Think you know Melissa da Silva, think again….
There’s more to Melissa da Silva, president of Contiki Vacations, than meets the eye, so we decided to ask her those comical, personal and telling questions to reveal the woman behind the suit.
It goes without saying that Melissa has a passion for helping young people travel the world. After all, she is the head of Contiki Vacations, a tour operator specializing in group travel for 18- to 35-year-olds. It should also come as no surprise that Melissa has shared the travel bug with her two young daughters, who also inherited their mom’s love for collecting souvenirs. Just like her children, Melissa began traveling at a young age; however, as fate would have it, a 30-day Contiki tour would ultimately cement her determination to join the travel industry. She didn’t know it then, but after the tour and a subsequent 17+ years working with STA Travel across various aspects of the business in both the U.S. and the UK, Melissa would become a part of Contiki, where she has served as president since early 2013. Through the years Melissa has seen some pretty spectacular sights and eaten some pretty strange food, but we’ll let her explain 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 traveled by RV all across the U.S. every summer with my family from as early as I can remember. But my first trip overseas was to Europe; I spent 30 days on a Contiki European Panorama tour when I was 21. I always knew I wanted to travel, but that trip sealed my fate in the travel industry.
What is your most vivid travel memory?
Sixteen years ago I camped through Alaska and the Yukon for three weeks right around the summer solstice. We rarely went into the towns except for groceries. One night around 1 a.m. it was barely sunset, we were camped beside a remote lake (that wasn’t even supposed to be on our original itinerary) and the pink reflection on the still water was breathtaking. I remember feeling at peace and small and insignificant in such a wild and untamed territory. I did a lot of soul searching on that trip as well.
What was the “Aha” moment that led you into the travel industry?
I was studying journalism and communications at UCLA because I always knew I wanted a job where I would get paid to travel. (Funny how things turn out!) I had friends working at the on campus travel agency and they were always heading off on exotic adventures—mostly for free! Seeing all the great experiences they were having even before they graduated led me to apply for a job there as well. I worked 30 hours a week all through school and eventually I quit an internship I hated at MGM to pick up even more hours. I loved travel from the get-go.
Where did you go on your honeymoon?
Nowhere! We were in the midst of planning a move to London, so we opted to forego a traditional honeymoon and instead spent the next three years traveling every chance we had. We explored all of Great Britain and Western Europe from our base in London.
What was your favorite trip you took last year and why?
I visited the Balkans for the first time on one of our agency FAM trips. We went to Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia, and aside from being gorgeous countries (and super inexpensive to travel through) there was so much recent history with the Yugoslavian and Bosnian wars, and hearing the different sides of the events from people who lived through them was fascinating and eye-opening.
Where would you like to go that you have yet to visit?
The list is never-ending.… I have still yet to visit Peru, and Machu Picchu has been at the top of my list for 15 years. Now that my girls are getting a little older, I want to take them as well.
Do you always buy a souvenir the first time you visit a destination?
I try to buy a magnet. They are small and I can look at them on my refrigerator every day and they bring back little memories while I’m making dinner.
My oldest daughter collects snow globes from all the places I travel (or we travel together); she has 58, and my youngest collects music boxes. Those are harder to find, so she only has about eight.
You can tell us – do you collect magnets from the destinations you’ve visited?
Ha – see above!
What do you do to pass the time on the plane ride to your destination?
I download plenty of books and TV shows—and I always make sure I have enough to last at least the length of the return flight. I spend way more with iTunes than should be allowed, but you can’t stream at 37,000 ft., so I purchase and download.
Who is your favorite travel companion?
I think that depends where we’re going. I love traveling with my daughters and seeing them experience a place for the first time. It makes even places I’ve visited a dozen times feel fresh. For new destinations, my husband, hands down. We always seem to be on the same wavelength and travel has never been stressful for us. It’s one great adventure.
If there were one hotel room in the world you could call home the rest of your life, which would it be?
I am fortunate that Contiki is part of the same family of brands as Red Carnation Hotels and recently we were lucky enough to stay at Ashford Castle in Ireland. More than just the room, the entire estate was breathtaking; I really did feel like royalty while we were there.
If you were a destination, which would it be and why?
Costa Rica—I think like me it’s a mix; I don’t have a single style of travel I want to do all the time. I loved the mix of adventure, like ziplining and whitewater rafting, and more relaxing activities like enjoying the hot springs or reading by the side of a bubbling river at an eco-lodge. The people are also so warm and welcoming.
What is the best food you’ve had on a trip? The strangest?
We were in Guilin, China just for one night on our way to Yangshuo and we wandered into a noodle bar serving piping hot bowls of broth and noodles for about 50 cents. It was amazing… we also had fried noodles at every breakfast on that trip and that is what I missed most when I got home. The whole world should eat fried noodles for breakfast.
Strangest was raw chicken in Japan… it looked like yellowtail sushi. Oops.
What can’t you travel without?
My iPhone. Obviously having my camera, GPS and TripAdvisor for restaurant and activity recommendations all on one device is key but the most important thing for me is keeping in touch with my family. I have two young girls and we FaceTime daily when I’m on the road.
Who is the most interesting person you’ve met while traveling?
I did a safari on the Maasai Mara, Kenya, several years ago and our tour guide was the first woman guide in all of Africa. We take so much for granted living and working in the U.S.—of course a woman can be a tour guide! She was so inspiring with everything she had to put up with and go through in order to be able to share all that she loved about her country with visitors.
Tropical beach or snowy mountain?
Tropical beach. I grew up in the snow, so to me nothing says “relax” like sinking my toes in the sand.
City or countryside?
Countryside. As much as I love the bustle of the city, I’m a small town girl at heart, happiest with green trees, creeks, lakes, fresh air and stars at night!
For more information, visit contiki.com.