Vision for a Greener Path in Travel with Charles Odoms of Painted Circle

Vision for a Greener Path in Travel with Charles Odom of Painted Circle

Episode Overview

Episode Overview:

Episode Topic:

In this episode of Travel-Preneur, dives into the transformative world of ethical and inclusive travel with Charles Odom, the visionary CEO of Painted Circle. Painted Circle is a platform dedicated to redefining sustainable tourism, ensuring that travel experiences are both impactful and responsible. Charles shares his journey in the travel industry, highlighting how his diverse experiences have shaped his mission to create a positive impact through ethical travel. The episode uncovers the innovative ways in which Painted Circle is making waves in the industry, from promoting inclusivity to fostering a deeper understanding of cultural and historical contexts.

Lessons You’ll Learn

Listeners will gain valuable insights into the importance of passion and purpose in the travel industry. Charles Odom emphasizes the significance of creating travel experiences that are not only enjoyable but also educational and culturally enriching. The episode sheds light on how to balance fun and learning, particularly when dealing with complex historical contexts. Additionally, Charles discusses the challenges and opportunities of catering to a diverse global audience, providing practical tips on how to make travel experiences inclusive and engaging for people from various backgrounds. This episode is a treasure trove of knowledge for anyone interested in sustainable tourism and ethical travel practices.

About Our Guest

Charles Odom is the CEO of Painted Circle, a pioneering platform in ethical and inclusive travel. With a rich background in the travel industry, Charles has worn many hats—from being a bike tour guide to designing innovative travel products and managing business development. His extensive experience includes working in Germany, where he led historically based bike tours that combined fun with deep cultural insights. Charles is passionate about making travel a force for good, ensuring that every journey contributes positively to the local communities and the travelers’ understanding of the world. His leadership at Painted Circle reflects his commitment to sustainable tourism and the creation of meaningful travel experiences.

Topics Covered

The episode covers a range of compelling topics, including Charles Odom’s career journey and his transition from running a successful bike tour company to leading Painted Circle. Listeners will hear about the unique challenges and rewards of designing travel experiences that are both enjoyable and educational. Charles discusses the importance of understanding and respecting diverse historical and cultural contexts, especially in destinations like Germany with complex histories. The conversation also touches on how Painted Circle is fostering inclusivity in travel, ensuring that people from all walks of life can participate in and benefit from transformative travel experiences. This episode offers a comprehensive look at the future of sustainable and ethical tourism.

Our Guest: Charles Odom, CEO and Visionary Leader of Painted Circle

Charles Odom is the CEO of Painted Circle, a groundbreaking platform that champions ethical and inclusive travel. With a rich and varied background in the travel industry, Charles brings a wealth of experience and passion to his role. His journey began as a bike tour guide in Germany, where he led historically based tours that offered travelers a unique blend of fun and deep cultural insight. These early experiences ignited his passion for travel and storytelling, laying the foundation for his future endeavors. Over the years, Charles has worn many hats, from designing innovative travel products to managing business development, each role contributing to his holistic understanding of the travel sector.

Charles’s leadership at Painted Circle is marked by his unwavering commitment to sustainable tourism. He believes that travel should be a force for good, creating positive impacts on both travelers and the communities they visit. Under his guidance, Painted Circle has emerged as a leader in promoting travel experiences that are not only enjoyable but also educational and culturally enriching. Charles emphasizes the importance of inclusivity, ensuring that Painted Circle’s offerings cater to a diverse global audience. His vision is to create travel experiences that foster a deeper understanding and respect for different cultures and historical contexts, particularly in destinations with complex histories like Germany.

Beyond his professional achievements, Charles is a passionate advocate for ethical travel practices. He understands the power of travel to transform perspectives and bridge cultural divides. This belief drives his work at Painted Circle, where he strives to create meaningful and responsible travel experiences. Charles’s approach is characterized by a deep respect for local communities and a commitment to preserving cultural heritage. He actively collaborates with local partners to design tours that are respectful, engaging, and impactful. Through his work, Charles Odom is redefining what it means to travel responsibly, inspiring a new generation of travelers to explore the world with purpose and mindfulness.

