The comforting smell of fried eggplant simmering in tomato sauce wafts outside of Swaylah Faroqi's apartment, little tendrils of flavor creeping under the door and around the hallway. Inside, she’s preparing one of her favorite Afghan dishes, borani bajan, and seasoning it with chili peppers and turmeric. Just the other day, she called her mom again.
“What was that secret ingredient you always use?” she asked. “Oh yeah. Cinnamon, cinnamon, and cinnamon.”
Over the years, Swaylah has mastered the art of making a really good borani bajan, as well as a number of other traditional Afghan dishes. That skill follows her wherever she goes. Sometimes, the kitchen she’s cooking in is in London. Other times it’s in California, surrounded by the loud bustle of her “big, fat, Afghan family,” including twelve aunts and uncles, many cousins and an impressive family Whatsapp group. And still other times, it’s in the comparative quiet of her apartment in New York City, her birth city, which she never seems to drift too far from for too long.
“I'm a proud Afghan woman. I’ve broken a lot of stereotypes for my community, for my race and for my religion,” Swaylah says. “I always like to represent myself like that, because I definitely have a lot of younger Afghan women in my community, like younger cousins, who really look up to me, and it's very important, I think, to continue that and keep that message across.”
Growing up, Swaylah always felt the forces of her two identities as an Afghan-American. Sometimes those forces meshed well together. Other times they seemed at odds with each other.
“Growing up, it was very difficult for me to adapt to Western culture, and try to figure out how to be me,” she explains. “I always felt when I was younger that I had two identities.”
But when she moved abroad to England in her early 20s, something shifted in her.
“Hearing about other people’s cultures and their backgrounds and their religions made me really feel like, wow, I'm genuinely not the only one.”
Being abroad ignited something in Swaylah that she didn’t realize she had: a desire to meet people, hear their stories and learn about the world around her. That, paired with a core value of hospitality being built in her from a very young age (“respecting elders, greeting guests, table manners”) brought her right to the front door of the world of tourism.
She started her career overseas at a company called Supper Club, which hosted upscale, private dinners in London, eventually opening up a branch in Los Angeles, where she worked as a membership manager.
“It was really nice to get into all the different backgrounds of hospitality – front of the house, back of the house, kitchen stuff. It was crazy, but I loved it – the long hours, folding papers, getting into a car last minute because we ran out of wine. I was young and hungry,” she muses.
Swaylah got her first big break in the hotel industry when she met a Supper Club member who worked for Thompson Hotels. He offered her a job at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, right on Hollywood Boulevard, and she was floored.
“I thought I had the best gig in the world,” she reminisces. “It was the prime years of the hotel: one day you’d have Will Smith and then you had Brad and Angelina and Justin Timberlake, then it was like the Oscars after party. Marvel would come in every time they did a film shoot.”
Swaylah was so busy hosting guests that she often slept right on the property.
“I had an overnight bag, and housekeeping had my toothbrush and an extra pair of heels. I lived at the hotel,” she says.
When Swaylah wasn’t traveling, she was exploring the world.
“I went to the Mediterranean, the Middle East, all over South America. I really loved working at a hotel and then experiencing being a guest at someone else's hotel, and making all the connections. I would talk to the front desk agent and go, ‘I know what you're doing,’” she laughs.
In some ways, working in hotels felt like the height of Swaylah’s career. Just three and a half years after working at the Hollywood Roosevelt, she scored a job at the impressive 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge in the sales department.
“I was coming to 30, and all my friends were getting married,” she says. “And I was like, that’s not happening for me. This is my moment.”
She walked into the hotel lobby, feeling like she owned the place. She moved into her new apartment, stretched out her fingers and got ready to make some magic happen.
And then, the pandemic hit.
“I woke up one morning, and I was getting all these cancellation emails,” Swaylah recalls. “$100,000 worth of business. Then $200,000. The next thing you know, there’s a hotel meeting with the GM.”
Just as Swaylah’s career was taking off, she, as well as thousands of others in the travel and tourism industry, got furloughed. She moved back to California to live with her parents.
“I took a lot of time to think. ‘What do I do with my life?’” Swaylah reflects.
It turns out, travel saved her.
