Samantha Brown on Filming the Latest Season of Her Travel Show Amid the Pandemic
“No matter what’s happening, we still have access to an incredible country of wonderful diversity where we can learn about other people and about ourselves,” she said.
After a year in lockdown, travel expert Samantha Brown had one date on her mind: April 21, 2021. That was when she and her crew would board their first flight since the pandemic and begin filming her PBS show “Places to Love.” Vaccines were rolling out, borders reopening, and the world was full of hope, but Brown was still nervous.
After filming travel shows for more than 20 years, Brown has become a bona fide explorer, with hard-won experience in how to navigate in a foreign language, finagle itineraries and locate hotels well off the beaten path. No stranger to rebooking a flight, the challenge of traveling the world after a year in lockdown was no easy feat.
“Mentally, I had some tough times with that,” Brown told Travel + Leisure in a recent interview in regards to getting back into the swing of things. “To go ‘Okay, here we go, I’m going to meet with people.’ But then as soon as I did, that changed immediately.”
The world was, of course, different from how the travel host had left it in March 2020. There were new, strict protocols to follow during filming including mask-wearing and temperature-taking. And because of constantly shifting COVID protocols at international borders, the team couldn’t travel outside of domestic destinations.
But from the “jolt of energy” from stepping onto an unknown street to the joy of developing a personal connection with a stranger, Brown told T+L she felt like she and her crew picked up right where they left off.
And, eventually, what had been considered an impediment became an opportunity. Being bound to the continental U.S. forced Brown and her team to delve deeper into American destinations and approach well-known cities in a new light.
“What I’m trying to show people is that even within our own country we have these incredible places that even if you think you know, you really don’t,” Brown said. “No matter what’s happening, what flare-up is happening, we still have access to an incredible country of wonderful diversity where we can learn about other people and about ourselves.”
For this season of “Places to Love” premiering on Jan. 8, Brown visited major destinations like Asheville, N.C, and Houston, Texas — but also smaller, lesser-known places like New York’s Genesee River Valley.
“Everyone was so excited to do something positive,” Brown said. But as she and her crew traveled around America filming episodes, Brown came to realize that the pandemic was still very present — and that everyone had their own comfort levels.
“Even me, who, I love to travel, I had my own soft spots where I would become very nervous and very uncomfortable about being in certain situations,” Brown said. “I’ve walked into places and thought, ‘Oh oh oh I didn’t know there weren’t going to be any windows. Why are we eating in a restaurant with no windows?'”
Adapting to the situation, the crew became adept at configuring shoots that would seem, to a viewer, entirely normal. Sometimes, they would conduct interviews outside of normal business hours and return later for shots of a restaurant full of people. Or other interviews were edited together to make it look like everyone had their face masks off at the same time while masks were worn. Taking all precautions, Brown would also touch base with whoever she’d be sharing the screen with via Zoom to gauge their COVID comfort levels and develop a plan that would “meet the person where they were at” before it was time to film.
In general, filming for this season tended towards more intimate moments, though Brown says that wasn’t planned. Among the places she toured across the country, she saw unexpected connections between both a Mandir (a Hindu temple for worship) and a Baptist church that’s been working with its community since the Spanish Flu.
“So many of the common themes of what we’re dealing with right now just naturally played out in these eight episodes,” Brown said. “It wasn’t even a conscious decision, I guess. Just unconsciously I was drawn to talking to monks, talking to baptist ministers and learning how to come out of isolation, how to come out of this time of contemplation.”
Brown said after months of being home and scrolling through her social media feeds, finally getting back out in the world “reinforced [her] love of travel.”
“If I’m sitting there watching the news, I’m thinking, ‘But what’s gonna happen? This is just a dumpster fire, right?'” Brown joked. “And it’s when I travel that I realize we’re going to be okay. I always feel that way. When you meet people, you realize we have so much resilience, so much power. We have so much love to give.”
Although it may have taken a period of forced isolation to remember the emotional value of journeying for connection, Brown hopes this new season will remind Americans that the value of travel isn’t about how far away you can go, but how open you can become.
“Meeting people,” she explained. “It all comes down to that.”