Vision for a Greener Path in Travel with Charles Odems of Painted Circle
Vision for a Greener Path in Travel with Charles Odems of Painted Circle

Episode Transcript

Megha McSwain: Welcome to another episode of TravelPreneur, where we delve into the heart of transformative travel experiences. I’m your host, Mehga McSwain. Today we have the pleasure of welcoming Charles Odom, the visionary CEO of Painted Circle, a platform that’s redefining ethical inclusive travel. Charles brings a wealth of experience from across the globe with a mission to impact the travel industry positively. Let’s explore how Painted Circle creates waves in sustainable tourism, how Charles’s journey has shaped this revolutionary platform. Welcome to the show, Charles. Thanks for joining us.

Charles Odom:  thank you so much for having me.

Megha McSwain: Charles, your path in the travel industry has been diverse, from earning accolades for a bike tour company to now leading Painted Circle. What inspired this transition? How have your experiences influenced your vision for Painted Circle?

Charles Odom:  yeah. What a great place to start.  yeah. So, one of my best jobs ever was working for a bike tour company.  I was able to have multiple roles.  from being a tour guide all the way up to designing different products that we were selling. Things like different tours, doing some of our hiring training, but also doing business development, partner relations, seeing how we could really create a successful business out of this, this activity that all of us really enjoyed. I think what I take away from that job the most is that our company was really successful because the people that were working there were really, really passionate about what we were doing. You know, our tours were centered around having fun, but also history, culture. I mean, really helping to uncover these hidden gems, most of my time was spent working in Germany.  so, a lot of our tours were historically based.. You know, Germany is a place that has a fascinating history. It’s got this really diverse cultural history as well.   Some of that history is tough.  It was always this challenge to create a fun vacation activity when some of the subject matter is pretty heavy.

Charles Odom:  So that was a daily challenge, you know, other challenges, guests come from around the world, everyone has a different knowledge level about what’s happened in Germany. How has that impacted the rest of the world?  so we really saw that as an educational opportunity that we could weave in along with, you know, having fun, you know, being out exploring these cities, by bike.  What I take away is just, you know, that that venture was successful because we had the right people. The people were really passionate about sharing that experience.  so as I’ve gotten into building painted Circle, you know what grounds this whole idea is that we need to build a platform that supports other passionate people all around the world who are creating these, you know, really unique experiences that are based on sharing insights, sharing something new,  helping travelers really uncover something,  that they didn’t already know  have these lifelong memories that they can create. It always comes down to the right people.  we’re building something that can support more people to create those  travel experiences.

Megha McSwain: cool.

Megha McSwain: With a background in international development, how do you integrate sustainable practices into the business model of Painted Circle, ensuring that travel supports local communities?

Charles Odom: Yeah. So most of my time working in tourism has been in Germany.  but I do have a degree in international development, from a university in Washington, D.C.., you know, I think when most people think about international development, it’s kind of far removed from our everyday lives. You know, like even in your news feed, you kind of have to search for something that’s related to international development, or you have to look for specialized publications, things like that.  I think for most of us, this idea of international development is something that doesn’t really touch our day to day lives. It’s somewhere else. It’s, you know, possibly a political thing.   it’s happening somewhere else in the world rather than where we live. But the interesting thing is that, you know, there’s lots of different ways to collect data information, but most ways that we slice it, travel tourism is one of the biggest industries in the world. So even though we might feel that all of us are separated from international development, the reality is that as soon as we start traveling, we are part of that process. Each one of us is taking part in international development every time that we travel.  so that’s really influenced this idea of, you know, a lot of us really do want to have a positive impact. You know, once we realize that our travels do impact the places where we go, we would like for those impacts to be positive.  So with Painted Circle, we started looking at how we make that journey, something where each one of us can easily have a positive impact without really having to do all this research to figure out, you know, what’s going on in this community and this location. What we’re doing is taking a step back realizing some simple things that we can change, kind of behind the scenes that will make it a lot easier for travelers to actually, you know, benefit the places where they’re going.

Megha McSwain:  Can you share a story where Painted Circle directly contributed to a community’s well-being or environmental sustainability? Just an example if you have one off the top of your head.

