Carolyn Pearson is not a business woman who shies away from the world of men. Far from it. For the first 22 years of her career she worked in the hugely male-dominated world of IT. It’s an experience she laughs off with a shrug.
“There’s never a queue for the ladies in the IT world,” she says. “I started right at the bottom in data entry,” she says, “and worked up to be head of IT for KLM City Hopper, then the Coach Holiday Group which also owned Wallace Arnold. I then worked in a similar role for KLM in Amsterdam, Australia, and finished up being head of IT for ITV productions. We were managing systems for big productions with ITV, such as the scripting systems at the back of Emmerdale or Corrie.” But it was on a lonely business trip to Los Angeles some years ago where she had an experience that finally convinced her to completely change tack.
The results was maiden-voyage.com, a website and social network she runs for women business travellers that could soon be checking out a hotel near you. “I love to travel, and I had planned a weekend in LA prior to my meetings there,” says Pearson. “But then I thought: ‘Ooh, I’m in LA, might I get kidnapped? Is it safe to go to places like Santa Monica and Venice Beach on my own?’ I thought it would be nice to meet up with another lady who was also visiting on business, but there was no chance of that.
In fact downtown LA, which was where the hotel was, was pretty dead on a Sunday night. I thought: ‘I have Hollywood out there and I am not going to see any of that.’” Determined never to repeat such an experience, she had the germ of an idea for a website where business women travelling abroad who might be nervous about going to new places could compare notes, make recommendations and, if they want to, meet up.
The more she thought about it, the more she thought it would be a fulfilling new move for her. “I had come up with ideas in the past and not acted on them,” she says. “But I thought this time I will act on this. I was very comfortable in my job at ITV, but creatively I wasn’t being stretched. I thought if I start this business I can test myself.” Pearson had in fact already been helping women as a mentor, both through Forward Ladies and through MentorSET, an organisation set up to encourage more women into science and engineering careers. Maiden-voyage.com aims to be equally welcoming and membership of the site is free.
“I decided really early on that I would never charge, because I wanted a mass of ladies,” says Pearson. “Ladies register, and they get basic access, but then we call them and make sure they are genuinely ladies. Once we have done that we can give access to the networking. “It’s like Friends Reunited – they can’t see each other’s contact details but they can contact each other through the site. Ladies can see, for example, who is going to London, what such a lady likes to do, and perhaps they can meet each other and do something nice together.” Clearly with membership being free, revenue has to be generated elsewhere, and in maiden-voyage.com’s case it’s through advertising, particularly from hotels who think they could appeal to lone women business travellers. But their say-so alone isn’t enough.
“We are really picky,” she says. “We don’t just sell to any hotel that wants to be on site. We go and inspect them and only allow them on the site when I feel they will meet the criteria. Thanks to the site, I now have a network of members who will inspect hotels for me.” Things have certainly grown. The site now has more than 660 members worldwide and is getting 2,000 visitors each month.
Some 50 hotels are already advertising on it, with another five in the pipeline, and there is a telemarketing campaign about to get under way to attract some more. These are not just hotels in the UK either.
“We have hotels in Dubai, Spain, Indonesia, one in the US coming on board, and one in Amsterdam,” says Pearson, who was fortunate because the site generated a lot of media interest fairly early on, first with the Guardian and a clutch of magazines, but more particularly when CNN did a feature on it.
“The website went global after that,” she says. “We had enquiries from ladies in Kosovo, Yemen and Dubai – and we had lots of ladies from the US. I initially wanted to launch in the UK and then maybe in Holland because I speak Dutch and had worked there, but the site went international quickly. There isn’t really anything else like it. There are lots of websites for lone female travellers, not specifically for business travellers.” The site’s success certainly confounded her husband, an IT project manager, back home in Huddersfield.
“He just thinks it’s a hobby,” she says. “But it’s not really his bag.” In fact the business is getting more serious now, because in partnership with training company Welcome Training, Pearson has started offering hotels training programmes in how to become more female-friendly. The training was piloted at the Crowne Plaza Thorpe Park Hotel in Leeds and Pearson says the hotel industry has taken to it warmly. When any hotel wants to take part, for a month before the training starts, maidenvoyage.com gives its female customers access to an online survey when they check out which asks such questions as where their room was in the hotel, did they feel safe there, and were menu options in the restaurant suitably weighted towards a diet-conscious woman traveller? “We then do a mystery shop,” says Pearson.
