It’s 6 pm in Lower Manhattan, and the streets are hot and sticky. Inside the boxing gym, though, it’s cool and dark. Henley loves coming here after a long day of work. When she tells people she loves to box, it often surprises them. But Henley, ever up for a challenge, lives for it.
“It's the hardest workout and I can handle it,” she said. “I think to myself: if I can handle this, then I can handle anything. You know, literally get punched in the face and keep going.”
Dodge, swing. Miss, succeed.
Boxing isn’t for everyone. But the reality is, Henley’s been taking swings – and withstanding punches – her whole life. In her first years after college, she pulled 19-hour days and often found herself sleeping under her desk, working overtime to pay off her student loans. And then there was the time she took a meeting not 24 hours after giving birth.
“[My clients] were like, ‘Oh my God, you just had a baby,’” she laughed. “And I was like, you know, I'm good. Let’s talk about your trip.”
Today Henley is the co-founder of Fora, and Fora’s founding story isn’t too different from what Henley experienced in the boxing ring: A blow to the travel industry in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic. A scramble to figure out what was next for Henley, a seasoned travel professional. And a recovery, slow and steady and intentional.
And while Fora itself is a new company, Henley’s journey to build a business that would fundamentally change hospitality for the better – empowering people, and especially women, to build meaningful careers in the process – began long before the pandemic.
From farm girl to frequent flier
You could say that Henley literally grew up in hospitality. But if you’re thinking luxury hotels and resorts, think again.
Instead, Henley spent her formative years exploring the 550-acres of a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia – and having conversations with the many travelers who visited.
“My mom was the curator of Highland, the James Monroe estate,” she explained, giving a nod to the fifth President of the United States. “We lived in the three rooms above the tourist entrance to James Monroe’s house. We didn’t even have a living room.”
Henley grew up in the company of tourists, American history serving as the backdrop of her upbringing. Bringing that history to life for visitors became Henley’s second nature. It was enough to get her studying English & American Lit at Princeton, and landing her first job at a law firm. While working in law made her realize that law wasn’t for her, she did successfully pull enough all-nighters to pay off her degree, which opened doors for her future in more ways than one.
“One of the things that really frustrates me about the university system is the lack of proper career counseling for young people,” Henley said. “There’s not a lot of creativity in terms of what we make available to people as career paths. I certainly never thought about travel.”
While she didn’t realize it at the time, Henley’s own frustration with her career progression and her experience growing up in tourism were two bricks that helped lay a critical foundation for a big idea that would come 15 years later.
While law didn’t speak to Henley, travel did, and her first job in the travel industry was at the popular magazine Town & Country in New York City. When her editor left to found Indagare, a members-only, boutique travel-planning company, Henley went with her. It was through her work at Indagare that Henley became comfortable with creating booking platforms, managing tech teams, and running the business side of travel (speaking of: learn how to become a travel agent). She launched her own company in 2014, a travel agency called Passported. At that point, she was a mom of two small children, ages four and seven, and she saw a need for parents who wanted to show their kids the world.
“I really focused Passported on young families traveling with young kids, like how to do that and still be you while doing it. Because that was the moment that I was in, having little kids and being like, “I still want to go to fun places, but it needs to work [for my family],” Henley explained.
Passported thrived for nearly seven years, until the travel industry came crashing down.
“[The pandemic] destroyed a lot of people’s dreams, especially in the hospitality industry,” Henley said. “I sort of came out of the other side thinking, I love this industry. I do not love running small businesses anymore. Let’s raise some money and do things differently.”
That’s when she got a call from Evan Frank.
“Evan had been trying to hire me for years,” Henley joked about her now co-founder and Fora’s CEO. They’d known each other since their kids were in the first grade together. They’d also both lost their footing during the pandemic, and were each looking for solid ground.
Then in spring of 2021, as travel began to pick back up, Evan had an idea. He had watched his wife and colleague Diana, as well as her friends, struggle with managing their careers.
“Many of them were women who were either working before the pandemic and no longer were, or women who hadn’t been working for a long time because they stayed home with their kids,” she said. “And he asked me, ‘why aren’t they doing your job [as a travel advisor]?’”
