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Zoya Misha
September 15, 2020

People in beta #8: Emily McDonnell - The Freelance Boutique Travel Expert Who Started Her Passion Project

After moving from the UK to Berlin, Emily re-connected with her passion for people and their unique stories. As a boutique travel expert, she empowers people to experience the place they live in through her blog and her one-woman travel platform The Staycation Collection.

Emily was working your typical 9-to-5 at Oxford University when she decided to move to Berlin in order to push herself and see how much she could grow professionally. She worked on community growth, wrote stories about different kinds of people in the ecosystem, and supported government innovation on a community level. But at the end of it all, she decided to become a freelancer and move back towards her first passion – travel and experiences.

She started a blog called Weekly Adventure and then her passion project, The Staycation Collection – a platform where members can find curated, boutique accommodation across Germany, and can get individualised recommendations based on their specific requirements. As a boutique travel expert, she personally curates unique, non-chain places to stay, saving members time, providing them with better travel experiences, and creating a more sustainable way to travel.

We sat down with her to ask her more about her background, her business model, and sustainable travel. Here’s what she had to say.

Zoya and Emily sit on a picnic blanket for the People in beta interview
Photo by Gabriella Muller

What is the Staycation Collection about? What makes it a travel “club”?

Emily: "Given the current global shift, people really want to support local businesses again, as we understand how important these independently run places are, especially in the travel sector. 

After doing a lot of market research and talking to owners, I found that travel platforms like booking.com and Airbnb take high commissions from the property owners. While other listing websites take fees from hotels in a subscription form. For people who run boutique places, these margins are huge.

Of course, people want to get the best rate for their holiday, but I would rather know that 100% of my money went to the owners instead of a big platform. 

With this in mind, the membership model - aka the travel club - made so much more sense. Instead of having the owners pay, it would be on the consumer to pay for the personally curated listings and me as their personal travel agent! In this way, I, as a curator and travel expert, can afford to keep doing what I’m doing! 

Then through storytelling, I make the users feel like they are a part of something and they are connected to a community. This is what adds value to this kind of service. There’s a niche for everything and my niche is for people who love reading long-form content about travel to get inspired. 

When you sign up as a member of The Staycation Collection, you instantly join the club.  As a result, I will be at your disposal anytime you want to go on a staycation holiday, and you have access to the curated content (including booking and contact details of properties) on the website. I think it’s much easier to choose your perfect holiday spot from 5 properties recommended especially for you, than to scroll through thousands of options.

It’s all about personal touches, connection and authenticity for me. This isn’t a filtered and perfected influencer lifestyle blog where the aim is to gather millions of followers.

I want to keep the human connection with my members, and ensure that the things I share are genuinely recommended by me.

This is why it’s a “travel club” rather than a platform."

Emily in a field in Bölzke in Northern Brandenburg
Emily in Bölzke (northern Brandenburg)

Which of your skills have been most valuable as you've built the Staycation Collection?

"I write a lot of community-focused content, and this comes from my natural interest in people. I’ve always found it incredible how everyone is made up of a collection of stories that makes them unique. With The Staycation Collection, I wanted to focus on the stories of the owners of these special places-to-stay, and share their stories and insider tips. 

Whenever I travel, the first thing I ask the owners is what kind of recommendations they have for me in the neighbourhood. I wanted to make this kind of information accessible much earlier, so people can deeply look into the area before they book. You might consider going to a farm in the middle of nowhere, that you would never think to go to as a tourist, because you’ve read the story about how the owners built it themselves in an area they love, where there are lots of walks, lakes and local farm produce.

The writing experience obviously comes in handy when building these kinds of stories. My communications strategy background means I can think longer-term about keeping members engaged while providing value."

Emily of Staycation Collection sits in garden of betahaus | Neukölln
Photo by Gabriela Muller

Can you tell us more about your business model? How do you scout these boutique locations and how do the partnerships work?

"It’s a lot of manual research, which takes a lot of time.

The idea behind the membership model is that I put my time and energy into finding Germany’s most stylish and affordable hideouts, so you don’t have to.

I’ve had to figure out the buzzwords for the industry, so I know what to search for, plus I  follow bloggers who also visit interesting places. It’s a lot of Googling, which I luckily had a lot of time for during the lockdown (though I did have a time pressure as I knew once lockdown was lifted, domestic travel was going to boom!).

Regarding establishing partnerships with properties, I honestly only add places I love. I reach out to them to ask for specific information (such as their stories and favourite places to eat). I effectively write an article about each property, and due to the nature of this content,  I don’t require contractual obligations from apartments or hotels. 

I have two sorts of listings on the website. One is “preview properties”; these have less information (I’m a one-woman show!), but these will - at some point in the near future - become 'reviewed places'. When places are reviewed, it means I’ve spoken to the owners, I have a relationship with them, and I’ve been able to get their real insider tips. The goal in the future is to have everything fully reviewed! 


With some places I have an agreement that they give exclusive discounts to Staycation Collection members, others give members a free gift upon arrival. 

It can be hard to establish these deals, however, as certain hotels and holiday apartments want more of an influencer type of approach (they know the content will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people). I don’t have any interest to become an influencer at the moment, because I want the spotlight to be on the owners and not me. It’s about their stories, they’re the ones who make your trip special - I just curate the experiences!"

Emily writing at a desk in Leipzig Spinnerei, one of the featured properties on Staycation Collection website
Emily in The Wool Factory (Leipzig)

What are you doing to grow Staycation Collection and what is working best for you?

"At the moment, the thing I am most comfortable with is doing interviews and writing articles. Twice a month I write a travel column for the exberliner, primarily I write about experiences and try to empower people to get out and explore more. There’s always a nod to The Staycation Collection, so I suppose you can call this content marketing.

I’m also partnering up with coworking spaces, like betahaus, where I offer membership discounts to members. People in the coworking community and startup sector are my target audience because they are happy to pay for a service that gives them something curated and saves them a lot of time."

Emily of the Staycation Collection lauging in the garden of betahaus | Neukölln
Photo by Gabriela Muller

Did you start this before COVID happened? How did it impact your business?

"I’ve been thinking about better ways to travel for a long time. We can’t keep jumping on a plane and flying south whenever we want a break. So this all started with me trying to figure out how I can encourage people to travel more sustainably, without asking them to compromise on experience or quality. Plus I wanted to show people how great it can be to take holidays in your own country. 

When Corona hit, I realised I should probably stop thinking about this idea and start getting something done!

There was an uncertain time around travel restrictions in the beginning, but once everything opened, domestic travel skyrocketed.

Emily reading in a windowsill at one of the Staycation Collection properties

Will you expand this concept to outside of Germany as well? What does the future look like for The Staycation Collection?

"I want to establish the concept in Germany, to an extent I feel very confident and comfortable with, and then I would love to think about expanding it. The question will be if I will hand Germany over to someone else and explore a new country personally, or if I will have country managers for new markets or if I should franchise. However, the most important thing for me is that I stay connected with the members, and ensure they are always getting value from the club."

Photo by Gabriela Müller

Thank you Emily for sitting down with me in our sunny betahaus | Neukölln Garten! If you want to follow Emily you can find her on Instagram or read about her experiences on her blog Weekly Adventure. Want to travel better and discover local? Become a part of The Staycation Collection!

''People in beta’’ is a series of interviews started by Vihra Shopova about teams and members to understand who they are, what they’re most passionate about, and what brought them to coworking. Read more here and become a part of the coworking tribe.