• Helen Ferguson

Meet Sue-Anne - SisterStay

Updated: May 8

Meet Sue-Anne, creator of ‘SisterStay’


Sometimes, someone tells you about an idea that they’ve had, and it just makes so much sense to you, that you wonder how on earth you didn’t come up with it yourself!


SisterStay - “A Welcome Home Wherever You Travel”

is the idea that resonated so strongly for me as soon as I heard it.

It’s an idea that’s been waiting for the right woman to come along and think it, love it and breathe life into it.

Sue-Anne is that woman!


www.sisterstay.com


Sue-Anne is a Brisbane girl, born and bred.

Her Father, who had been raised in a large farming family, was an Accountant, and as soon as her parents were able to afford a Week-End Farm, they bought one and split their time between Brisbane during the week and hard-working farm life for the weekend.


She is 56 and is the 5th of 6 children.



“There are 19 years between the oldest and the youngest of us, so we never actually all lived together for very long!

One of my older sisters created a ‘Siblings What’s App’ group during this crazy lockdown year, which has allowed us all to communicate with each other as a group. It’s been fabulous, getting to know them all better and reminiscing about our childhood. It’s been the highlight of my lockdown!”


Sue-Anne lives in the U.K. with her husband and 3 sons, and she and one other sibling are the only family members living outside of Australia at the moment.


What was the cultural or religious background of your family?


Catholic, strict Catholic, and very traditional.

Our Father was the head of the family, he went out to work and supported the family.

Our Mother stayed at home, raised the children, ran the house and absolutely everything else.

And the kids? We were meant to put our heads down and do as we were told!


Who were the ‘leader women’ in your childhood?


I feel bad saying so but I’m not entirely sure that there were any.

My Mum, Phyl, was never a ‘leader’ as such. She was way too shy, but she was a great role model for living a life of dedicated service to others.

She was always so kind and helpful to everyone in her family, in her church, in her community.

Nothing was too much trouble.

She was the youngest of 9 kids, with 3 sisters still alive.

They were much older and very protective of their ‘little sister’ who I think they (rightly) thought had her work cut out for her.

As an adult I can see what a support that was for my Mum as she raised 6 kids, but as a child I viewed them more as ‘her Sisters’ rather than ‘my Aunties’.


What was the attitude towards or expectations of Middle-Aged women in your wider community?


It was ever implicitly spelled out to us, but my friends came from large Catholic families, we all went to the Catholic Primary School.

We all had similar lives.

The Fathers were the breadwinners.

The Mums were all incredibly hard working, doing everything in the home.


They did all of the laundry for the family which was a lot!

In big families each person tended to have an allocated day for their washing; clothes, towels, bed linen, so it was never ending.

My Mum had ginger hair and pale skin, so she had a really tough time in the Queensland sun with half of her life spent standing at the washing line.


They made all of the family’s clothes.

I remember when knitted dresses came in, Mum bought a second-hand knitting machine and taught herself how to use this incredibly complicated machine, so that we could have these gorgeous, knitted dresses.

Of course, the only place that we ever wore these beautiful dresses was to Church on Sunday!

When embroidered jeans became fashionable, she embroidered pretty flowers up the legs.....on denim!!



1st Grade

When we went to University, we used to have Balls once or twice a year, and Mum made all of mine and my sister’s Ball Gowns.

I remember my sister seeing a photograph of a Movie Star in Women’s Weekly wearing an amazing red, taffeta strapless gown with a boned bodice. She showed it to Mum who made an exact replica for the next ball!


Wow! In this day and age she’d have her own business!


I know, right? She was totally self-taught and never aspired to be anything more than our Mum.

She was very clever and capable but was always happy in a supporting role.

She was incredible.

How she had time to do all of this, I just do not know.

When I think of all the things that she did for us, I feel like a total slacker myself!


Mum did work for a while as a ‘Girl Friday’ in a Secretarial role before she got married.

She took great pride in her work.

She made a point of remembering exactly how every client took their tea or coffee.

Even though she was capable of so much she often recounted that fact as one of her proudest achievements. She was very humble.


Is it possible that raising her children well was her focused achievement?