“I got in a car. We went up to Oregon, to Idaho, to Montana, to Wyoming, to Utah, to Arizona. And the whole time I was thinking about what I wanted to do, what my calling was.”
The thing she realized was that her calling was precisely the thing that she was doing for herself: travel planning.
“People had always asked me where to go, where to travel, what to do,” Swaylah says. “I've met so many travel agents while being on the hotel side, and I always thought to myself how it was so hard to find a travel advisor that understood a modern traveler.”
After returning home from her travels, Swaylah got to work and built a website. Today, it’s called Away with Sway, and it’s filled with wanderlust-worthy images and captivating design that feels like an exciting destination of its own.
Initially, Away with Sway was going to be a platform to find unique hotels and accommodations. But the more Swaylah worked, the more she realized that she actually loved the experience of booking and managing travel for other people, and she shifted her platform to a website for her work as a travel advisor.
Starting as a travel advisor on her own, though, was not for the faint of heart.
“After all the things I had to do, like getting my IATA number, I thought to myself, ‘what did I get myself into? How am I going to do this?’” she says. “But now, I’m thankful that I went through all those troubles because I know what happens when you build your own thing.”
Those troubles include not just managing your own book of business, but extensive invoicing processes, legal and accounting work and other tedious parts of creating and launching a business. That’s why for Swaylah, finding Fora was both a safety net and a godsend, allowing her to focus on the parts she loved while leaving the other pieces to the experts.
And the best part was that Fora’s design aesthetic, and commitment to beautiful properties and fabulous experiences, was totally in line with Away With Sway.
“I was very picky about my brand. There were so many travel agencies and nothing really related to Away With Sway. Then, I found Fora through a hotel property that I really liked. I joined them right away.”
For an entrepreneur, Fora is the best of both worlds: the freedom and flexibility to run a business on your own, without the extra work and logistics, and with the full support of a network of other travel advisors ready to help.
“Fora is really changing the travel world,” Swaylah says. “You look at these other travel agencies and they have your standard, out of the box, traditional travel agents. What I love most about Fora is they find unique people from around the world, learn their backgrounds, and help each other.”
Just the other day, Swaylah met another travel advisor in Türkiye who helped her plan a unique trip for a Turkish group. Being able to make really custom recommendations not only gave her helpful insights, but resulted in some very happy customers.
“I get to meet all these different types of people from different backgrounds who are so inspiring. One might know more about food than me, and the other might know more about hiking in the Alps. There’s endless knowledge,” she gushes.
Swaylah also loves having access to Forum, Fora’s community app, where you can ask questions and share tips with other travel advisors.
“There’s endless knowledge in that community app. It’s so fascinating. When I have a moment, I just kind of scroll down the app to see what everyone’s posting in there.”
A sales pro’s tips on building a strong customer base.
While Fora gives Swaylah the support network she needs, she also gets to experience the freedom of being an entrepreneur, and she markets her business with a mix of new technology like Instagram as well as some of the tried-and-true methods like word of mouth and referrals.
Swaylah’s years working in guest member relations and sales have given her some key tools to expand her client base. And if anyone can talk, it’s Swaylah, who has gained a number of high-paying group bookings through referrals from loyal customers like LVRN, a music label distributed through Interscope Records. In fact, one of her favorite trips she ever booked was for the Interscope team for a private party in the south of Italy while they were on tour in Europe.
Swaylah’s key lies in bringing back some of the core tenets of hospitality that she’s honored since her childhood: making people feel welcome.
“Make sure that your clients are taken care of. Be personable,” she suggests.
“It’s the little tricks that matter — sending them a pre-checklist before their trip, making sure when they arrive that everything is set in stone, like speaking to the supplier beforehand and making sure that their rooms are right, confirming the welcome amenities and so forth. Showing them that you care gives you that reputation.”
Looking back, some of Swaylah’s own most special memories come from that moment of feeling community, experiencing care, and feeling at peace with who you are.
“Some of my best and favorite moments are really truly around a group of individuals, or an intimate dinner gathering where we can just converse and chat. That’s who I was raised as, and where I come from. I come from a lot of values. I respect culture. Entertaining, eating and really just creating great memories… it’s part of who I am.”
Traveling soon and want to book your next trip with Swaylah? Reach out to her today.