Charles Odom: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of different things that are happening in different locations.  so, for anyone who’s on the Painted Circle website, you can look at all of the travel providers that are on there.  Many of them actually have very specific environmental strategies or even social impact strategies that they are working on.  so, on our website, you can actually learn about what they’re doing. Some of those are, for example, places in India that do adventure tourism. It’s a place where when we compare the economy in India to the regular income of people compared to the income of most visitors, there’s a big discrepancy.  some of the companies that we have on our website are working to take that, that international money that comes in actually turn it into community projects. In some places that means, environmental work that’s happening in the Himalayas, rafting companies that have developed community enterprises where they’re bringing in local communities so that they can actually tap in, to this tourism money. Our role from the painted circle side is to try to make sure that as much of that traveler money stays local, so that those partners on the ground, who are the people in the communities? They’re the ones who know what’s needed so that they get that money, rather than a reseller. That way the money flows back.

Megha McSwain: Yeah. Right. Flows within the community. Yeah.

Charles Odom: Absolutely. You know, sometimes I often think about the analogy of like, a river having a big dam in the river., you know, we always kind of think these dams are these big structures, they’re so powerful.  That’s kind of what mass market travel websites have become. You know, they’ve become these gigantic things. They hold all this, you know, resource behind them. Every travel experience you can possibly imagine is walled up behind these dams. But when we think about our planet, I mean, our planet has been formed by little rivers, little streams, you know, over long periods of time. It’s actually these little things that make a tremendous impact. They literally have carved the shape of our planet. What I’m aiming to do with Painted Circle is not hold all these resources behind our system. The idea is to get travelers going, get their money to go where they go, let travelers actually spend their money with the people that are passionate about their communities, the experiences that they share, and keep that money there where it actually impacts people.

Megha McSwain: Sure.

Megha McSwain:  Painted Circle sets out by promoting direct bookings and free membership for suppliers. How do these features empower travel creators and how do they benefit travelers?

Charles Odom: When I worked in my company, in Berlin, one of the roles that I had was working with partner relations, a big part of that is working with what’s called a reseller. Sometimes it’s also called an OTA, an online travel agent. These are things that we all know.  things like TripAdvisor, Viator, get your guide. You know, there’s tons of these resellers that are out there, they’ve made it really easy for us to travel and make bookings. , you know, you go on the site, they promote algorithmically things that they think that you’re going to want.  you hit the book now button.  For a lot of us, you know, it’s made travel really easy. The thing that a lot of folks don’t realize is what happens when you hit that book now button. You know, where does your money really go.  So a lot of us, you know, are under this impression that, you know, we found this, you know, great local tour provider or we found this really cool boutique hotel,  we’re going to make that booking to support them. The reality is that there is a really high sales commission that those websites will take, it’s not something like a processing fee, you know, like all of us think, you know. Yeah, there’s a few percent that go for processing a credit card or maybe like a convenience fee or something like that. These sales commissions typically go from 25 to 30%.  so that’s a huge chunk of what you pay.  so when you think, wow, you know, I just spent this money thinking that I’m going to support this local tour operator or this local boutique hotel, then you realize that this huge amount of money actually went to the reseller just because you hit the Book Now button on their website instead of somebody else’s.

Charles Odom:  When I loop this back to my history with international development, this is where we start to see a huge opportunity just by making simple changes in the way that we make travel reservations. It’s this concept of leakage.  some places we’ll call economic extraction.  it’s actually studied, you know, of how much money goes into travel, how much actually stays there.  It varies from place to place. But in some place’s extraction is really high.  you know, if you think you spend a dollar, how much of that dollar actually stays there.  in some places it’s very, very low.  so by changing the business model that we have, we tell all of our partners there’s no sales commission. We are not in the business of reselling your products. Our goal at Painted Circle is to help expose what it is that you’re doing, to get travelers to go visit you through it, through a direct booking. We actually don’t take any reservations on providers. We don’t want to be the middleman. We simply want to be the showcase for really cool experiences to help travelers make direct bookings so that they have that full experience, like the full experience from the people who provide these really cool activities, also they’re spending has a full impact on the place that they go. Right?

Megha McSwain: Right.  I’m sure people would like to know that that is going towards that fully. Not sans 30%.