Were you all out in the world doing things because she set you up for success?


Absolutely!

She even typed up all of our University essays for us before the days of personal computers.

She often used to say that she had several Honorary Degrees because she’d absorbed so much whilst typing! She went to University via her kids.



Outside of home and family, were there any women who had an influence on you?


In Secondary School, there was an amazing Art Teacher called Mrs Tapiolas.

I remember that she came from a rich Lebanese family in Brisbane.

She was sassy and bold, and I liked that about her.


In my last year of High School we had to do a main piece of Art work and she encouraged us to paint a nude!

At the time, in school, working on all of the shadows and contours it seemed quite a reasonable thing to do.

But I remember, at the end of term, wondering what on earth I was going to do with it!

I did end up hanging it on my bedroom wall, but I think my parents must have been pretty shocked.

It was quite a racy thing for a Catholic girl to have on her wall.


My dream then was to go to Art School, but my Dad said, ‘There’s no money in Art, so let’s forget that idea.’


In fairness to Dad, accessing education changed his life completely.

He was one of 13 kids and they lived on the land – someone else’s land.

He broke his leg playing football as a young man and ended up with a terrible limp, making it impossible for him to continue working on the farm.

He studied hard at night school and became an Accountant, completely changing the trajectory of his life.

For him, the three most important things in anybody's life are ‘Education, Education and Education’.


So there was no opposition to educating the girls?


No, he firmly believed education was important for everyone.


What did you end up studying?


Initially, Occupational Therapy, following in the footsteps of my older sister, but I switched degrees to study Japanese.

My other sister had been to Japan as an Exchange Student, and my Dad saw that Japan, as Australia's biggest trading partner, would be the way of the future.

So then I went to Japan as an Exchange Student too!


Sue-Anne in Japan

It was a turning point for me.

I learned so much and I loved it. I had a great time and became very conscientious.

1981 was one of the best years of my life!

I had reasonable Japanese after spending a year there, so changing my degree made sense and I was very happy doing that.


Where did your studies take you? Tell me about your Career path.


Well it turns out I was pretty good at Japanese!

I won a number of Scholarships and ended up with a Masters Degree in Translation and Interpreting.

But I didn’t really want to be an Interpreter.

I think I suffered from a lot of talent and too little confidence.


I applied to Qantas as a Graduate Management Trainee and was delighted to make it onto the 2 year programme, but I quit after 1 year.

I look back at it now and wonder why I did that.


Photo credit: Josh Withers

I think I felt lost inside such a big company.

Over the course of 2 years you go on 6 different placements within the company, and I was coming up to be sent to ‘Corporate’.

I don’t know exactly what the word Corporate meant to me, but it put the wind up me.

I had a terrible fear of failure.

As I had come with my Japanese expertise and a recommendation from my Professor that the

Chief Executive should make use of my Japanese, I was thrown in at the deep end.

I was involved with some high-level negotiations, and everything was top secret; so top secret that nobody thought to give me the airline-specific vocab in English beforehand.

It was terrifying, and much to my Father’s disgust, I gave it all up.


I went on to other Interpreting work in Sydney, but it was never really me.

I should have gone to Art School, where I think I’d have thrived.


As you were stepping out into your career, were there any women ahead of you on the ladder that you could look up to?


Not really. The women that were above me in Qantas seemed quite strong and scary. It felt like I was on my own. I couldn’t really relate to them and they perhaps couldn’t relate to me.

It wasn’t a good fit for me.


So how did we get from there to where you are now?


I guess I always felt that I should have done something bigger, that I was capable of something more.

When I had kids, I totally threw myself into looking after them and making sure they had a really great start, but in the back of my mind, I always thought ‘one day, one day, I’ll do something else’.

Then when I saw the Empty Nest coming over the horizon I really put my thinking cap on.

I knew that I didn’t want to work for anyone else.


I was always having ideas, and I’d wake up in the middle of the night with ideas for websites and directories and stuff. I love doing craft and I thought once about creating an all-singing, all-dancing craft directory, but when I raced downstairs in the morning and checked the computer to see if anyone had already come up with the idea…. there it was, someone had done it. And done it really well!


