Five Questions with Susan Dryden Whitson

From high school teacher in Hoover, Alabama; to Washington, D.C.; to the travel industry, Susan Dryden Whitson shares stories of international adventure and intrigue

Count Susan Dryden Whitson has another BCAer who has had a fascinating career.  She went from being a high school teacher in Hoover, Alabama (where one of her students was 2006 American Idol winner Taylor Hicks) to public affairs work on Capitol Hill, at DOJ and the FBI, where she served as a spokesperson before leaving to work on the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign.  Susan served as Mrs. Bush’s Press Secretary until March 2007, then worked for Harper Collins as Jenna Bush’s traveling publicist on her first book, Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope.  After six years as a stay-at-home mom to son Dryden (age 10) and daughter Lucy (age 8), she launched King & Whitson Travel.  In this month’s edition of Five Questions With…Susan shares a tale of international adventure and intrigue related to the coronavirus pandemic, discusses the future of travel, shares her tips on managing work-life balance and leaves us with a wonderful story from a special trip to a special destination:  Midland, Texas.

Q:  Since founding King & Whitson Travel in July 2014, you have built a very successful business, based on customized, highly personal travel experiences that include exclusive amenities.  Congratulations on your recent recognition as a Conde Nast World Top Travel Specialist.  How have you coped with tourism all but shut down by the coronavirus pandemic?

We were thrilled (and shocked!) when Conde Nast selected King & Whitson Travel as one of its 228 top travel specialists in the world.  My business partner, Martha King, and I started our business only six years ago, so we were humbled to learn respected industry colleagues who have been in this business for decades nominated us. Even though the announcement’s timing in March was bittersweet because COVID-19 had shut down world travel, we were excited to see our names in the April 2020 magazine and on the Conde Nast Traveler website.

For us, the pandemic has had a significant impact on our business.  In 2019, King & Whitson Travel sent approximately 450 travelers on 165 trips to 89 countries on 6 continents.  Between January and March 2020, we sent 60 travelers on 19 trips to 23 countries on 5 continents.  And we canceled, rebooked or postponed more than 70 trips, nearly all of which were originally scheduled for travel in March and April 2020.

Our business is built on relationships, both with clients and ground partners around the world.   We entrust our clients to the best guides and program managers in the world.  My family and I experienced just how good these partners are during our March spring break trip to Patagonia.  In the 16 days we were traveling, the coronavirus pandemic quickly spread.  We tried to cut our trip short and get earlier flights back to the U.S., but flights were full. 

When we at last arrived Buenos Aires, our hotel was surrounded by federal police. Once inside, the front desk staff told us we could not check in.  Only two hours earlier, while we were on a flight from Patagonia to Buenos Aires, the government mandated anyone who had not been in Argentina for 14 days would have to quarantine and could not check into any hotels. I quickly called another Buenos Aires hotel general manager I knew to see what might be possible.  He would allow us to stay, but explained we would not be able to leave our rooms until our quarantine period was over.  I also knew staying there could put him at considerable risk with the government. 

He asked about our flight situation.  I had already booked two sets of flights leaving the next day, but both connected in other South American countries.  The general manager had already been in touch with his colleagues in both countries and knew the borders would be closing without any official warning.  If we got out of Argentina, we would likely get stuck in another country trying to get home.  He advised us to get on direct flight back to the U.S. that night.

As our children remained calm, my husband continued to talk to the front desk (who then offered to let us stay if we paid an exorbitant sum to be checked by their “doctors”).  I called my flight desk expert who worked diligently to find seats on any flights back to the U.S.  He found four seats on the last direct flight to the U.S. – to Miami – and it departed in an hour.  We were a one-hour drive from the airport – we would never make it.  The flight desk expert kept checking and discovered the flight was delayed six hours for crew rest!  He booked the flight, we ran out of the hotel, busted through the lines of federales to our waiting car, and sped through the empty streets of Buenos Aires to the airport.  Since our flight could only get to us to Miami, my business partner, Martha, called one of our Miami hotel contacts to see if they were still open and if we could book a room until we could arrange a flight back to D.C.  Within moments, I had a Miami hotel confirmation come through my email.  We reached the Buenos Aires airport and when we checked in and I looked at our boarding passes – we got the last four seats on the plane…in row 43.  I knew then, and thanks to all of our amazing partners, we were going to get home.

Even though our business has suffered financially, these relationships are what matter. We appreciate even more the amazing partners we work with around the world.  And we can’t wait to work with and entrust our clients to them again. 

Q:  You concluded a recent COVID-19 update email with, “Boundaries may divide, but travel unites. Let’s save tourism together.”  What are you telling your clients about the future of destination travel and what precautions travelers can take to feel comfortable getting back out there?

While our clients are eager to travel again, they are also taking seriously staying at home right now to stop the spread of the coronavirus. I personally think knowing a vaccine has been developed will help many people feel more comfortable about traveling, even if that vaccine may not be widely available for some time. 

“Health Security” in the COVID-19 World. Our Conde Nast Travel Specialist “High Profile/High Security” designation has taken on a new meaning in a COVID-19 world.  We think “health security” is travel’s new consideration. Traveling the globe with President and Mrs. Bush afforded me invaluable personal experience about health and security considerations, which we now take into consideration when booking our clients’ travel.  We are consulting with former White House colleagues with medical and security expertise to explore additional health and security services to offer our clients.   These services include detailed country health assessments; locations of nearest hospitals in the cities they travel; 24-hour call-in medical care from wherever they are in the world; personalized medical travel kits.  These potential partnerships would allow us to customize health and security plans, so our clients feel more safe and secure as they begin to travel again.  And getting people traveling again at the right time is important, because travel truly does unite us.