“One of our members checks into the hotel to see what it’s really like. After that the hotel staff get a training course that is all about customer service, but feminised. We also give them a bit of knowledge about female consumers; how to sell to them, why as women we buy, why we don’t buy, and particularly how we recommend and the power of that recommendation. After all, women are problem-solvers. They are more than likely to say to someone who is going to a hotel they have experience of: ‘Don’t go there because XYZ happened to me when I was there’.
“We have also made a film with women about the experiences they have had which we show to those on the course. Then they do a hotel walkabout to see how they can make a more female-friendly product and how they can capitalise on that.” Any hotel general manager is deliberately left out of such training.
“That’s so that staff become empowered to make changes,” she says. “We also appoint a female-friendly champion and they and the trainer put together an action plan.” But what kind of issues does such training raise? Pearson insists that even a brief survey of members on her site and of the research she has undertaken has shown that in general in the industry there have been, and still are, major failings.
“A lot of members have contacted us to say they have been travelling for 20 years, and had this site been there it would have raised awareness and they would not have been treated as an embarrassment in the hotel restaurant, and so on,” she says. She certainly has stringent criteria when it comes to picking hotels that are suitable to advertise on her site.
“They have got to have 24/7 reception, a friendly entrance that is not down a back street and we like spy holes and two locks on room doors. The rooms also need to have decent hair driers, not vacuum pumps, and decent toiletries – we are looking for high-class brands – and cotton wool tips. It’s also nice if the hotel puts decent magazines in the room.” There are major issues on service too. Pearson says a really common failing is for reception staff to tell a woman checking in what her room number is, right in front of the queue of men behind her. She says some hotel reception staff do this even though the hotel itself has a policy not to. They just need better training. And her own experience has told her that such concerns are not a fuss about nothing.
She says: “I was in one hotel in Paddington in London at teatime, and a guy was leering at me in the lift, practically stalking me. You have to remember that a hotel is a public place. In many ways it’s no different to a train station.” Another really common horror story, she says, is when women are asleep in bed at night and are disturbed by a man coming to the door because the reception staff have mistakenly believed the room is empty. She says this can be as much of an issue for the man as it can be for the woman, as he would not be expecting anyone behind that door. So does she not think the issues the site has raised would be of equal interest to men then? Yes, she says – for example, men today can be just as health-conscious as women. But there are differences which mean she wants to keep the site for ladies only.
“When you bring men into the mix it has a different dynamic,” she says. “Men want to watch sports on telly, and are also more aggressive in networking. Men decide whether they want to network with you based on who you work for, rather than whether you like art galleries.” For a similar reason, although she admits the kind of hotels she inspects would no doubt pass muster for families as well, Pearson – who has no children herself – has no intention of including such information on the site. She wants to keep it niche. So what is a really good example of a female-friendly hotel? Pearson mentions the Marylebone Hotel in London first.
“It’s in a nice area – Welbeck Street. The swimming pool and gym are on site. And Marylebone is a little village, close to Selfridges.” There does seem to be a common theme here, however – almost all the hotels she mentions are in the expensive, five-star category. Does that mean if you have to go cheap you have to forego women’s issues? Pearson thinks it’s a fair point.
“We are speaking to a very large budget group at the moment about potentially doing a brand extension which would mean trialling a certain number of rooms as Maiden Voyage rooms. They would have extra goodies such as a quality toiletry provider, and so on. We have already sourced a ladies magazine that would want to participate in that.” That’s not the only plan for the future either. Pearson is also speaking to large corporates about getting memberships. Many multinational organisations, she says, send women all around the world to stay in the same hotels where they may not even realise they work together. But most of all she thinks, thanks to its niche potential, the site could attract a sponsor or two, particularly from a brand that has struggled to market to women before. That’s why she is currently speaking to finance companies and car manufacturers.
“I was invited to take some of my members the other week to a drive-in day with Maserati,” she says. “Those ladies had never considered a Maserati before, but none of us have stopped talking about it since, and should the money fall into our purses we would all go out and buy one. There’s huge potential to work with a client like that.” Because sure enough, the female-friendly message does seem to be spreading far and wide. The latest destination Pearson has been to for an inspection visit is Marrakech.
“Again I was looking at higher class hotels,” she says, “but I inspected three hotels, and all of them passed.” If such attitudes are recognised in a supposedly conservative Islamic country like Morocco, then hotels back home in Blighty should certainly be listening.