Charles Odom: Yeah, exactly.  You know, resellers do have a place. You know, it’s a great way for people who maybe are making their first trips they’re not really sure where to look.  it’s a positive thing, but there’s always this balance, you know, of. Something good usually does come with a cost.  I think it’s important for folks who are traveling, who really do care about the impact that they have. You know, a lot of us focus on things like, you know, let’s do carbon offsetting or let’s reduce single use plastics, but there’s this kind of hidden thing of just, you know, how did we make our booking? What did that financial transaction actually cause? That’s a big opportunity for us to have a big impact through a very small change that travelers can make.  on Painted Circle, we’ve figured out, you know, wow, there’s such a huge impact for the travel provider. If they can get direct bookings that our partners that are on the site will actually give better pricing. They will actually share a discount through our membership program, because we realize while we create this like triple win situation, you know, we allow travelers to get better deals. They can get discounts or special perks. The money goes local. So the travel provider ends up with more money than they would have if the person had booked through a traditional reseller.  Then some of that money is also made available for local community projects. We figure, wow, there’s so much good that can come simply by clicking over here instead of clicking over here.   I want more travelers. See that?  We now have a new tool that we can share for all of those people who want to travel in a more ethical way. Right.

Megha McSwain:  diversity inclusion. Our core to Painted Circle’s mission. How does the platform ensure a welcoming experience for all travelers, including those from LGBTQ+ community?   you know everyone really?

Charles Odom: Yeah. I mean, when we look at traveling, there’s so many ways that we can segment people, you know, LGBTQ plus is one way. We can also look at solo travelers, female travelers, families, people with young kids, people that have different mobility capabilities, people with different mental capabilities as well. You know, like someone with a kid with autism is going to travel in a very different way than someone whose child does not have autism. There are all kinds of different ways that we can segment ourselves.  Unfortunately, a lot of these groups don’t feel empowered to travel because when businesses say, you know, they have the open sign, sometimes it has an asterisk at the end of it, you know, it’s like, yes, we’re open, but this is our clientele. You have to, you know, be able to do this.  we’re not really accommodating unless you fit the mold of what we’ve created.  For someone like me who’s worked in tourism, I mean, it just kind of breaks your heart to think that someone would not even attempt to travel because they don’t feel welcome. They don’t feel like they’d be able to do it.  Since we worked in a very physical kind of tour company doing bike tours, we know that there are certainly limitations, but there aren’t as many limitations as you might think.

Charles Odom:  There’s so many ways that we can accommodate people who maybe didn’t feel confident to say, yeah, I want to go on this tour, but I haven’t ridden a bike in a long time, or I have this physical disability. What we’re aiming to do with Painted Circle is let all of the providers that are on our site talk specifically to each one of these groups say, yes, we can accommodate you either. Here’s information about specifics that we can do or contact us.  What we’re doing is we’re saying open for everyone. Please, please reach out to us if you’re concerned. If you have a question about, can I do this? All of us are motivated to say, yes, we can absolutely get you to participate with this activity. Here’s how we can do it.  Every business has the ability to do that. Another big part of what we’re doing is we’ve come up with this inclusion commitment on Painted Circle.  Every tour business, every hotel, every trip planner, every partner that is coming on board with Painted Circle travelers can find on our website, they’re each signing on to this commitment.

Charles Odom:  It’s about creating welcoming spaces, safe spaces, about doing what we can to be civil to make sure that we’re saying, yeah, you’re going to come to our business. We may not share the same politics, we may not have the same beliefs, but we are in the business of creating amazing travel experiences that you’re going to remember forever.  that’s it. Very simple language that we know kind of transitions in a lot of challenging locations where, you know, we have one conversation in the United States or in Europe, about inclusion. Those conversations take a different form when we start looking at countries in the Middle East, in parts of Asia, across Africa, all of these are places that people should travel to. I think people should be able to go anywhere they want to go.  we’re working with these partners to help them shine that open sign as brightly as possible, because travel is such an important thing for us as individuals, but also for our communities.  This is how we learn from each other.  We learn not to be afraid.

Megha McSwain: I couldn’t have said it better. I feel like it’s just like that constant learning that we need as humans.  you can get it by traveling. it’s the easiest way to gain that knowledge.

