A Day in the Life: Zach Houghton
Many people have had transformative travel experiences, those moments abroad where the world opens up and shows them something they’d never have known had they just stayed home. But not many of those people are so moved that they actually start a business based on those experiences. Zach Houghton, however, isn’t your average traveler. After taking a break from trading commodities to travel for eight months, Houghton found his life’s purpose: creating a travel media experience that honored the emotional aspects of traveling. That’s how he created his company, Passion Passport, which tells travel stories and offers tips, all while keeping the human aspect of travel in mind. A little while back, Houghton cruised by O.N.S to discuss bootstrapping his own business, New York City, and of course, traveling.
What’s your name and what you do?
I’m Zach Houghton, founder and CEO at Passion Passport.
How long have you lived in New York?
I’ve called New York City home for about nine years, on and off. I studied at Columbia for my undergrad, lived abroad in Hong Kong for nearly three years, and I’ve been back in the city since 2013.
How did Passion Passport start?
Passion Passport began—quite literally—as a passion project. I left a career in commodities trading and took some time off to travel. I had no idea what career I wanted to invest in, so I was hoping that travel would lead me to the answer. Over the course of about eight months, I traveled around the world, meeting creatives, entrepreneurs and people who had followed their dreams in different parts of the world. It turned out that travel was the answer. Over the course of that period, I was consuming a lot of travel media, and I did a pretty deep audit of the travel media landscape. I noticed a ton of creatives and brands in the travel space and what they were working on, but I felt that many sites and publications weren’t really touching on the emotional aspects of travel. I wanted to start something that really echoed those values: that travel was transformative and it changes people’s lives.
What does wanderlust mean to you?
Wanderlust is an overused, and often misconstrued, buzzword. People often think that wanderlust means that they should abandon their lives for an indeterminate period of time in order to travel as much as they can, but that doesn’t make much sense. For me, wanderlust is a balanced approach to passion and purpose. Ten years ago, wanderlust might have meant backpacking in remote parts of the world. Nowadays, I have a home, a life and a community in New York City. I like to stay in good touch with it, so I tend to prefer to be here about three quarters of the month. It’s about finding destinations, cultures, and projects that really move me and to integrate those in a very purposeful way.
Taking ourselves outside of our comfort zones is often where we are tested and where we grow and learn the most. I’ve found this to be present in both the travel industry and in entrepreneurial endeavors. I try to find that edge of my comfort zone on a regular basis: whether that’s through work, personal projects, physical activity, public speaking—whatever that happens to be. Finding that spark—and finding people who also seek out that spark—inspires me.
What can we find in your travel bag?
You can always find camera gear and a notebook in my bag. I also pack my workout clothes and sometimes my swimming gear. Running and biking are two of the best ways to get to know a new city. When it comes to clothing, it’s always utilitarian items. I like things that can adapt to many of different environments or be used in multiple settings, so that I can try to travel fairly light. I’ll also always pack too many books. I tend to think I can read three of four books on one trip, when in reality, I’m often too tired to even get through one!
Talk about Passion Passport’s Bucket List Initiative and how you see it evolving.
Passion Passport’s Bucket List Initiative is one I started when the company was first founded. We bootstrapped it. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we saw value in investing in opportunities for people who might not otherwise have them. Many companies gift travel, but in so many cases, the traveler isn’t necessarily at the center of the initiative. At the beginning of my time at Passion Passport, I asked myself what we could do differently—how we could ask the traveler where they most want to go, and which project they would want to undertake, and what kinds of experiences would mean the most to them? From this initiative, we receive incredibly powerful applications around the world. The application is reasonably lengthy, but we receive thousands of applications. From those, we whittle it down to a group of about 50, and ask experts in the travel industry to help us narrow it down to a group of finalists. Then, our community votes on which project they would most like to see come to life. Their travels and their experiences are then shared with our community on all Passion Passport platforms.
What sets New York apart is that you have access to some part of each one of those 50-plus cultures right here in the City. You can move from neighborhood to neighborhood and have wildly different experiences, and you have access to all different kinds of art, music, and culture at your fingertips. It leads to a very well-rounded, diverse, and exciting city.
What are a few of your favorite travel destinations to date?
The travel destinations that have most resonated with me are ones where I have left a little bit of myself behind, or where I know I’ve grown and learned a lot. In no particular order: South Africa, which where I got the initial idea for Passion Passport; Senegal; Portugal; Australia; China; and Hong Kong. My favorite places are ones that I’ve called home, ones where I’ve really had a greater opportunity to live with local families or friends, or where I’ve been challenged and become a better, more resilient person as a result.
Any big projects coming up that you can share with us?
It’s actually our fifth year anniversary this year! The company first started in 2013, though we only began hiring people in a more structured way in 2015. We were bootstrapped, so we had to start slowly. We actually have a couple initiatives coming up that are centered around our fifth anniversary. We also have a couple of product collaborations that we are exploring, and we are launching a quarterly print product a bit later this year.
What would you consider your biggest career accomplishment so far?
In this career, the accomplishment that has taught me, stretched me, and moved me the most was a collaboration we worked on with Amtrak called The Passport Express. We brought forty travel creatives from one Washington, DC to San Francisco over a two week period. We stopped in Illinois, Minnesota, Montana, and Oregon before we arrived on the West Coast, and we connected with communities big and small along the way. It was almost like planning four weddings in one. We were a tiny team at that point—a full time team of four—and we had a project that was a behemoth. It taught me what I am capable of when I put my mind to something. It was our mission statement, quite literally, coming to life. Forty travelers boarded a train in Washington, DC, as strangers, and on the other side of it, they had learned from one another, struggled together, grown together, and their lives were changed by the experiences along the way. The results of that project still move me to tears today, and it’s the greatest project I’ve had the honor of working on.
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