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These Women Founded Groundbreaking Travel Startups - and Their Story Could Inspire Yours

Business Travel
by Tim Wenger Mar 25, 2024

With a hearty laugh, Alexis Bowen recalls the most unique moment in the acquisition process of her boutique travel marketplace. She and business partner Craig Zapatka were in Paris filming a promo shoot with marketers from the graphic design tool platform Canva the day their business, Elsewhere, signed an offer from Lonely Planet.

“We were literally excusing ourselves from the shoot to go the restroom to check out the contract,” Bowen says.

On that day in 2021, the pair were not yet a year into the startup journey, but their product had found resonance with post-pandemic travelers seeking authentic connections with places around the globe. By connecting travelers with local guides, Elsewhere began to help foster travel experiences that benefitted both the visitors and the communities being visited.

Elsewhere’s short-but-sweet acquisition story is the stuff of legend, though it’s certainly not the norm in the startup world. Visions of self-fulfillment, financial freedom, and, of course, a vagabond’s lifestyle provide the fuel for nearly every startup in the travel space.

“But a startup is an extreme and bipolar existence – you can live or die on any day,” Bowen says.

Susie Chau, founder of Carpe Diem Traveler, started her travel advising consultancy after taking a year-long sabbatical to travel the world. The knowledge gained and connections made through that experience and other travels gave her the desire to share her wisdom to help other travelers take better trips.

“I think more and more people are searching for businesses that have a soul, depth, and purpose to them,” Chau says. “They also see the value of connecting with and giving money to businesses that align with their values. It’s all about finding the thing that solves a problem or helps someone achieve a desire to get the profit, but you can infuse your values into the process.”

These two entrepreneurs offered five helpful tips for women looking to found a business in the travel industry.

alexis bown of elsewhere

Alexis Bowen co-founded Elsewhere. Photo courtesy Alexis Bown

Innovate by remaining dedicated and nimble

Data shows that up to 85 percent of travel decisions are made by women. They tend to be more interested in travel and more willing to make sacrifices to pursue it. Yet only one-third of businesses in the travel space are run by women. This stems from decades of gender-centric malfeasance in the business, but recent trends indicate that change is afoot – data now shows that 42 percent of US businesses now identify as woman-owned. The travel industry has seen a rapid increase in female founders since the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There is so much room to expand and innovate in the transformational travel space,” Chau says about why she founded Carpe Diem Traveler. “I’m passionate about helping professionals take sabbaticals to travel. For most sabbatical-takers, there’s a deeper purpose or catalyst for taking that journey. Digging into those conversations to design a trip that meets their goals and vision was so fulfilling.”

Chau found product-market fit by understanding the disconnect between travel advisors and the reasons why their clients travel.

“Particularly in North America, we put all our attention on the ‘where and what’ of travel instead of the ‘why and how,’” Chau says. “There is so much space to explore and guide the evolution of travelers thinking differently about how and why they travel.”

For Elsewhere, that innovation came in the form of timing. Launching in the heart of the pandemic gave Bowen the chance to help people come back to travel in a more meaningful way by connecting with locals to guide their journey. It turned out she wasn’t the only one with this line of thought, but was the first to bring it to market while embracing out-of-the-box marketing strategies. Lonely Planet first reached out to Bowen and Zapatka just over two months after Elsewhere was founded in 2020. The media brand’s ambitions remained ambiguous – until Bowen addressed the elephant in the room.

“We were like, why the hell are they talking to us?” she says. “They didn’t lead with anything about doing business together. After our third or fourth conversation, I asked straight out, ‘Why are you guys talking to us?’”

Run a lean machine

Six months in, Elsewhere was working to grow day-to-day sales. But the clients they landed were high-quality and values-aligned, which proved the brand’s product-market fit. Also, Bowen kept the overhead low.

“We were running such a lean machine that we were break-even month over month,” Bowen says. “We made some mistakes, but we were so young that there were more wins.”

This made it easy for the pair to meld with an “acquihire” arrangement, where the company was purchased but Bowen and Zapatka remained on board to run the operations.