“I’d thought about this a million times,” Henley continued. “And I described all the problems with margins, and scalability, and how it’s not really worth it to be a travel agent if you’re not going to do it full-time. And I said, ‘these women want flexibility. And that’s really hard to accommodate when you’re looking at this business in a traditional way.’”
After a series of intense brainstorming sessions, Evan and Henley came up with an idea. They brought in Jake, their third co-founder who was in the process of exploring what to work on next after exiting his fintech startup, and presented it to investors.
“It was actually on my birthday in 2021 where Forerunner said, ‘All right, we want to fund you guys.’ And that was my best birthday gift,” Henley gushed. That was also the day that she earned her most cherished (though unofficial) title at Fora, “Travel Agent Number One.”
It took three creative co-founders, a series of failed ventures and a pandemic to actually launch Fora, but Henley stops short of calling the pandemic a silver lining.
“So many people have died, so many people lost their livelihoods,” she explained, recalling Covid-19. “There was no silver lining to this thing. We all came in with a bit of a chip on our shoulders, like, those last [businesses] didn’t work. We were all equally in. And I think it’s hard to find this thing where three people have an equal level of motivation to build it, and want it to matter.”
Dodge, swing. Miss, succeed.
Building a company that matters
Henley’s most cherished travel memory isn’t what you’d expect.
“I think a lot of people assume that if you’re in this business you must have grown up going to beautiful hotels,” she said. “The best hotel I remember from my childhood was going to visit my grandparents in Raleigh, and staying at an Embassy Suites and being blown away. We were like, 'holy smokes!' From the lush plants (“a jungle”) to the neatly tucked beds, all of it was exciting, and new."
While her tastes may have evolved since then, Henley still thinks back on that experience when she’s designing trips for her clients. One of her favorite parts of being a travel advisor is giving others that feeling that she first felt as a child – the feeling of awe, and wonder, and being completely and fully taken care of.
“That’s what hospitality is,” she explained. “It’s somebody taking care of you. And we all need a little of that.”
Henley has seen hundreds of hotels since that first day, and can rattle off intricate details about distinct places around the world, sharing her wealth of advice to the many Fora Advisors learning from her example.
When she’s not home packing lunches for her kids and walking the family dog, Vida, she’s jet-setting to corporate meetings, supplier parties and hotel previews. In fact, her vacation and work life have pretty much meshed together, and every so often she takes her kids along for the ride. Being able to bring her family with her has allowed her to expose her kids to career options that she herself was never introduced to, and her kids have picked up well on the nuances of her job, to the point that her daughter has absorbed Henley’s deep love – and critical eye – for luxurious hotel bathrooms.
“The hotel bathroom tells you a lot about the hotel and if they’ve put effort into it. And I love a good hotel bathtub. A book and a glass of champagne, especially on business trips when you’re just slammed all day with meetings – at the end of the day, being in a fancy hotel bathtub makes it all feel worth it.”
Henley touts the Upper House in Hong Kong as her favorite hotel bathroom to date. “It was the size of my apartment,” she laughed. “It's this oasis of calm in the middle of the craziness of Hong Kong. And you're just floating in this sky.”
Perhaps because Henley grew up in a museum, she’s very attuned to not only the magic of hospitality, but the incredible work that goes on behind the scenes.
“That’s the other thing I love about hotels,” she explained. “They’re not stagnant. [A hotel] is a beehive of activity. I love the people who are involved. I love knowing the staff, from the general manager to the bartender, each and every person that makes that experience happen.”
Now, Henley’s job is taking the many lessons she’s learned in hospitality and building a business to help fast-track hundreds of other travel advisors to success. She spends hours every week on mentoring calls with new advisors, helping them get their feet wet in the world of travel advising, with a level of flexibility and support that she thinks is not only important, but necessary.
For new advisors, Henley has one key piece of advice. “The number one thing is to know that [being a travel advisor] is hard at first, but you don’t get better at it unless you do it. It’s like riding a bike – you just have to get on and start pedaling. And you can lean on us, ask your community and ask for help, but you gotta get in there.”
Watching people build businesses they can be proud of is one of Henley’s proudest accomplishments.
“It feels so good to be using what I have done for the last 15 years to help other people find jobs and make money. I love mentoring people. I love helping them. I love seeing them win. And we’ve built a company that is entirely based on the fact that we don't win unless they win.”