Q&A: Annie Cheng

Founder of the boutique travel company, The Table Less Traveled

Annie Cheng yearned for a life full of adventure and experience from a young age. Growing up in Sammamish, she always desired something more, and for her, that came in the form of her first international experience when she was 13 on a family trip to South Africa. All it took was one trip. From then on, she was addicted to travel. She went to the University of Washington and graduated with a degree in business with a focus on marketing. She then worked as a project manager at a telecom consulting company but took a risk and left her job. Now, eight years later, she is running her own travel company, The Table Less Traveled, and living her best life, which is full of discovery and delicious food, too. After all, she is the CEO — and at her business, that also stands for Chief Eating Officer.

How did you get your start in the travel industry?

I spent the money I saved for a house on a ticket around the world. I lived with families who taught me how to make Grandma’s recipes, got lost, and met amazing people all over the world. I started blogging about the experience, and at that time, blogging wasn’t popular. I never thought anything would come of it. After the trip, I ended up in Seattle. After being dissatisfied with my job and career, I applied to a travel startup looking for someone to be their chief world explorer. I ended up making it to the last five candidates and was flown to Abu Dhabi for an interview with the company. I stayed in luxurious places beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. In the end, I didn’t get the job, but it was a great experience. I learned so much about the travel industry, which gave me the information and knowledge I needed to start my own company.

How did you transition from travel blogger to tour guide? Do you have any tips for others looking to do the same thing?

I would say that you need to figure out the destination you’re passionate about, as well as one that you know a lot about and where you have connections. You need to find a company that has the same values of what they want to share with travelers. Approach them with your experiences, relationships, and why you would be a good candidate.

How do you deal with living internationally?

There’s a couple of things I do to make life easier. It (living abroad) seems so natural to me, I don’t even think about it. One thing is that I’m very anal about toiletries. Toiletries comfort me and make me feel at home. In the case of packing — one of the things I hate the most — I use packing cubes. Also, my company has recently started a partnership with Armoire, offering rental clothing for people who want to travel with us. Lastly, finding things that create personal comfort and your own little rituals.

Where do your tours typically take place? 

Italy is the most popular; Peru is second. In my opinion, Malaysia is the most exotic tour we offer. The entire trip, you feel like you’re in The Jungle Book. It’s one of my favorites. This September, for the first time, we are launching a Japan trip.

What experiences do your tours have that sets you apart from others?

One consistent theme we offer is the relationships we have with the locals we work with. Most of them are not people working for a corporation or company. Last night, we had dinner at a woman’s home we met here through a friend of a friend. She doesn’t host dinner for other people, just with friends. However, she was open to hosting us. Plus, the meal was fantastic. Relationships really open the door for an authentic connection. Our groups are always small to leverage those relationships, to create an environment where we can go into people’s homes to discover unknown places. 

Where has been your favorite travel experience so far?

One that stands out the most because it’s unique is the ecolodge in the middle of the rainforest in Borneo, Malaysia. You can only access it by (all-wheel) vehicles. The rainforest is completely untouched; the only infrastructure is the lodge and a research center. It is the most active rainforest scenery I’ve ever been in — so peaceful and secluded. I feel completely one with nature. A few years ago, we went to the Peruvian side of the Amazon Rainforest, and I was actually disappointed, because Borneo is much more unscathed. 

Is there a destination you prefer over others?

Not really; I love all of them for a different reason. I think Malaysia is spectacular for the offbeat path one takes; Japan has so much dedication to craft, it’s awe-inspiring. They spend more than 80 years perfecting their craft. Italy is amazing; the food and wine are incredible, and we share special relationships with the people. There also are so many aspects of Peru people don’t stop to see.

You’ve been to many places, but is there still one destination you dream of going to one day?

Turkey, specifically Istanbuland Cappadocia.

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