have a Career Break Boot Camp class. It is for people who want more community and more hand holding. We have an online community which takes people through all of the stages of taking a Career Break including coming back. We also have a Facebook page which features information on taking career breaks.

I think people have a lot of fears of being robbed, raped, lost or feeling lonely. What are the realities of the problems people encounter while traveling?

I have never experienced any of that, although I do get lost all the time. The reality is, it is never as bad as you think it is. Take Jordan or Lebanon. Watching the news makes people freak out about that part of the world. Yeah, those are things that are happening, but it is such a small part of what is going on.

When you get there you realize people are just like you. Yes, they have different religions and different cultures, but the average person just wants to enjoy their life and their families like we do. What you see on TV is such a small, and normally such an extreme, reality. You quickly realize that we are all really kind of the same and we are all just kind of looking for the same stuff, but that is hard to understand when you haven’t left yet.



For expats looking for jobs in other countries, please see the following: for professional work, for more manual type jobs or lawyers without borders.

Find good travel budgeting resources.

To see Meet Plan Go’s initiative to get New Yorkers to take a career break, please see: http://b2b.meetplango.com/2011/09/photo-friday-sick-of-your-job/

Read the account of one couples ongoing (perhaps never ending) trip around the world or another’s 4.5 month trip traveling Sub-Saharan Africa (in a tent).

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