From a local New York City guide to running a travel community. An interview with Nikki Padilla from Urban Adventures

New York City | Slow Travel Story

Nikki Padilla Rivera currently runs the Guide Program at Urban Adventures. She started her career as a tour guide after college while figuring  out ‘what I wanted to do’. Since then, she never left the industry.

Tell me about yourself? Personally and professionally

I’m very proud to be a 4th generation New Yorker from Queens. I grew up very connected to my ethnic roots – half Puerto Rican, half Sicilian – so I’ve always had a strong connection to tradition.  On the same note, I was raised by a second-wave feminist so I think my path has always veered towards bringing that tradition I love so much up to date in a modern world.

I got into travel industry by accident. I started as a tour guide after college while I figured out ‘what I wanted to do’ and to my surprise, I never left the industry. In my family I wasn’t the first generation that travelled. In fact, my  grandparents on my Mother’s side were some of the first of their generation to travel regularly as vacation. If I think about it, it was in my blood. My Grandfather is now a volunteer tour guide with Big Apple Greeters which is mainly composed of New Yorker retirees, at 92 years old he gives a great walking tour of the city!

Nikki Padilla Urban Adventures | Slow Travel Story

Managing the Tour Guide Program at Urban Adventures, what are three things people might not know about the company?

  1.  Our business model is sustainable to it’s core.  All of our tours are designed so that the money spent on the tour stays in the local community.
  2.  We’re a franchise.  We don’t like to use that word as it sounds really corporate & boring. However, each of our cities are locally owned, to ensure that the money stays in the local economy and that the owner has the country’s best interests at heart.
  3.  We’re a bunch of hippies 🙂  Working at Urban Adventures is unlike any other tour operator I’ve worked for.  We’re in over 160 cities from Moscow to Havana to Delhi to Hong Kong but we all have very similar values.  We support sustainable travel because we love and want to protect (while showing off) our cities, we’re curious about other cultures and embrace our differences, and most of us are super conscious of being zero waste.

We all know each other by name, and our yearly conferences are filled with epic, all-night dance parties.

Did you always know you wanted to go into community role in tourism?

Never!  I got the spark of the benefit of truly local travel by living in NYC. I heard so many people who came to Times Square for a week, eating at the Olive Garden say “How could you ever live in NYC?  It’s crazy and expensive!” and my answer was always “That’s because I don’t go to Times Square. You’re doing it wrong!”

The next spark came during my first trip to Europe after high school.  All of the American students on my trip were grossed out by any type of local food and only wanted to eat at McDonalds.   So I kept thinking, ‘Why bother to go somewhere new if you are disappointed by anything different from how it is back home?’

What challenges as a woman do you face holding this position?

I’m lucky that I work for a progressive company and don’t personally face as much extra difficulty as my peers in other industries or more traditional areas of travel might. Currently, more than 50 percent of our higher management team is female and in general men are super outnumbered on our global team.

I do get a bit of mansplaining though, especially when I’m talking about Urban Adventures at networking groups.  It’s funny how men assume because I’m young, I work for some tiny company and would need advice on how to make Urban Adventures a “success”.

Lately we’ve been seeing a lot of conversations in the larger travel industry about the need for more women to be represented in leadership roles.  Which is great, but it’s ironic how often it’s men representing each company who are delivering that message.

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

As someone with a tour guide background, it drives me crazy when guides recommend taxis in NYC. They’re expensive and usually SO much slower than taking public transportation. Most people are simply afraid of the subway because they’ve watched too much Law & Order, but if you take the time to walk someone down into the subway, explain to them what train to take, how to swipe the MetroCard, then they’ll feel confident to do it on their own.

Travelers need locals to educate them on the local ways so they can be empowered to leave the tourist traps (and spend money at local businesses).

What advice do you have for aspiring women trying to break into the industry?

Find the people whose career you’d like to have & buddy up! Or at least, follow as closely as you can. Moreover, find other women in the industry to hang out with. You can find them at networking events.  Right now there’s such an amazing collaborative vibe amongst females- everyone’s looking for someone else to elevate.

What behaviors or habits have positively impacted your life?

I’m lucky enough to have gotten to travel a lot throughout my career and I always bring back one element from each place I visit to incorporate into my life. It means I’m constantly growing & learning & adapting.

For example, I recently came back from Vietnam and the idea I took with me was how important my health is. I’m vegetarian-ish, but now I make the pho base beef broth on a regular basis. I also prioritize taking an afternoon nap in which is SUPER difficult to pull off in NYC but I’m working on it.

About Nikki Padilla:

Nikki Padilla Rivera currently runs the Guide Program at Urban Adventures. She’s obsessed with blending in as much as she can when she travels and will opt for street food over fancy dining any day of the week. You can follow her travels at @nikkiblp

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