Last spring, Doni Belau of Bedford took a group of women to Paris on what she called a “fire tour,” a one-off excursion she organized in the spirit of her friend Debbie Phillips’s book, Women on Fire.
“I asked the ladies at the culmination of our five days to toss a coin or whatever they chose to represent something they wanted to get rid of into the Saint-Sulpice fountain,” she says. The toss was meant to be a therapeutic ritual. “One woman threw in her wedding ring. She’d been divorced several years, but needed to let go of the pain she had been holding on to. We convinced her to fish it back out and sell it on eBay. This act, as well as the magical five days we shared in Paris together, helped her replace her painful feelings about the City of Light—painful because she’d gotten engaged there.”
Belau says traveling with a group of women to Paris is magical; watching the process of how 10 virtual strangers become intimate friends after a few days of travel never ceases to amaze her—so much so that she’s made it her business. Belau is the founder and CEO of Girls’ Guide to Paris, a comprehensive online travel site offering women a highly detailed and critiqued guide of where to dine, visit, stay, and, of course, shop while in “La Ville-Lumière.” The site also offers female travelers downloadable, do-it-yourself walking tours, the skinny on retail and salon deals, even where to get an emergency manicure. Belau’s ultimate goal? “To get as many women as possible to go to Paris, and not wait to fulfill their dreams,” she says.
Her love affair with Paris is a perfect example of how to turn a passion into a livelihood. Girls’ Guide to Paris, launched in 2009, now receives 125,000 visitors each month. At present, Belau employs 15 correspondents writing from within the city limits. Every week, under Belau’s guidance, the site includes fresh tips and updates on Parisienne must-do’s, insider info for fashionistas, and nightlife guides. Recently, she’s branched out into the world of mobile apps as well.
Belau, who grew up in Nebraska, has lived in Bedford since 1992. “What I liked immediately about living in Bedford was how friendly a place it is and how at home I felt in such a short time,” she says. “I lived for years in New York City and had never felt part of a community as I have now for 20-plus years in Bedford. And that reminds me of where I grew up in Nebraska, a place where my dad seems to know everyone’s name.”
Belau lives four to six months each year in France, either in her home in Bordeaux or apartment in Paris. “Our family has been living in France part-time now for 14 years. It’s a second home for us,” she says. The family—which includes a 23-year-old son, a 20-year-old daughter, and her husband of 26 years—also has an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and a boat in Stonington, Connecticut. “I get bored,” she says, “and since our kids have left home I move around a lot!”
That wasn’t always the case. Belau discovered Paris when she was just 17 years old. “Paris became a passion,” she says. “It’s a fantasy destination for a lot of women.” She worked as a model only for a very short time. “It helped me move from Nebraska to New York City as it paid the bills,” Belau says. “When I went from a ‘house model’ for a fashion brand to waitressing jobs and temp secretary jobs, my bank account, my social life, and my ability to pay rent on time suffered big-time! It’s so much easier to get used to life with money than without,” she laughs.
“At the time I conceived of Girls’ Guide, I was looking for a way out of saving the world,” Belau says, referring to her post-modeling stints working in politics and nonprofits, including working as a volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign and volunteering for Riverkeeper, New York’s clean-water advocate. “I needed to focus on something fun and light. Creating and overseeing Girls’ Guide really is 95 percent enjoyment.”
Doni Belau shares her love of Paris with women, such as the group she traveled with last spring.
Belau says birthing the site took more than nine months. “In some ways, it was more difficult and challenging than having my two kids,” she says. “I faced a steep learning curve in so far as the tech world was concerned. Plus, we started from scratch with the design and didn’t use a template. And no, we were not an instant hit. We’ve gone from four readers—my immediate family—in September of 2009 to 1.5 million in 2014.”
Girls’ Guide is arranged in pertinent categories: travel, dining, shopping, sleeping, guided tours, and culture and art. Additionally there are blogs and a bi-monthly newsletter, which includes invites to events such as the grand opening of a flagship store on the Rue Saint-Honoré. Other unique offerings on the site include a guide to walking and shopping in Saint-Germain, culture tips, fashion finds, and monthly wine tips, as well as how to book a private tutor or get the best French cooking—or speaking—lessons in Paris.
A recent suggested walking tour offered by the newsletter was “Through Fashionable Paris in the Steps of Audrey Hepburn.” It began at the spot where young Hepburn first met with Hubert de Givenchy in 1954, when she was about to film Sabrina; followed her exploration along Avenue de Matignon, the supposed location where William Holden searches for inspiration in Paris When It Sizzles; then crossed the road to the gardens between the Champs-Élysées and the Avenue Gabriel, featured in both Charade and How to Steal a Million, the film in which Hepburn and her co-star, Peter O’Toole, sit on a park bench plotting the heist of their lives.
“What we offer is girlfriend-to-girlfriend information,” Belau says. She’s especially excited about the new Girls’ Guide’s GO-Card, designed for travelers and expats alike. The GO-Card offers its users savings on hotels or apartment rentals, dining, spas, and shopping, and comes with all 18 of the site’s walking tours and a one-year subscription to the digital magazine, Girls’ Guide to Europe. (The site is free to read, but the tours, the magazine, and the GO-Card cost money.) “Living like a VIP for less is what it’s all about, and we think it’s the smartest way to travel to Paris,” Belau says. There are also partner tours available through the GO-Card that can be added on at special discount, like a VIP tour of Versailles, including viewing parts of the château not usually open to the public.
Partnerships are sourced either by Belau herself or by a member of her team. “We’ve asked our GO-Card partners for the best deals they can give our readers and members,” Belau says. “We carefully handpick only those companies we truly believe in and would recommend to a best friend. And each partner gets a page on our site.”
Running a Paris-based business from Bedford seems like a bit of a juggling act, though, doesn’t it? “I’m in France myself four to six times a year for a month at a time,” Belau says. She notes that Girls ‘Guide has become a fully global operation, as there are, at any given time, 15 to 20 freelancers in Paris writing for the site, as well as a three-person IT team in Brooklyn. The apps guy works from New Zealand, while the business-development director is based in Paris. Belau is now focused on developing an accompanying print magazine, and she recently hired a full-time assistant.
Will there be other Girls’ Guides, like London or Barcelona, perhaps? “I would like to further explore my inner gypsy,” Belau said a bit slyly. “We’ll just have to see about that.”
Ardent fans have happily weighed in on Girls’ Guide to Paris via emails and postings on the site.
“I just discovered Girls’ Guide to Paris and have been enjoying perusing many of the articles on various ‘things to see.’” —Brenda Grant-Hays
“It’s certain to be a destination for those in or traveling to Europe or simply people fascinated with all things Paris.” —Jane K
“LOVE this site—I am a Francophile—and this is the best site I belong to. This website is a gold mine.” —Denise Whittaker-Hoar