Around this time I was travelling home to Australia at least once a year to see my elderly Dad and my siblings, and I found that that 24 hours alone on the plane was my ‘golden time’. I could read and think and new ideas would come bubbling to mind.


What was the Lightbulb moment for SisterStay?


I remember thinking how great it was to have family and friends to stay with when I got to my destination, and how exciting it would be to have a network of friends like that all over the world, so I could just ‘pop in’ whenever I wanted to travel somewhere. And they could do the same.


If there was a conference or a course or a festival that we wanted to go to, we could just go, and stay within that brilliant community of friends!

It would be affordable, friendly and flexible.

I thought, ‘All women want that, don’t they?’


Older women in general just seem to me to be very friendly and straightforward. They’ve been through the tough and exhausting years, and they’ve come out the other side calmer and wiser and just really good at connecting with people.

How lovely would it be if there was a whole community of women like that around the world opening their doors to one another?!



All of this was percolating through my head on this one trip, and I was going through a million different names for it too.

On my way back to the U.K. I always have a few hours stopover at Singapore Airport, and I head straight for the bookshop.

On the front display table, right there, was the book “The Story of AirBnB”. I just sat there on the floor of the bookshop and started to devour it.


It was a fascinating read, about these 3 young guys who built AirBnB in response to a problem that they had paying the rent on their apartment!

It was a practical, user-friendly solution to their problem at the same time as providing affordable accommodation in desirable locations.

There have been a few different incarnations of the business before the one we all know today. It was so exciting and inspiring to read.


I came back thinking “Oh wow! I can do this, but I am going to do it for older women!’


What is making you move forward with it?


I want to do it whilst staying as true as possible to my original idea.

I want it to be friendly, welcoming and affordable, not too slick and automated, having guests turning up to an empty apartment in a strange town.

I want it to be accessible to every woman who is open to it, with a friendly host who is always there to welcome you in person.


It’s very important to me that a human connection is part of the booking, and that the pricing does not get out of control.

The more I thought about it, the more obvious it was that the price should not vary wherever you go.


Whether you’re in Hanoi, Honolulu or Harrogate, you’re paying the same rate.

You might get a King sized bed and an en-suite, or a single room with a shared bathroom, but you don’t care because your host is that friendly, verified older woman who is going to welcome you and make you feel at home in her house.

You’re supporting another woman, supplementing her income, and you might just make a nice new friend.


It’s not about squeezing top dollar out of every room, so this idea isn’t going to be for everyone, the room is almost second fiddle to the host.

She’s the one who will tell you the shortcut to your venue, show you the best coffee shops, help you plan your stay. She’s your friend in that location.


In the AirBnB book I loved the little details of the host leaving a local map in the room so that you can hit the ground running, and a little bag of change in the local currency and let you know where a homeless person is likely to be so that you can give them that change.

It’s the friendly Host and the love of their location that I can’t let go of, I think it’s crucial.


Ideally when people join my site, they become both hosts and travellers, so everybody can afford to stay somewhere and also make some money in their own home. Just by hosting 4 nights you can pretty much afford to stay somewhere for 3 nights.


How long has your site been live?


Almost 2 years.

It was really, really tough to get started, nobody wants to put their personal details online with something very new.

But I personally verify everyone, so I need to see your Passport and proof of address before you can access the site.

Some people are very up front that they have checked me out before they let me check them out. I think that’s a good idea!

I’m not a big fan of Social Media, but it has helped enormously with making people feel comfortable that I am who I say I am and SisterStay is all above board.

They can see the work that has gone into making this fabulous community a reality.


What ‘comforters’ have you built into the process?


Well, like I say, you can’t see into the site before I have verified you, so people can’t just Google it and browse through hosts, but that does actually comfort members that once they’ve joined they have that level of privacy too.


You can read Hosts’ profiles and see photos of their home before you start making any bookings. You can see their interests and even their club affiliations, so you can get a good idea of who you will get along best with.


We have 3 levels of Host that you can elect to be:


Meeter and Greeter - the host with limited time who will still meet you, show you the lay of the land and discuss your day with you, perhaps over a glass of wine, to see how you got on.