Charles Odom: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you think like when you’re a kid, you go into school, you know, your kind of force fed information learning every day. But, you know, as we transition into adulthood, sometimes we have to seek out how to learn.  the path of least resistance is, you know, don’t learn anything, you know, like just keep repeating, you know, your day to day as much as possible. But we all still love going on vacation.  vacation is where this learning process slips in.  it’s usually really fun. , you know, every time you’re able to step outside of that comfort zone a little bit, you know, it changes your life. You know, either you go someplace  you learn a new skill, like, you know, you learn how to sail or you learn how to paddle board or, you know, you come on a bike tour  you say,  I haven’t ridden a bike since I was a kid,  I did this, you know, 10-K, bike ride , you know, just you go home feeling empowered  so.

Megha McSwain: Or you learn about this.

Megha McSwain: Food them. Culture the community of a place.

Charles Odom: Yeah, absolutely. It enriches your life in a way that doesn’t get harnessed just into your trip. You get to keep that and take it home with you.  every person should have the ability to have that transformative experience. It shouldn’t matter if you are young, if you have money, if you, you know, are in great physical condition, it shouldn’t matter of, you know, the fact that you feel disenfranchised for some reason. I just don’t think any of that has a place in travel. We missed the whole point if it does.  so there are so many people out there that are creating your businesses who share this vision. I hope that through Painted Circle, we can help them to express their commitment to inclusion and get people traveling.

Megha McSwain: Looking forward, what innovations can we expect from Painted Circle that will further revolutionize ethical travel, sort of really solidify this point and drive it home?  to hopefully encourage more people to do so.

Charles Odom: You should see me to make a list of all the things that we’re working on.  I should mention that Painted Circle is a completely bootstrapped operation, we certainly do as many things as we can, but we’re very deliberate about not seeking funding from investors who are going to put pressure on the platform to develop in one way or the other. This is really a community effort from all of the partners on the site. I’ve self-funded this as a startup.  I’m working with collaborators here who are able to provide important missing components of the platform. We have limitations on saying, we’re going to have certain features on the site.  To be honest, I’m using that to kind of guide how we continue to develop the platform because we want it to be, you know, a crisp, slick user interface. That’s really important to me. But at the same time, we don’t want to distract travelers with shiny objects. The goal is getting people traveling. Every feature that we roll out has to have the purpose of helping people feel confident to travel and help that travel money stay local. So everything that we do is focused on those couple of things, something that we have started to roll out I know is going to be coming as the main features of what we do is more video content on our site, because this is something that’s really missing from traditional resellers.

Charles Odom: I love the idea that a traveler can go to a pain circle and start to connect directly with the owner, the creator, or the founder of these travel companies.  so we’re working on ways that those owners founders can actually bring their own created video content onto the site so that, again, they can welcome guests, they can start to create that rapport with people,  help travelers to feel connected  empowered to actually reach out to them directly, continue the conversation  figure out, how do I make this trip happen? Like, let’s do this.  so that’s one innovation that is already being worked on.  we’re continuing to drop new features like that.  because that really is what helps travelers to feel like, yeah, we can absolutely do this.  I want to support that person. I want to make that booking right.

Megha McSwain: Video content always really brings things to life it really draws people in. I mean, especially in this day and age,  with TikToks, Instagram Reels, social media, it’s just like video is where it’s at. It seems like.

Charles Odom:  You know, there’s all this talk about AI, how that gets worked into travel.  Some of your recent guests have talked about AI and how they’re using it to power their platforms.  I think it’s great. I think that, like many things, AI is a tool that has both pros and cons, so it’s great when we can use AI to help do some of the heavy lifting that makes passion projects possible.  but I also have seen the trend of using AI to create a lot of content. That kind of takes us further away from authenticity, you know?  I like the idea that what we’re working on is a way for this kind of unscripted, unedited way that owners can speak directly to travelers. One of the things that I often struggle with is this word curated, because it’s another thing that in some cases it’s great, in other cases it kind of gives me a little bit of a step back from it because. I don’t want to curate people’s experiences, so I don’t want us to go down that path of being like the gatekeeper of what you shouldn’t do. Part of travel is taking that risk saying, look, if I’m going to find a hidden gem or I’m going to find this, you know, really transformative experience, it may not have shown up on a must see, curated list of things to do.  You know, some of my best trips have been things where I’ve kind of taken a leap of faith and said, look, I think this is going to work out. I’m not 100% sure it wasn’t on someone’s curated list, I ended up having great experiences. So there are some tools like that that we’re very careful about making sure they fit into the ethos of what we’re doing, of staying authentic, staying focused on creating an ethical platform rather than having too many shiny bells and whistles.  that kind of distracts us from that. We want to stay focused on the purpose of what we’re doing, right.

