BY DAVID ROWAN, VOYAGERS FOUNDER
Dinner salons were my gateway drug. Bring together 15 or 16 driven and diverse people in a private room, lead a single-thread conversation around themes that prompt honesty and even vulnerability, and frame the discussion in ways that minimise ego. So no surnames or job titles when you’re introducing yourself: just a first name, something that’s excited you today, and a brief answer to an engaging question such as: “If you had to spend $1 billion in the next year, what would you do with it?” (Kevin Kelly, WIRED’s first editor, suggested that provocation at one dinner, which typically prompted visionary plans for rethinking education or decarbonising industry; although when I used it at a subsequent dinner, Steve Case, the AOL founder, smiled mischievously and said: “Yes, I did have that problem once…”)
As editor of WIRED’s UK edition for its first eight years, I was constantly stimulated by the entrepreneurs, artists, activists, architects and other innovators I was privileged to encounter. There was always the exhilarating challenge of shaping their story for a magazine feature or a conference talk. So whenever somebody interesting was passing through London, it took little persuasion for me to organise a dinner salon in their honour. Over time, I developed some protocols for optimising the evening’s impact: thoughtful curation of guests, filtered for openness and curiosity; an encouragement to put away devices and engage in the moment; respectful timekeeping, with a decisive opening and closing of the conversation.
My role as host was to guide a single conversation, bringing out people’s stories and maintaining flow, ensuring that all were heard and nobody dominated, and generally connecting and empowering guests. It’s a role of “generous authority”, as Priya Parker says in her book The Art of Gathering. Effective guidance, I saw, could turn a dinner party into a warm, meaningful embrace that prompts beautiful follow-up collaborations.
That’s what led me to experiment ambitiously with the format. What if we could extend an evening’s collective commitment to three whole days of carefully curated storytelling and adventuring? What if we could bring together 50 open and interesting people, from diverse backgrounds and different parts of the world, into a magical setting which we could tightly control? What if we designed a long weekend full of shared experiences intended to build respectful connections among the group, introverts and extroverts alike, and promote honesty, connectedness and future collaborations?
That’s how VOYAGERS was born. Four or five times a year, except in strange years like this, we take over a magical building — a historic palazzo in an Italian hill village; a noble family’s castle during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; a renovated monastery on Spain’s Santiago de Compostela trail — as the base for our production team to design three days of intense and collaborative activities. So far we’ve river-trekked over rapids and explored 120 metres inside a volcano, hunted truffles and performed in a local opera house, harvested grapes in a Douro vineyard and then danced as we trod the grapes in the traditional Portuguese way.
These adventures are not-for-profit, and we’re transparent about costs, which are shared among participants who can afford to contribute. Our goal is to build deep peer support as people get to know each other over shared stories, hikes, meals, late-night games and early-morning runs. And as participants become friends, we aim to leverage the collective brainpower to surface and help solve a few of the group’s own challenges. We’re VOYAGERS not only through the travel the weekend requires, but collectively over members’ lifelong personal journeys.
The adventures are the starting point for building a community of trust where members actively look to help each other. We check in on one another through regular video calls, meet-ups, dinners and group chats. During lockdown, we even formed a VOYAGERS virtual orchestra, practising and performing “Lean on Me” via Zoom from 20 members’ homes.
We’ve built specialist groups themed around health-tech and climate-tech, and we organise dedicated trips for people working in these fields. We also have a wider community made up of a diverse group whose work ranges from entrepreneurship and entertainment to human-rights activism and investment. We operate a quiet “Robin Hood” policy which ensures that affordability doesn’t keep, say, artists or human-rights activists from participating. The adventures themselves are priced simply to cover costs.
On our last Italian palazzo adventure, a group ranging from actors to AI founders spent three intense days truffle-hunting, mountain-biking, snow hiking, pasta-making, wine-sampling, clock-tower climbing, Werewolf-playing, speakeasy-embracing, town-square dancing, opera-house performing, storytelling and generally building a warm friendship group spanning 14 countries. In recent adventures people have travelled from Iceland and Israel, Peru and Portugal, Canada and California. We ask of those applying to join VOYAGERS that they’re givers rather than takers, and will actively engage with the community. We mostly recruit via introductions from existing members.
But why are we doing this? It comes down, if I’m honest, to a quest to enable more authentic human connections than those promoted by conventional “social networking”. Metrics-driven platforms engineered to amplify the self encourage ego at the expense of empathy, transactional relationships over trusted ones. What’s wrong with putting “we” before “me”? What if even outwardly high-achieving people could share their vulnerabilities in an ethos of mutual support? During the closing dinner of each adventure, we offer an open microphone for participants to state their “ask and offer”: something concrete they’re asking the group for help with, but also something they can offer the community. These sessions can be unusually honest and emotionally draining. Nobody holds back.
We’re trying to measure practical outcomes, but there are no simple metrics. Activists battling human-rights abuses have met entrepreneurs who helped them build a sustainable business model; startup founders have found funding and mentors; CEOs have discovered personal coaches and confidants to be vulnerable with.
But sometimes the benefits of collaboration are far wider. During the lockdown, our health-tech community of more than 90 people was working together on our WhatsApp channel to solve some more immediate medical challenges. They shared plans for home-made masks, epidemiology lessons, therapeutics options. One member, whose non-profit runs hospitals in Zanzibar, needed urgent help in procuring surgical face shields; the group provided open-source plans for locally 3D-printing visors. We’ve had introductions to editors of medical journals, access to labs for testing potential coronavirus treatments, pro-bono consulting for National Health Service hospitals. That’s the beauty of connecting givers, not takers.
As the VOYAGERS community grows, we’re encouraging members to share their knowledge and their stories here to reach a wider audience. We’d welcome feedback: you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get in touch too if you have a suggestion for partnering with us.
Many of us spend too much time at transactional events and conferences, in an unfocused quest for “networking” that hides our true selves behind business-card titles and status. How much more meaningful to build trust, and friendships, in a safe, controlled setting designed to optimise serendipitous conversation.
“VOYAGERS has been amazing for me,” one activist told me six months after participating in a trip. “People have taken the time to teach and mentor me, and I’ve gone from struggling with running my NGO and consultancy to having completed three big international contacts and even hired a personal assistant, which I couldn’t even have imagined before. I’ve learned to say no to requests that didn’t benefit me. And I’ve become less stressed and more confident as a result of support from VOYAGERS friends. I’m very proud to be part of this community.”
Here’s to many more collaborations.