Carolyn Ray and Erica Ehm with the famous red boots

New JourneyWoman CEO Carolyn Ray (left) and Erica Ehm, daughter of JourneyWoman founder Evelyn Hannon, with Evelyn’s iconic red boots and the original newsletter. (CNW Group/Journeywoman)

Have you ever felt reluctant to take on a role because the previous person left pretty big shoes to fill? That’s how Carolyn Ray felt about taking on the legacy of the late Evelyn Hannon and her JourneyWoman “empire.” Trusting her gut feeling, she did it anyway.

Carolyn shared her journey with IABC/Toronto’s Professional Independent Communicators. Here’s how I wrote up the talk for PIC’s newsletter, The Buzz:

Evelyn Hannon’s iconic red boots seemed like big footwear to fill. Yet when Carolyn Ray considered following the footsteps of the late founder of travel website JourneyWoman, she discovered they shared the same shoe size.

She also realized that the photo on Evelyn’s Facebook page (see below) mirrored Carolyn’s own: each standing, arms flung out, in front of the “end of the world” sign in Argentina.

After Evelyn passed away of cancer in April 2019, her daughters Erica and Leslie Ehm asked Carolyn to take on the role of publisher and editor-in-chief of JourneyWoman. As a family friend, passionate traveller, and branding and marketing expert, Carolyn was a perfect fit.

But was she ready for this journey?

Lesson 1: Trust your intuition

Carolyn said yes. As she told members of IABC/Toronto’s Professional Independent Communicators in March, “Thanks to that photo, I’ve learned a lot about trusting my intuition.”

Carolyn soon realized that JourneyWoman was much more than a travel website rated among the top 15 in the world. “It’s a unique community of like-minded, incredible women who truly care about each other,” she said.

Considering how to strengthen and refresh the JourneyWoman brand without alienating this established community led to a journey that took all of Carolyn’s communications expertise.

Lesson 2: Take the first step and embrace the unknown

Evelyn Hannon at the "end of the world" sign.

Evelyn Hannon celebrates at the “end of the world” sign in Argentina. (JourneyWoman.)

Taking inspiration from Evelyn, Carolyn trusted things would work out.

First, she spent time with Evelyn’s daughters and closest friends. She surveyed the JourneyWoman community to learn what people valued about the website (great information!) and didn’t like (hard to search). She answered more than 700 messages responding to the announcement about her new role.

She hired some “amazing people” to help with the redesign and to review the existing 4,000 pages and 25 years of articles. The team revamped the original all-text newsletter, which went to 55,000 women around the world, and updated the women’s travel directory.

Lesson 3: JourneyWoman is about mindset

The website’s facelift led to an expanded focus on “authentic travel.” For the JourneyWoman community, travel is about self-discovery, generosity and courage.

An audit led to new insights into the adventurous women who use JourneyWoman. This influenced Carolyn’s choice of language and imagery for the site and prompted her to divide the audience into segments – solo travellers, “older adventuress” and active adventurers.

To differentiate JourneyWoman from other travel websites, Carolyn focuses on publishing content that shows the human side of travel. She organizes it under universal themes of renewal; growth; curiosity; love; inspiration; and memories & rituals.

When the pandemic hit, Carolyn asked readers, “What do you need?” One clear answer was inspiration and learning. So she “went crazy with webinars, virtual meetings and community calls, running three to four a week.” This has settled to three to four virtual events a month and weekly community calls.

Lesson 4: Trust your circle

Carolyn Ray at the 'end of the world' sign

Carolyn Ray celebrates being at the “end of the world,” unknowingly mirroring Evelyn Hannon’s pose – with a bonus dog. (JourneyWoman.)

“Very little of this was planned,” Carolyn confessed. “I trusted those around me, and so much happened by asking what people needed and experimenting with new ideas.”

That resulted in a weekly community call, a book club and a women’s advisory council. Based on survey results, Carolyn developed new travel topics for older women, including mobility, safety and hygiene.

She also set an action plan to support the Black community, which included expanding editorial to include Black voices, making sure imagery on the website reflected diverse ethnicities and welcoming two women of colour as advisors.

As a result of Carolyn’s experimenting, learning and adapting, the site now has:

  • #TravelReady in 2021 content to keep women inspired and prepared to travel safely when we can.
  • Content around animal welfare, to support making better travel choices that allow travellers to observe wildlife, not swim with them.
  • Advice from wellness experts to help women stay active, sleep well and prevent injuries.
  • Tips and tools from experts on financial planning and budgeting.

Carolyn has also included ways for the community to give back. She asks event participants to support local non-profit organizations, such as Women’s College Hospital, Food Banks of Canada and Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter. JourneyWoman supporters raised more than $2,000 in 2020.

Lesson 5: JourneyWoman is more than a travel website

Carolyn’s team has been working hard to make the Destination page and its 28 years of content more useful. They’re also creating a series of women’s guides by country, which include tips, safety information, women-friendly tours and more.

Now that the website is better organized, Carolyn is working on building the JourneyWoman brand, with branded merchandise, new ebooks, conferences, and partnerships with organizations like Treesisters. She is also a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and sits on the board of The Society of Travel Writers.

Lesson 6: Gratitude

Carolyn is grateful the community has stayed with her. She’s pleased with the website, and is now figuring out non-traditional ways to bring in revenue without banner advertising. She’s constantly thinking up new ideas.

“There’s so much we can do, I have to get better at saying ‘What don’t we do?’” she said. “If I’m ever confused, I ask Erica, ‘What would your mom do?’ When she tells me, ‘My mother would have loved this,’ I know I’m doing a great job.”

This article first appeared in the April 2021 issue of The Buzz, the newsletter for IABC/Toronto’s Professional Independent Communicators. Photos used with the permission of Carolyn Ray.