Part Time Buddy - they might work part time or have other commitments, but they are willing to show you around a bit, take you to a few places if you like, depending on how much spare time they have while you are there.


Champion - someone who is keen to share your visit with you, be a companion and friend in that location (if that’s what you want).


These 3 levels of Host help you to know what you’re getting and give you the opportunity to discuss with your Host beforehand what level of support you’d like during your stay.


So even if hosts don’t have a huge amount of free time, they will still always have some contact with guests?


Yes. I read about a CEO, I think it might have been at NetFlix, who says it’s important for the leader to establish the character and atmosphere of the company.

That’s why it’s important to start as I mean to go on with SisterStay.

I want to set the tone for it to be friendly and welcoming.

I don’t want older women thinking that they can’t go anywhere because they are on their own or they can’t afford it.

With SisterStay, you can look at the destination first, then find ‘a friend you haven’t yet met’ to stay with and book without any surprises with cost.


I just know it will work and I know it’s going to be fabulous, but it will take time to build a truly global network. I suspect it will “snowball” at a certain level once word gets around and then it will just gain momentum and continue to grow like topsy until we have thousands of hosts all over the place.





Would you count the last year of the pandemic as a bit of a blessing, as it’s given you time to work a bit more on the nuts and bolts, or has it put a frustrating handbrake on the progress?


A bit of both really.

In the early days of the pandemic, maybe even the first 8 months or so, people didn’t want to discuss travel. It seemed frivolous in the face of Covid, like breaking lockdown rules and spreading germs just to talk about it. I had to always explain that I was planning ahead!

It was a difficult path to tread.


What kind of Social Media messaging can you put out there during a pandemic?


I just concentrated more on the experience of being an older women, rather than too much on travel.


Now we have people at two extremes; those desperate to get out and about and start living again and planning travel, even if things need to be postponed.

And at the other end of the scale, there are those who are anxious about what the world is going to look like and whether it will ever be safe to travel again.

Hopefully things will begin to ease with the relaxing of restrictions and the roll out of the vaccines, but the messaging has been quite confused along the way, so people aren’t necessarily going to feel instantly comfortable, it’s going to take time.


That might benefit SisterStay; far better to travel solo and stay with one nice, like minded woman, than crowd onto a budget airline or cruise ship.

We’ll see.

Perhaps the nature of travel will alter as we move back into the world.

Maybe we will embrace more “slow travel” with a focus on fewer destinations, more genuine connection.

More mindful and sustainable travel, I hope.


So if I were to join SisterStay, and it’s such a brilliant idea, why wouldn’t I?

As my home life includes a husband and a teenage son, would I be allowed to accept solo women travellers?


Yes. That would be clearly detailed on your profile and then it would be up to the traveller looking for a host to feel comfortable contacting you, knowing what your home situation was.

It’s important that there are no surprises.

Some people join the community as guests only, but I do encourage everyone to be both guests and hosts if possible.


We do ask members who join as a guest only to offer some form of alternative hospitality. So even though you are unable to host, you might still be able to help someone with their pre-trip planning, or meet up for a coffee, or introduce a traveler to one of your favourite local haunts.


The more options there are to stay, the more fun it will be for everyone.


I always enjoyed the chance to travel solo as a younger single woman, but after nearly 20 years of marriage, the opportunities don’t really arise; but this could make it so much easier for any type of woman to travel to somewhere and do something on her own…. just because she feels like it!


Right!

I was travelling to and from Australia at least once a year, visiting family, and one trip there was a delay that had me stop in Hong Kong for more than 8 hours. I remember the sudden realisation that I could leave the airport and explore Hong Kong if I wanted to!

It was no longer just a trip to Australia to see family. I was a woman travelling on my own with possibilities!!

I remember hovering around the doors for a while, and then getting out and onto a bus and just delving into all the sights and sounds and smells of Hong Kong!

It was exhilarating!



Photo credit: Thomas Patrick


There were just lots of little steps along the way that all culminated in me thinking

“I love this, I can do this, other women can do this too.”


How hard was the shift from “This is a really good idea, somebody should do this.”

to thinking, “This is a really good idea, I’m really going to do this!”


Pretty hard.

