… Cultural understanding engenders empathy and change. We help clients understand the audiences they are looking to connect with on the audience’s terms. That’s profound in a world where insight and dialogue are so crucial to progress.
As part of my series about “developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Unger.
Sarah Unger is the co-founder of CULTIQUE, the cultural insights and strategy venture of CIVIC (a Seacrest Global Group Company). The premium advisory develops bespoke cultural analyses for forward-looking businesses.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
From a young age, I tenaciously asked questions and demanded clarity until I understood the “why” behind everything and anything. I wanted to get beneath the surface and understand how different forces in the world — often conflicting — are actually connected.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I started out in a cubicle in New York City — with incredible career opportunities that I’m tremendously grateful for — but mainly being indoors under the glare of artificial lighting in midtown Manhattan. Along this journey I realized through travel and soul searching that my environment has a huge impact on my wellbeing. I moved to California, adopting a remote working lifestyle. It has been eye-opening to see the ripple effects of this lifestyle shift: I have way more natural light, and also doing my most ambitious work yet. They’re definitely related.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I had a lot of high school jobs throughout which I made countless mistakes, but one that comes to mind when I started my corporate career was having to buy a backup set of clothing for a shoot with Apolo Ohno, the incredible speed skater. I knew nothing about men’s clothing and remember being overwhelmed as I wanted to do this perfectly. I called all the men in my life for advice as I was running around the Garment District for hours before ultimately buying an outfit that wasn’t even needed. This showed me that despite the parameters of the job description, a job can entail many unexpected surprises.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?
Take time off in destinations without cell service. It has done wonders for me. We’re also in a four-day workweek pilot this year, which in research to date has had wonderful implications for burnout prevention.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
To be honest I’ve had many mentors and each of them is special in a really unique and significant way. My dad has also been my sounding board and sage advisor since day one. But of course, my co-founder, Linda Ong of CULTIQUE — we’ve taken this leap of faith together, betting on ourselves and our unique discipline — and our brains have fantastic alchemy when combined.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
My business partner, Linda Ong, and I think of our clients as building rocket ships. Our job is to study the cultural atmosphere, helping them calibrate in order to meet their business goals in a very chaotic world. Bespoke cultural insights are now mission-critical for future-proofing businesses. Our specialized discipline sits at the intersection of cultural anthropology, branding, and business strategy. We work cross-sector, with special expertise in areas like media/entertainment, tech, and travel. I have always enjoyed being at the intersection of things: why pick one field when you can weave together learnings from all of them? The insights are far more powerful with a systems-thinking approach. This is especially potent in travel, which in its emergent form crosses so many industries, like wellbeing, sustainability and regeneration, experiences, and broader lifestyle.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?
We’re trying to help the travel industry work with, versus against culture, as well as stay clued in to shifts on the horizon. Ultimately, this benefits the traveler as well. It’s not easy to do, in a world in which external circumstances and emotional reactions shift fast, but it’s essential. It’s also ultimately a big cost-saving mechanism for all involved, as our clients are focusing efforts on areas with the biggest cultural potential. Currently, most organizations don’t have analysts dedicated to this style of consulting and research, but beyond that, it works well to have third-party outside eyes and ears to ensure the integrity and comprehensiveness of the findings. Top cultural analysts tend to be neophiles craving constant stimulation, and the diversity of geography lends itself naturally to expansive perspectives. Our company is able to be distributed and remote to accommodate this.
How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
We’re very bullish on cultural insights and strategy being a C-suite discipline. Understanding the shifts in external culture should impact everything at a company, starting with major strategic decisions. It’s incredibly effective at that level, which is why we have a lot of recent demand on the consulting side of our business.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
I’ll give three, so they are more likely to stick with readers. We see domestic travel still being exciting to travelers: the pandemic’s restrictions helped many realize the incredible opportunities for life-changing travel within their own country. Companies also are incorporating flexibility into their long-term structures, having just experienced that life can change very fast, with unforeseen circumstances. Business travel clients we work with are recognizing the incredible import of travel and offsite retreats to be the connective tissue of company culture in a distributed workforce.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
One where I both challenge myself physically but relax my mind. And it’s something new to me, being a neophile. I like adventure trips that are off the beaten path, like ice camping on Lake Baikal in Siberia or climbing to Everest Base Camp. One of my favorite all-time trips was horseback riding in Mongolia. I also do a lot of weekend and long-weekend travel, to make the most of my time not working. CULTIQUE is part of a four-day week pilot, which will give my mind and body more time for cultural exploration.
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
I have had more sports-related injuries as I’ve gotten older (currently am recovering from a torn ACL, MCL, LCL, and meniscus from skiing!) so I’m mindful to be appreciative of my body and respectful of the rest and nutrition it needs.
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Cultural understanding engenders empathy and change. We help clients understand the audiences they are looking to connect with on the audience’s terms. That’s profound in a world where insight and dialogue are so crucial to progress.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love for more businesses to implement the ancient Latin philosophy of Memento Mori — translated as “remember you will die”. The philosophy of Memento Mori is a profound practice to embrace when facing life’s challenges and embracing the world’s wonders. I believe that by accepting the inevitability of mortality, we’re able to refocus ourselves and contemplate our humanity in a whole new light — a carpe diem mantra that has applicability to travel (approaching journeys with awe and wonder), lifestyle (the rapidly ascendant Memento Mori art and home interiors movement), mental health and wellbeing (the ephemeral transient nature of anxiety, trauma, and any single choice).
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!