When Kim Callender asked women to share their experiences of travelling alone, she was stunned by the response. Speaking to more than 100 women, two things became clear to her: there is a huge market for women who want to travel solo, and there is a disturbing reality that it is often unsafe for them to do so.
“I put that question out there and the response was just overwhelming,” says Callender, a former Google employee. “I had conversations all day every day with women for the first few months.”
Many of the stories she heard were inspirational accounts of a trip that “changed someone’s life” or “changed the direction of someone’s career”.
However, Callender found that for every positive travel anecdote, there were far more conversations describing negative experiences.
“[There’s] the moments that women are followed down the street,” says Callender. “That taxi ride where the driver went off route, and you’re not sure if it’s because they knew a shortcut, or if you’re in danger”.
As Callender continued her research, she realised the safety concerns for women travelling were not limited to young backpackers: “This is a problem that’s ubiquitous,” she says.
The statistics, particularly for women travelling for business, make for grim reading.
She points to research conducted by the Global Business Travel Association, which found that 83% of women who travelled for business in the 12 months before October 2018 experienced a safety-related incident.
“That’s insane. It’s just insane,” Callender says.
While some may find that figure surprisingly high, Callender says that for others, it’s the inverse.
“When I bring this number up to women, there’s often a reaction that is ‘oh, is it that low?’ Because it’s so common.”
Callender left her role as a product manager at Google in early 2021 to co-found SoloTrvlr and tackle these issues head-on. The London-based travel tech startup has created a platform for women who, like her, want to explore the world on their own terms.
The app, which has been beta tested but is yet to launch, will provide insight and advice “by women, for women” on the safety of travel destinations.
Users of SoloTrvlr will be able to swipe to discover information on different destinations, or, if they already know where they want to go, search that location to find relevant content.
Callender, who is the CEO of SoloTrvlr, describes it as a “tech platform powered by a vetted network of well-travelled and local women”.
She accepts that providing travel information is not a new concept, but makes a distinction between already available advice and what the app is seeking to provide.
“The problem isn’t finding information, it’s finding information you can trust,” she explains.
Callender says that instead of acting like a guidebook describing how safe a destination is, it will present insight from vetted, expert women contributors that contextualises information for specific demographics.
She says the company’s strength is in representing a diverse range of experiences within the same destination, from women of different ages, races, sexual orientations, and abilities.
“What we wanted to build was a platform that allowed all of those different experiences to layer in so that you as the traveller can find what resonates with you, but all through a vetted filter.”
The SoloTrvlr team of seven staff is now gearing up for the app’s official launch over the coming months. At the time of launch, users can expect 100 locations available.
The platform will be membership-based, but the company is also looking at other routes for monetisation. Callender says the app is relevant not just to female travellers, but also to companies at all stages of the travel experience.
The startup will also explore partnerships with hotels, airlines, and hospitality businesses that can generate income from tourism.
Building a travel startup mid-pandemic
Callender, alongside Arabella Bowen, co-founded SoloTrvlr in 2021, right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. To some, this might seem an odd time to launch a travel tech company. Callender felt differently.
“I had some people looking at me thinking I was crazy for leaving my comfortable Google job to start a travel startup during a pandemic,” she explains.
“But when I look at other companies, a lot of them have come out of points where the world is going through this massive shift, and that’s true in travel as well.”
Callender says that periods of massive social and economic change are the perfect opportunity for startups to come in and change the status quo. She cited TripAdvisor coming out of the dot com bubble and Airbnb launching during the housing crisis.
At its core, SoloTrvlr was born out of Callender’s love for taking trips alone, something which the founder believes is a uniquely rewarding experience.
She points to the ability “to make the choices in your life” without having to please others and the opportunity to “focus on yourself in a way that’s hard to do when you’re surrounded by your own responsibilities”.
Be it for business or pleasure, solo travelling is an enticing concept for many and yet half the world’s population is facing a very different experience from the other.
While it may be at an early stage of its development, SoloTrvlr has already caught the eye of Expedia, one of the world’s largest travel companies. The US travel giant has included SoloTrvlr as part of its tech accelerator programme, which Callender says was a big moment for her company and the support is “something that every startup needs”.
Armed with support from Expedia and its network, SoloTrvlr has set its sights on raising a pre-seed funding round in the coming months.
For now, the company remains largely fuelled by bootstrapping. Callender said the decision to launch the startup with her own funds came out of frustration with the difficulty female-founded tech firms have securing funding compared to their male-founded counterparts.
“I won’t belabour, but I’m sure that everyone at this point has seen the data,” Callender says.
UK tech companies founded by women last year secured £3.6bn in venture capital funding in 2022, an increase of £700m on the year prior but still just 15% of the £24bn raised by all tech firms across the country.
The US fares worse, with PitchBook data showing female-founded startups secured just 1.9% of all VC funding, which, as Callender puts it, “is a pretty abysmal and frustrating statistic”.
This put Callender in a difficult position. The founder had a choice between raising capital in an unfair funding landscape or “find the people and find the opportunity and build the community and build the network and make it happen” herself.
“I chose to do the latter because I believe there to be incredible potential here.”