Increased U.S. Travel Interest. Because we can’t travel abroad right now, I am thrilled to see clients focused on U.S. travel. Our clients have traveled all over the world, but many have not explored our own country, especially the U.S. national parks.  While working for Mrs. Bush, her advocacy and personal love for the national parks greatly influenced me and inspired my own family’s travels to these national treasures.  While we have always offered national park trips to clients, clients are now tuned into U..S travel for their family vacations.  My hope is the interest to visiting our national parks will remain a priority for travelers, even when given the choice to travel abroad. 

Q:  You have had a fascinating career.  With the mid-career changes you’ve made, what advice do you have about career management and work-life balance? 

Choose wisely your spouse/life partner. The right partner is critical to keeping a work-life balance. Find someone who has a shared faith, makes family a priority, complements your weaknesses, supports your career choices, works hard…and makes you laugh! Everything else you do will pale without the right partner. 

Treat everyone with respect.  Growing up in the rural South my mother told me, “I want you to be able to talk to the farmer in the field or the President of the United States, and respect them equally.”  Little did I know, I would have the opportunity to do both.  No matter someone’s title, status or job, everyone matters. Working at the White House, I walked from the East Wing to the West Wing every day and passed many of the residence staff who took care of the White House.  I knew their names, got to know them, learned about their families, shared a joke or two.  The reality was I saw those people in the halls more than I saw the President in the Oval Office, and they had been and would remain at the White House long after I was gone.  Their service to the Presidents and their families is important, too.

Don’t fear change.  I left the comfort of a teaching job I loved in Birmingham, Alabama to move to Washington, D.C. and become a Capitol Hill press secretary, something I knew nothing about!  Yet that one move altered the course of my life in the best way.  Professionally, making that change led me to the East Wing working for Mrs. Bush.  Personally, that change led me to meet my husband, Keir, and now we have two children.  At age 45, I took another chance and I started a business without any experience of running a business.  I did know I had a trustworthy business partner, we loved travel, and my White House career had inspired me to create these wonderful, exclusive experiences for others.  I joke that the travel business is the best job I’ve ever made up for myself!

Do the best job in the job you’re in.  If you do your best work in the job you have, you don’t have time to look around for other opportunities and try to climb some ladder.  As a high school teacher with six years of classroom experience, I was offered a summer Congressional internship in D.C., which meant answering the phones, getting coffee for staff, and making copies.  I didn’t consider myself above doing any of these tasks.  Instead, if I was asked to make copies for a committee hearing, I made sure each page was there, pages were collated and stapled, and put them in folders with labels.  No one asked me to do anything more than “make copies.” At the end of that summer, Congressman Bob Riley of Alabama asked me to be his press secretary. By staying focused and doing the best job possible, job opportunities beyond your wildest dreams will come to you at the perfect time.

Learn something from everyone.  Keep an open mind that you can always learn something from another person. Every boss and every co-worker can teach you valuable lessons which teach you the person you want to be, as well as the person you don’t want to be.

Q:  Is there a leadership lesson you learned from President Bush or Mrs. Bush that continues to serve you well? 

Being Mrs. Bush’s press secretary was the greatest job in the world.  In a single day, I might talk to the press about how many lives PEPFAR was saving in Africa; how programs like Father Boyle’s Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles gave former gang members job skills; what the dinner menu and entertainment was for the State Dinner that evening; or give a quote on behalf of the President and Mrs. Bush’s pets, Barney or Miss Beazley.

I don’t think there is enough space here to list all I continue to learn from President and Mrs. Bush, but their advocacy for women’s empowerment left an indelible mark on me.  Because of their influence, King & Whitson Travel looks for ways to highlight the work of women in the various areas of the world. 

Last year I traveled with guides in Jordan, the UAE, and Oman, all of whom were male. I know many of our female clients typically prefer female guides, and I recognized a need for female guides due to religious and cultural restrictions at many sites.  King & Whitson worked with our ground partners to see what training options were available for female guides in Oman, a task they enthusiastically undertook. 

We are thrilled we can now offer to travelers for the first-time female guides to make sure they shine alongside their male counterparts.  We are confident the trust we placed in these young ladies will likely change the travel industry in Oman to the better and benefit all of our clients who travel there. 

Q:  Can you leave us with a favorite moment or story from your time in the Administration?

Of all the places in the world I traveled with President and Mrs. Bush, the most meaningful place was visiting Midland, Texas with Mrs. Bush for the George W. Bush Childhood Home ribbon cutting.  I met many of President and Mrs. Bush’s lifelong friends, whom I had heard them speak fondly of, or I had only spoken to over the phone.  As Mrs. Bush and I rode around Midland, she told me stories of growing up there, pointed out where friends had lived, and talked about what places had remained the same and what had changed.

President Bush 41 and Mrs. Barbara Bush had also come to Midland for the event.  While the family and friends visited in the living room, I went to check on the tv interview set up in one of the home’s other rooms.  Walking down the hallway, I turned too soon and accidentally entered the wrong room.  I found President Bush 41 standing there, looking around the room, with tears in his eyes.  I felt terrible for interrupting such a personal moment, apologized, and tried to leave.  President Bush 41, turned to me, wiped his eyes, and graciously replied, “Ah, Susie!  You caught an old man blubbering.  So many memories here.  Couldn’t help it.  No need to be sorry.”  I smiled, nodded, quietly left the room, and went back to doing my job, but will never forget that moment.