Alison McGowan is rather famous among us expats in Brazil: a foreigner who has settled here and “made it” as an entrepreneur. Her business is called Hidden Pousadas Brazil. Pousada literally means “place to land” or “place to stay”; but as McGowan explains on her About Us page, unlike in Portugal where a pousada is usually a luxury inn in a restored historical building, in Brazil the concept encompasses a much wider range of price and accommodation.
Alison has visited and vetted many of Brazil’s pousadas on behalf of Western tourists who might be overwhelmed by a country of Brazil’s size and complexity. She offers a set of well-honed marketing services to pousadas that come up to her standard, consisting of an English-language Web page on her site optimized for Google, from which they can receive direct bookings. (She will also add social media and PR for a further fee.) And she provides an English-speaking interface for those pousada owners who lack the requisite linguistic skills to attract foreign guests.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Alison’s pousada business, too? Word has traveled far and wide among the English-speaking world thanks to some choice publicity. Seth Kugal chose to include it in his write-up on Brazil for the New York Times‘s Frugal Traveler series, urging those looking to make Brazil more affordable to try
a rare English-language pousada site nicely curated by an expatriate Englishwoman, Alison McGowan.
And the intrepid Michael Palin, while he finally added Brazil to his itinerary with a four-part BBC series last year, gave a shout-out to McGowan for her “gorgeous pousada” recommendations.
Yet her accomplishment can’t have been easy. According to recent data, 40 percent of Brazilian start-up businesses do not survive for more than two years after opening due to the “excess of laws, regulations, taxes, paperwork…”
I caught up with McGowan recently on behalf of the Displaced Nation and peppered her with questions about her business success story. Any wannabe displaced entrepreneurs out there, listen up!
Olá, Alison! Tudo bem? Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for the Displaced Nation. How long have you been working in Brazil?
I established Hidden Pousadas Brazil in 2008 but have a long history of working with and in Brazil dating back to 1979 when I was sent out to set up the first office for Oxford University Press. In 1984 I decided to return to UK but continued working with Brazil over the next 18 years before returning to the country definitively in 2002, bringing my old business in educational marketing—called Florence Associates—with me. This lasted me very well until 2008, when the increased use of broadband Internet and students booking direct with schools effectively put paid to the business model. Hidden Pousadas Brazil was a very lucky idea which came to me at just the right time. It never occurred to me to go “home” when the other business ended.
Let’s go back even further in time. What first attracted you to the country both of us now call home?
I lived in Paris for a year in the early 70s and that was where I first discovered Brazilian music, and Brazilian musicians. I fell in love with both!
What do you love most about living here?
I love the people, the attitude, the optimisim, the energy and the light.
As an Englishwoman, do you ever feel “displaced”?
I rarely feel “displaced” but had one such moment yesterday when I realized I had spent over a thousand reais paying company bills which were actually optional. My Britishness and desire to be up to date with payments had blinded me to the possibility that anyone would or could legally send an official demand for something which I actually didn’t have to pay.
Have you reached a point where you now feel more comfortable in Brazil than in Britain?
I feel totally comfortable in both countries and move easily between them, partly because I am pretty well bilingual and understand both cultures very well. People here often refer to me as a gringa carioca—basically a foreigner who is at the same time someone from Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian musician friends just introduce me to others as a fellow musician. Nationality isn’t usually mentioned.
You said that Hidden Pousadas Brazil was a “lucky idea.” Where did it come from?
I was super stressed from running a huge cello festival in Rio and asked a friend for a recommendation of somewhere to stay where I could just chill out in peace for a while. He immediately told me to go to the Pousada Santa Clara on Boipeba. I had no idea at the time where Boipeba was or indeed what a pousada was, but I went and discovered paradise—a traffic free island with endless deserted sandy beaches fringed by palm trees and a lovely, friendly pousada guesthouse to stay at. I thought if this paradise existed there must be other paradises in Brazil, and I reckoned I knew quite a lot of people who would like to be in paradise if they only knew it existed! Hidden Pousadas Brazil was born.
Was opening up your own business something you always wanted to do?
Had I not lost my rather well-paid job in the UK, I might not have started down the entrepreneurial path. That was the original stimulus. But now that I’m on my second business, I can’t imagine working for someone else again!
What’s been the biggest challenge of running your own business in Brazil?
The most challenging part is undoubtedly Brazilian bureaucracy and tax system. It is both expensive and time consuming to get it right.
The most fulfilling?
Meeting so many satisfied travelers who have been choosing pousadas and trips just using the recommendations on www.hiddenpousadasbrazil.com.
If you could do anything else, what would it be?
I can’t imagine doing anything else right now. Once Hidden Pousadas Brazil is in a mature phase and is no longer challenging, a logical step would be to move into consultancy, public speaking and training for pousada owners, but whatever I do would still have to allow me extensive travel in offbeat Brazil!
What’s on your bucket list?
Right at the moment a few pousadas on deserted beaches in Piauí, Ceará, Maranhão, and Rio Grande do Norte are beckoning; also some places near the capital city of Brasília such as Pirenópolis and São Jorge in the neighboring state of Goias, as well as in the historical cities of Minas Gerais.
It sounds as though you still have a lot to explore. Have you left Britain behind, or will you go back to live some day?
I will be here in Brazil for as long as good is good, but I still go back to the UK twice a year, and could easily run the business the other way round, living in the UK and coming over to Brazil a few times a year.
Do you have any advice for anyone else wanting to be an entrepreneur in Brazil?
I wouldn’t do it unless you speak Portuguese fluently, understand the culture, have tons of patience, considerable money and support behind you, AND see a gap in the market for that brilliant idea you are passionate about! If you’ve got all that then go for it! The rewards are enormous.
We understand you are creative in another way: as a travel writer. Do you have any books planned?
I have plans for two forthcoming books: one just entitled The Hidden Pousadas of Brazil and the other on foreign immigration and entrerpreneurship in the Amazon in early-20th century Brazil (title still to be decided).
É boa pra caramba! We look forward to featuring one day on the Displaced Nation.
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Readers, I found talking to Alison McGowan quite a trip! Do you have any questions for her before she ventures off in hot pursuit of the next Brazilian paradise? You can also follow Hidden Pousadas Brazil on Twitter, like them on Facebook, and subscribe to their YouTube station, where the latest video shows Alison giving advice for anyone planning a trip to Brazil for the World Cup in 2014 (coming soon!) or the Rio Olympics in 2016. As an avid football fan myself, I have only one comment to make on Alison’s creative enterprise: Vai Brasil! O Brasil é o número um! For the purposes of today’s celebration of Alison, this football rallying cry may be translated as “Go to Brazil! It’s the number-one country!”
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, about a theatrical enterprise…
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Images: (Clockwise from Alison McGowan’s headshot) Pousada Araras Eco Lodge, in the northern Pantanal (home of the Hyacinth Macaw); Pousada Uacari (in the Mamirauá reserve, home of the uacari monkey); Pousada de Selva Mato Limpo (in the hills of the Serra da Mantiqueira); and Hidden Posadas Brazil logo.