Doni Belau’s third career is in the Happiness business. The founder of Girls Guide to Paris believes travel leads to a sense of discovery and better understanding. She calls it her ministry. “I wanted to do something I loved and meeting women from all over the world feeds my soul,” she said in a recent interview.
Belau got the travel bug early in life. A graduation trip across Europe showered her with new experiences and opened her eyes to how different people lived. That trip also began a lifelong love affair with Paris.
After careers in film production and politics, she was ready for a change. A friend suggested she write a book about Paris. She thought it was a great idea. When she asked a publisher, he waved her off, saying that she needed to increase her profile and demonstrate subject matter expertise first. Never one to give up, she launched the Girls Guide to Paris website in 2009. It was full of articles and travel tips showcasing her idea of the perfect Parisian getaway.
People began asking her for help planning their trips. From there, she launched a slate of highly curated, women-only, guided tours of France. Her business grew through word of mouth and targeted marketing. She expanded the company’s offerings to include destinations in Africa, Asia and South America. It has now been seven years since she offered her first tour.
Belau and her team design luxurious travel experiences for small groups of women who want to have a unique travel experience but want someone else to handle all the details. “There’s a huge need for this. I don’t have to backpack anymore, nor could I.” Girls Guide to Paris takes the headaches out of planning a trip. Itineraries are set. Hotels and restaurants are pre-booked. Excursions are planned. “My favorite part of the business is designing and curating the trip.” Her typical client is between the ages of 50 and 75. They are fun-loving, single, divorced or widowed women who want an adventure.
She found that even reluctant travelers, women who have been used to having a plus one, enjoy the experience. “They don’t take anything for granted anymore and they embrace the self-discovery and power that comes from travel.” To make sure each woman is a fit, Belau talks to them all beforehand.
In a normal year, they host between 150-200 guests. Belau’s secret is keeping the groups small and offering out of the ordinary experiences. The company still provides add ons for guests who extend their trips. People can also rent Belau’s Paris apartment or her country house. And her company continues to design custom tours for small groups with special interests.
Like all travel and hospitality providers, Belau characterized 2020 as a “hellish” year. But unlike some, she doubled down during the pandemic. Even though there were times she thought she’d lose the business, she continued to invest because she believed there would be pent-up demand for travel as soon as it was safe to travel again. So, she took advantage of the down time to revamp her website and create new guest experiences. She also instituted a risk-free booking policy for COVID-related events.
“People are contacting us in droves now because they want to travel, and they’ve lost a year. I’m an optimist and I believe when stuff happens all you can do is react to it in the best possible way.” Belau relies on a combination of optimism, perspective, and meditation to center herself. Earlier this year, she and her son participated in a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Guatemala.
In terms of what’s next, Belau is launching a slate of exotic new trips for 2022. They include the Amazon Rainforest, Tahiti and the Galapagos Islands. There are also skill-specific retreats around writing and photography. And she is planning a symposium on women, travel and wellness. When asked if she has a favorite trip, she demurred saying they were all her children. Though, she did admit that she’s an entrepreneur at heart, so “the new things excite me the most.”
Belau joked that her encore career has been an overnight sensation, 50+ years in the making.