Again, I just wasn’t sure I had the confidence to do it alone.


I explained my idea to an acquaintance who is a bit of a go-getter, and she thought it was fantastic!

We worked on it together for a while with her as a partner and her belief in the concept really spurred me on. She convinced me of the importance of social media for marketing too and I will be forever grateful for that. Ultimately though, she did not have the time required to make it work.

I think I just caught her at the wrong stage in life. Starting a business of any kind generally takes years of hard slog before you see any real results and unfortunately, she was not able to give that.


Should I ever take on a partner in future, they would also need to agree with the core principles of one low, fixed overnight fee wherever you go and a 50+ demographic. I can understand it’s tempting to want to raise the pricing and open it up to younger women too but my vision is really about safe, fun and affordable stays for older women. I feel like there are less alternative options for us and I just want to do this one thing really well.


All this time I was thinking how much I want to be like my kind and gentle mother, but sometimes it pays to be tough. I don’t want to compromise on the important stuff. Turns out there is more of my father in me than I knew!


My lovely niece gave me a book for Christmas a few years back called ‘The Lean Start Up’ and together with the AirBnB book, I read them like they were the Bible. They gave me a clear idea of where I want to go, and what I’ve got to do to get there.





I want to build this community slowly and properly. I’m never going to make a fortune earning my 20% of 36 Pounds per night, but the concept is so important to me.


Coming from the ‘Her Middle Age’ point of view, your idea is making the idea of affordable travel visible for Middle Aged women. Broadly speaking, we aren’t travelling solo in the way that men the same age as us are able to. This is offering a clear pathway to a wide range of women!


I hope so.

I don’t like to think of someone sitting at home, unable to go anywhere for want of a better alternative.

I don’t want someone missing out because they haven’t got a travel companion or the accommodation at a certain destination is too expensive.

I want it to be just as easy to do an overnight trip as plan for a longer, overseas trip.

It’s all possible.

Once you have your verified profile set up, you can start looking for hosts that feel right for you, in locations that suit you. Of course, as a host you can also reach out to other members and suggest they come and stay.


I am very happy when SisterStay members get in touch with one another in friendship even if they’re not staying. We have a check box, for instance, for members who are open to the idea of being someone’s travel companion. Perhaps you’ve both always wanted to visit the Galapagos Islands, but never had anyone to go with. Even though we don’t have any SisterStay hosts there (right now!!), I would still be thrilled that you met via SisterStay and made that happen.


There you are, living in the UK with your own family around you, building your business in the way that feels right for you. How does this compare to the life that you imagined for yourself?


I always imagined that I would have a family of my own, and that looking after them would be my main focus. I’m not sure what I imagined for my older years though.

I don’t know if I imagined that far ahead!!

But now that it’s here and I’m doing this, I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else. There is no real finish line for this either, even when I am in my 80’s, someone else might be running it but I will still be enjoying the benefits.


I think I have had this marvellous opportunity to reinvent myself, and I wake up every single day, happy to go to work, doing something that I totally believe in. It’s been a bit of a gift.


Is this a full time gig for you these days?


Oh gosh! It is SO full time!

I still have to do all of the washing and shopping and cleaning in the midst of all this.

I did get the boys doing lots of cooking when we were in the middle of lockdown, but now everyone is busily engaged with their studies or work again, it’s just me who has to do the juggling act.


I often work on this 7 days a week because I absolutely love it.

I’m so keen to get things moving for everyone, it’s not like work.


How have your Husband and your boys reacted to this? Do they think you’re a genius?


I don’t know about that!

I guess my boys think I’m giving something a really good go and working hard at it.

My husband does think the idea is a winner.

Nobody has made any great allowances to let me get it off the ground, nevertheless they are proud of me and admire the way that I persist with it – even in the face of a pandemic!


It’s easy to lose confidence in the early stages, when things haven’t really got off the ground.

If you haven’t got someone in the background telling you how well you’re doing, and you don’t see your core group of members growing quickly enough, that can be disheartening.


I’m really lucky to have one very good friend in particular who has held my hand throughout and been my cheerleader. She taught me how to use social media and she showed me how to make the most of Canva. She’s proofread all kinds of stuff I’ve written and generally made me feel like I can do it.