At Carpe Diem Traveler, Chau used the pandemic to reframe her approach.

“Late last year I had a lightbulb moment that the same intentionality – and process I use with clients – can be applied to a typical vacation to make it so much more meaningful,” Chau says.

susie chau of carpe diem traveler

Susie Chau founded and operates Carpe Diem Traveler. Photo courtesy Susie Chau.

Embrace outside-the-box marketing strategies

Both Bowen and Chau advise founders to reach out to other founders for advice, and to never be afraid to do outreach. The lesson is to write and respond honestly and authentically, no matter who you’re talking to.

Bowen says that one of the things Elsewhere did well was lean into a self-hustle PR strategy. The brand embraced influencers early on, sticking key players on their trips in exchange for social posts and coverage. They targeted not just travel players but alsosustainability and tech influencers. The goal was to get as many eyeballs on the brand for as little money as possible.

“I also must have responded to hundreds of HAROs,” Bowen says, referring to the site Help a Reporter Out. This provided media placements and SEO-boosting backlinks. It also, spontaneously, connected Elsewhere with the graphic design tool Canva, who chose Elsewhere as the face of a startup success story campaign. This is what led to Bowen’s crazy, bathroom-bound acquisition experience. Canva flew Bowen and Zaptaka to Paris to film the promo, and it was on this trip that the contract from Lonely Planet came in.

“If you write a well-written and thoughtful email, people will respond,” Bowen says.

Thinking big-picture is key to unlocking your brand’s unlimited potential

The sudden drop in business during the pandemic killed many companies in the sector, but it also gave enterprising entrepreneurs the chance to bring fresh ideas to the table. When borders began reopening in 2021, it was the fresh thinkers who saw traction first.

“The return of travel after the pandemic was a really rough time for me and the industry as a whole,” Chau says. “Demand was amazing, but everything was more complicated with testing rules and many destinations, tour operators, and hotels were not ready for the tsunami of visitors. It created a lot of issues. Those challenges exacerbated some of the gut feelings about changes I wanted to make in my business that I pushed aside for years because it wasn’t “logical.”

At Elsewhere, Bowen knew their model worked and knew it benefitted local guides and communities. They’d watched similar concepts rise and fall, and had taken note of where they’d gone wrong. Still, following the acquisition Bowen had to reframe how she thought about her business and her role in it.

“We were a brand new startup, we had unlimited potential,” Bowen says. “It was really hard to think of Elsewhere as a subsidiary. We grew Elsewhere as a standalone brand, we care so deeply about it. We built this business to be our dream job, we thought of it as a lifelong career – those of us who build something travel build it for passion. So it was about giving up the idea that this would be a lifelong thing.”

But the opportunity to align with a legacy business in the industry proved to big an opportunity to pass up. Through it Elsewhere gained added brand recognition and more financial resources, even if they had to accept not being the company’s top priority at all times.

Believe in your ideas and in the ‘future of you’

Starting and growing a business takes resilience. This is true no matter the niche – and both Bowen and Chau note that you must be willing to get back up each time you’re knocked down.

“The biggest shift going from corporate America to owning a business is that you can’t solve all your problems or create all your strategies from your logical brain,” Chau says. “Listening to your intuition is critical to running a business that flows and feels aligned.”

Bowen emphasized the same point. “There’s ups and downs, and during the downs, you figure out ways to make things work that you wouldn’t have thought of before,” she says.

Elsewhere was acquired at nine months – a rapid turnaround even in the lightning-speed world of startups. Bowen emphasizes that the takeaway from her company’s first year is that yes, you should pursue your business idea, but be prepared to dive in fully and always look forward – because you never know who’s watching.

“I don’t think anyone realizes how hard starting a company is – you throw your life into it,” Bowen says. “Our acquisition wasn’t big in the grand scheme, but for us, it was massive. We weren’t building for an acquisition, but we knew the value of the company. Really, we were nobody, but they noticed right away that there was something there.”

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