Coffee Time with Industry Vets: Tom Popper

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Tom in Ghana, Africa.
Tom in Ghana, Africa.

Think you know Tom Popper, think again….

There’s more to Tom Popper, president of insightCuba, than meets the eye, so we decided to ask him those comical, personal and telling questions to reveal the man behind the suit.

While others bring home souvenirs and a gaggle of images from their trips abroad, Tom brought home a sense of purpose after a transformational experience in India. From that moment forward he vowed to travel the rest of his life in search of similar experiences. Not even Tom himself thought he would one day be creating opportunities for others to have those same incredible moments during their travels.

After visiting Cuba and feeling the warmth and the endearing spirit of its people, Tom became president of insightCuba in 2002, leading the company to become the largest provider of people-to-people travel to Cuba. He has been interviewed by hundreds of newspapers, travel magazines, and has been featured on CNN, NBC, and radio stations nationwide regarding travel to Cuba. Now it’s our turn to turn the spotlight on the quintessential voyager in this edition of Coffee Time With Industry Vets Q&A series.

Where did you go on your first trip and how old were you?
I was fortunate in that my mom and dad liked to travel and I’ve also traveled since before I can remember. However, the first real travel experience that I can recall outside of family visits was when I was 7 years old. We went on a cruise to Jamaica, Puerto Rico and St. Thomas.

What is your most vivid travel memory?
In 1999, I took my second trip to India. This time I journeyed south to Tamil Nadu, and little did I know, a 3-day visit to Madurai would change me forever.

After taking in the incredibleness of the temples in Madurai, going deep into their interior and feeling as though I was in my own “The Lost World” episode, I ventured outside of the city just for fun. After being dropped off in front of a local village temple, I found a footpath and followed it through a forest until I heard school children. I followed their sweet and familiar voices until I came up to a small village elementary school. I poked my head in between the bars in one of the higher windows, and the children and school teacher were surprised. I knew this from the expressions on their faces when they saw my very white face peer through the window, and by the fact that the school teacher ran out of the classroom, seemingly towards me. I backed away from the window with the familiar feeling that the village principal was about to call me into his office. Instead, the teacher came out to greet me and in very broken English covered over with excitement, asked where I was from and if I would come into her class. She was teaching English.

The children of this rural village were beautiful and all had a unique sparkle in their eyes. The teacher prompted the children to behave upon my entrance and explained who I was, a man from the United States of America. Almost immediately after my introduction, the children ran toward me and collectively leapt into my arms, climbed on my head, and together we hugged. For the next 10 minutes with a dozen children hanging on, I felt I had become their long lost father, a famous movie star, a celebrity. We adored each other. After sharing some English lessons, some of the children wouldn’t let me go. They physically held on. Their eyes were wide and happy with a new kind of love.

I finally left after saying 100 goodbyes and with tears in my eyes. I had never experienced anything like that before. I vowed to travel the rest of my life, in search of experiences like that again. Little did I know that I would be creating opportunities for others to have incredible moments during their travels.

What was the “Aha” moment that led you into the travel industry?
My “aha” moment was during my first visit to Cuba. After feeling the warmth and the incredible spirit of the Cuban people, I wanted to share it. I knew Cuba was a place that would provide transformative travel experiences. Cuba was the place.

Where did you go on your honeymoon?
I stayed in Oia on the island of Santorini, Greece on the side of the caldera (old rim of the volcano) overlooking the Aegean Sea.

What was your favorite trip you took last year and why?
My favorite trip that I took last year was with my 8-year-old daughter when we went to a rural town, Hohoe, Ghana, to volunteer at an orphanage with Cross-Cultural Solutions, an international volunteer organization. Aside from our first trip together to West Africa, my daughter and I are both adopted. She’s from Taiwan. While I plan to visit Taiwan with her, returning to the orphanage where she once lived, I wanted her to experience Africa in this way. I wanted to experience Africa for myself, vicariously through her eyes, and as a father. It was a deeply cultural, emotional, enriching trip.

Where would you like to go that you have yet to visit?
Bhutan, Cambodia, Iran, and Patagonia

Do you always buy a souvenir the first time you visit a destination?
I like to bring back something small, simple but meaningful. The souvenir has to find me.

You can tell us – do you collect magnets from the destinations you’ve visited?
LOL, I can’t say that I do.

What do you do to pass the time on the plane ride to your destination?
I love working on the plane. I’ve become spoiled with inflight Internet. I often catch up on e-mails, focus on projects that I’ve been wanting to get to. When not working, I’ll catch up on some good movies.

Tom with is daughter Jessie.
Tom with is daughter Jessie.

Who is your favorite travel companion?
My 9-year-old daughter. She’s an intrepid explorer.

If there were one hotel room in the world you could call home the rest of your life, which would it be?
A suite at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong.

What is the best food you’ve had on a trip? The strangest?
The best food I’ve ever eaten is an appetizer in Marrakesh, Morocco called pigeon puff pastry. It defined savory.

The strangest food I’ve ever eaten is chicken feet.

What can’t you travel without?
Global Entry. It makes the airport experience infinitely more pleasurable.

Who is the most interesting person you’ve met while traveling?
A Navajo shaman named Grady.

Tropical beach or Snowy Mountain?
I alternate. I love both.

City or countryside?
I alternate.


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