She’s actually quite like my Mum, a good person through and through, so there’s another really positive role model in my life right now.

We don’t just need them when we’re young. I’m still very much a work in progress!


I think I’ve reached a point now, with SisterStay, where I can see it is definitely going to work. Once we opened up to overseas members it all started to feel a bit more real.


In the whole process to date, what has been your biggest win and biggest loss?


My biggest win has been my growing self-confidence.

That has been amazing.

I’ve gone through such a transition. I feel much more confident now in all aspects of my life, based largely on what I’m achieving with SisterStay.

I’ve met so many women, some who’ve gone through some difficult times; it’s wonderful to be able to reassure them that SisterStay is a really friendly community and that their trip will be a positive experience for them.


I recently had a woman who had been through a tough divorce go to stay with a woman who had lost her husband. They both got on so well and gave such lovely feedback about their experience.

I thought afterwards, ‘I did that’. I provided that connection for them.


The worst part of the whole process was definitely getting started, trying to get some momentum.

Taking on a partner and realising that we didn’t share the same vision and commitment.

I wish I’d just had the confidence to go and make it happen on my own from the beginning.

Confidence seems to be a recurring issue with me.

I think a lot of older women experience a lack of confidence, but then, sometimes I see women older than us who have achieved so much. And I wonder ‘what do they know that I don’t?’


You said that you’d be happy working on SisterStay forever. Is travel ‘it’ now or are there other things you want to do as well?


It’s not just about building a travel community, it’s about building ‘a community of older women’.

Travel is the thing we have in common. Travel is how we meet one another and support one another to make the most of this next chapter of life. I would like to think that SisterStay empowers older women to be bold and adventurous and visible!


For me personally, I hope to travel back to Japan more in my adventurous second half. I was so excited to welcome our first Japanese members.

It would actually be affordable for me to go to Japan now on a big trip and stay for a month with a SisterStay host there. I could immerse myself in everyday life and still have plenty of time to explore some of the traditional Japanese arts I’m so interested in.

Our host in Osaka is a keen ambassador of all things Japanese.

I hope our hosts everywhere will take real pride in sharing the very best of wherever they live.


Photo credit: Andre Benz

Travel can be so rewarding – living an active and curious life exploring new places - but the human connection is also a really important part of SisterStay.


How many countries do you have SisterStay hosts signed up in? Are there any specific places bubbling up?


Right now, we are predominantly in the U.K, with a handful of members in Australia and the USA.

We have a couple of members in Japan, one in Spain, one in Italy and one in New Zealand.

I’m hoping it becomes a really fun, word-of-mouth community of enthusiastic women all over the world.

In the first year I was saying ‘no’ to people wanting to join from other countries.

I wanted to keep it local so that I knew the idea worked; the fee transfer, the host profiles, the 36 pounds price point.

I still have to test it fully in the overseas section.


I was also saying no to people who only wanted to be guests. I wanted people to join as hosts then feel free to travel as guests as well.

After a while I realised we only had hosts and no guests, that some people's comfort zone is being at home. They were happy to host but not ready to travel.


I’m having to make it up as I go along really, to change things as needed, to get it to a point where people are happy with the way it works, believe in it, support it and use it.


This business is building and looking to fill a lot of your time over the coming years, what do you wish people knew or understood about Middle Aged women?


That it’s OK!

I know that some people look at these years as somehow being the end of something, but they’re a chance for a new beginning.

Middle Age is whatever you make it, so we should try to make it something special.

We can do great things if we just stay active and curious, it’s up to us!


What would you say is your Superpower?


I think it’s probably my enthusiasm.

I’m a very energetic and enthusiastic person who throws herself into things 150%.

I’m full of ideas, for all sorts of things. I’m writing books in my mind, I’m writing song lyrics.

I’ve invented a special anti-wrinkle pillow prototype!

I’m definitely not slowing down in my fifties.


What advice would you give 20 year old Sue-Anne?


Don’t be afraid.

You can do it.

Everyone else is making it up as they go along, some just look more confident.

You.Can.Do.It.


www.SisterStay.com




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