Megha McSwain:  For those inspired to create their own travel centric business, focusing on sustainability communities like yourself, what advice would you give just based on your own journey achievements?

Charles Odom: Do it.

Charles Odom: Yeah, absolutely. Do it. I mean, when we talk about travel being this huge industry.  it’s big, but it needs to be bigger. There needs to be more people in the industry.  kind of looping back to this idea of inclusion, you know, part of that is, facing travelers, but part of inclusion is also facing stakeholders in the industry.  so when we trace back who owns different companies, who benefits financially, from travel activity, that range of people is not as diverse as it should be. It does not represent our communities.  If you’re someone who feels like, you know, business ownership is not within reach for you, I would definitely encourage you to look at the tourism industry, because there are so many of us in tourism that want there to be a more diverse range of stakeholders. Our industry needs you so reach out there, you know, reach out to people like me and other founders. We’re always happy to share our personal experiences, if that helps to break down this wall, perceived wall or an actual wall.

Charles Odom:  we need to break that limitation down. I would also say follow, you know, the course of solving a problem or pursuing passion. I think there’s room for both. You know, not every business has to solve a problem. You know, I think that we should be in the business of creating passion driven lives.  There’s always room for more passion. if you’re passionate about your city, your skills that you have, think about how you could create a business out of that. Because if you can share a passion that’s just as good as solving a problem. I would absolutely say plan it out, do some mind mapping, reach out to other people, just say, hey, can I get 20 minutes of your time to run an idea by you? It’s amazing. Many people will say, yes, absolutely.  you might find a thought partner along the way. there’s a lot of opportunities out there. Never be afraid to reach out to someone in the tourism industry to ask for advice or help. Just do it.

Megha McSwain:  Well, that brings me to our listeners who might want to connect or learn more about Painted Circle. Where can they learn more? Where are they? Where can they connect with you online?

Charles Odom: The best places to go to painted  On our website, anyone can create a free login.  that gets you onto the site for people who want to get all these amazing discounts special offers, we have a membership program that you can buy.   We’ve also been very deliberate about the way that we’ve set it up. It’s not a subscription. It’s a one-time fee.  that unlocks all these discounts on the site. So, you don’t have to think about this sneaky subscription. You know that you’re going to get charged over. Our goal is to fund the development of our platform. But instead of continuing to take money from travelers, we want travelers to spend their money on travel. We’ve got this really cool one-time membership that’s on the site. You can also find all of my contact info there as well.  you can, you know, click over to LinkedIn, to Instagram reach out. In fact, we really rely on travelers to help guide us on where to go.  When you look at all of the travel providers that are already on Painted Circle, many of them have come from recommendations from travelers who’ve said, I went on a trip. I had a great time with this person, so that helps me know where to reach out to? Right? We’re not scraping the internet. We’re not, you know, just downloading massive lists of travel providers. We’re actually connecting with each and every one of them to make sure that it’s a good fit for the platform.  The best way to do that is if you have had a good travel experience with a particular company or particular person, let me know, because I’ll reach out to them to see if we can get them into the community.

Megha McSwain: Right. Good old word of mouth. You can’t beat that.

Charles Odom: That’s the way we do it. When? When I first started working in tourism in Germany, it was at the very beginnings of TripAdvisor.  so the idea of word of mouth has really changed, it still goes back to creating these experiences that people want to tell people about.  Those are created by people who are passionate.  If you’ve had that kind of experience, let us know. We’ll get that company on a circle so that we can help them to actually keep more of the money that travelers spend.

Megha McSwain: Excellent. Well, Charles, thank you so much for sharing your insights about the incredible work you’re doing to make travel better for everyone.  to our listeners, thank you for joining us. Please don’t forget to subscribe for more insightful episodes on Travel Preneur. Thank you. Charles.

Charles Odom: Thank you so much.