Keeping solo female business travellers safe is the number one priority for Maiden Voyage. Lizzie Murphy spoke to founder Carolyn Pearson.
Hanging around airports can be stressful for some people, for others it’s just dull.
But for Carolyn Pearson it is where she feels truly at home.
“I can honestly say, I really feel at my best when I get into an airport,” she says. “It’s that anticipation, the excitement and the buzz you get and the knowledge that you’re going to land in a different country, experience different people, culture, and food. I think it’s so thrilling.”
Pearson, 52, is the enthusiastic chief executive of female business traveller company Maiden Voyage.
The Leeds-based firm, which has seven staff, started in 2008 as an online social network to connect solo female business travellers on work trips.
Pearson came up with the idea while on a business trip in LA. “I didn’t want to stay in my room and have room service, I wanted to get out and experience LA but there wasn’t anyone to do it with,” she says.
Maiden Voyage now has 12,000 members in over 100 countries and works with some of the world’s biggest companies, including BP, UBS, Matalan, a Premiership football club, a Hollywood entertainment company and a Silicon Valley technology giant.
The company has also compiled a list of female-friendly hotels around the world which meet its stringent safety requirements, including 24/7 manned reception, a well-lit entrance as well as two independent locks. Hotels on the list also have to include ‘must-haves’ such as decent hairdryers, full-length mirrors and convenient plug sockets.
A growing area for the business is safety and Maiden Voyage provides safety advice and training to companies, hotels and travellers.
“When company is sending staff away on business, it is completely responsible if something happens to them, they have a duty of care obligation to them to look after them,” Pearson says. “When we train hotel staff, it’s about being discreet when checking women in and making them feel comfortable when dining.”
Maiden Voyage works with 80 ambassadors in 80 cities around the world, who have written guides about the local business etiquette, things to do and places to go.
“A lot of the members get in touch with them before they travel and ask about the business dress code and if it’s safe to go out for a run,” she says.
Meeting other business travellers can sometimes have an unexpected outcome.
“One of our members had an undiagnosed food allergy,” Pearsons says. “She got to know another member who was a nutritionist and she was correctly diagnosed as a result after 10 years of not knowing what was wrong.”
The demand for Maiden Voyage is growing as travel safety becomes ever more important. A rise in female corporate travellers, increased travel risks and tighter duty of care policies, along with the increase in social media, have created a “perfect storm” for the company, according to Pearson.
“We were in the right place at the right time to create something that was not only a solution to a problem but also a viable business,” she says.
The organisation has just launched its e-learning platform, which has gained interest from large global organisations. Pearson also wants to build Maiden Voyage’s community and is expanding its footprint in the US.
When it comes to her ambition for the business, her primary goal is safety: “No woman should ever have to travel on business and not feel safe,” she says.
Born and brought up in Pendle, Lancashire, Pearson left school with ‘barely any qualifications’ and started working as an office junior at medical technology group Smith and Nephew.
It was when she moved into their IT department that her career started to take off. She went on to do a degree in Business and IT and worked her way up to programmer, business analyst, project manager and eventually became a head of IT working for travel and media businesses including KLM, easyJet, ITV and the BBC.
At the age of 25 she took a year out to backpack around Australia, Hawaii and the US. “I just really wanted to travel. It’s in my blood,” she says.
Later on, she spent six years working in Holland for Sony Music and learned fluent Dutch.
Over the years, she has completed an MBA as well as the Advanced Development Programme in Leadership with Cranfield School of Management.
She was head of ecommerce for EasyJet when she came up with the Maiden Voyage idea. “Travel has been a common theme throughout my career,” she says. “I’m an extrovert and I’m really sociable, so although IT is nerdy, travel and entertainment are both really sociable industries. I like the human interaction. I collect friends around the world.”
However, one of the challenges she faced when setting up her own business was selling her product. “I didn’t want to become a sales person,” she admits.
“If you are creating a new product in a new market, you’ve got a big hill to climb to convince people to be the first mover to buy that product. I had no sales training whatsoever so it was trial and error.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned is ‘the less you sell, the more they buy’. Some of my biggest contracts have bought because they’ve been monitoring the business themselves.”
Although Pearson has travelled all over the world, there is still one holiday she is desperate to tick off her bucket list. “Sailing in Tahiti. I’ve been wanting to go for 20 years and now it’s on the agenda,” she says happily.
Carolyn Pearson Fact File
Title: CEO of Maiden Voyage
Date of birth: December 29, 1964
Education: Primet High School in Colne; Business; IT degree at the University of Central Lancashire; MBA in Liverpool; leadership course at Cranfield School of Management.
First job: YTS office junior at Pendle Heritage Centre
Favourite holiday: Tahiti - I’m planning to go there soon
Favourite song: Right Here, Right Now, by Fatboy Slim
Favourite film: 8 Mile
Car driven: Nissan Qashqai
Last book read: The Sleep Revolution, by Arianna Huffington
Most proud of: Getting a distinction in my MBA.