Footloose and fancy package deals

Wherever I may roam: The decade-old WOW (Women on Wanderlust) Club caters to the needs of women who choose to explore the world on their own.

Wherever I may roam: The decade-old WOW (Women on Wanderlust) Club caters to the needs of women who choose to explore the world on their own.   -  WOW Club

Sumitra Senapaty set up the WOW Club travel platform for women 10 years ago

Sumitra Senapaty set up the WOW Club travel platform for women 10 years ago

Two by two: A Mom and Kid trip organised by Wonderful World

Two by two: A Mom and Kid trip organised by Wonderful World

The leisure needs of a growing chunk of independent-minded women now mean serious business. And for people with special needs, money is often no bar, lack of accessibility is

When Jayanthi Prasad, a senior executive in a Bengaluru-based MNC, decided to travel by herself, her worst fears came true — from not-too-friendly strangers to encountering many more who were ready to take a lone woman traveller for a ride.

Worries over cheating, theft and personal safety took the fun off such trips. It was then that Prasad discovered a travel firm that caters only to women and takes them to the most exciting destinations. Whether it’s rafting in Rishikesh or Christmas in Europe, Cape of Good Hope in South Africa or Land of Thunder Dragons Bhutan, the WOW (Women on Wanderlust) Club allows women to explore the world on their own and caters to their every need along the way.

As for Sayoni Basu, who runs Duckbill publishing house, the idea of holidaying with her young son tempted her to try the Mom and Kid package from Shibani Vig’s travel firm, Wonderful World. Vig sensed the need for specialised travel services when she was in her 30s and her friends were not able to accompany her on holidays.

“I am a single parent, for all practical purposes, and realised that just as I wanted to travel with my son, there were other mothers out there with a similar need,” she says.

That sparked off the idea for her Mom and Kid packages.

Basu joined happily with her son. “The idea of mom and children travelling together was interesting. It is different from the usual family vacations. So I gave it a shot. Moreover, it is a new experience to go with unfamiliar people, all of whom love to travel,” says the publisher.

The leisure and recreation needs of a growing chunk of independent-minded women now mean serious business, as WOW Club founder Sumitra Senapaty realised early on.

Special packages

The decade-old company today undertakes close to 100 trips every year, with 50 destinations on offer within India and outside — from Ladakh, Kerala and Kashmir, to Japan, Iceland and Morocco. “We also do trekking and rafting adventure holidays besides wellness and rejuvenation breaks,” says Senapaty.

Vig’s relatively new company organised 15 specialised trips in 2015, and is chalking up more than 20 for next year. Another category of travellers whose needs are finally being recognised are those with physical disabilities. A clutch of travel agencies are now putting together services that make holidays accessible, fun and memorable for globe-trotters with special needs.

It was in December 2009 that Pagir (People’s Action Group for Inclusion and Rights) approached Gouthami, CEO of Travel Another India (TAI), to draw up an itinerary for guests with disabilities. The firm now specialises in tours to Ladakh for wheelchair-users, and the demand is growing.

TAI also customises a range of packages for guests with disabilities. “We carry our own ramps,” Gouthami says.

A similar effort is underway in Bengaluru. Abha Saxena’s Enchanting Escapades is planning its first accessible tourism trip from Leh to Nubra Valley and Khardungla Pass to Pangong Lake. “There are not many destinations that are accessible to people with disabilities. Only in Leh-Ladakh have some hotels modified facilities to meet the needs of the differently-abled,” says Saxena.

Gouthami, however, sees this as a market with a huge potential. “There are people with disabilities who have sufficient money to travel… If more destinations can be made accessible, there will be a boom in this niche sector,” she says.

Vacation highs

Within 10 years of launch, Senapaty’s special travel service for women is witnessing a rise in demand. “There is a clear 80 per cent growth in our turnover, with a 15 per cent growth in the number of trips as well as women travelling with us,” she says.

Vig, too, is seeing a transformation in her customers. “In the beginning, I had to beg friends and family to join us. Now we have women across age groups travelling with us alone or with kids.”

WOW Club’s packages are priced from ₹21,000 for a domestic trip to ₹7 lakh for a three-week holiday in South America. Senapaty says there is no dearth of takers, as everything is well-managed and taken care of — hotels, sightseeing, some of the meals, transfers, services of a guide, coach travel and unique experiences such as a balloon ride over the Nile, an opera show in Vienna, Russian ballet performance, wine-tasting in South Africa or a wildlife safari in Africa.

Vig’s clients are mostly in the late-30s to early-50s, and nearly 80 per cent of them are working women. Each trip also attracts a fair share of senior citizens. “They are definitely looking for company and have the disposable income. Many have lost their husbands,” she adds. The oldest customer so far at Wonderful World is a 78-year-old woman, who recently returned from a trip to Turkey.

“The concentration of single mothers on our last Mom and Kids trip was pretty high — at about 70 per cent of the group,” says Vig.

To be able to offer a personalised experience, both WOW Club and Wonderful World keep the group sizes small.

Senapaty signs up no more than 16-20 women, most of whom are financially independent and in the 25-70 age group.

Both companies attract the highest number of travellers from Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kochi and Ahmedabad. Now they are discovering a new demand in tier 2 and tier 3 cities. Enquiries and travellers are trickling in from smaller centres like Thrissur, Ludhiana, Mysore, Jaipur, Jammu, Baroda and Manipal.

Additionally, Senapaty says her company manages to recover all costs from the trips. “Of course we break even on every trip,” she asserts. Vig’s two-year-old firm, on the other hand, is able to recover costs only “on some trips”. She points out that as margins are very thin, the number of trips should increase to make the business lucrative.

“And therein lies the problem, as expansion could lead to a reduction in service quality,” she says.

She prefers to take a path of slow growth, both in terms of the number of trips as well as group size. “The experience that people get on these holidays is most important for us at this stage,” she adds.

Meanwhile, Senapaty’s WOW Club, which currently has offices in Delhi and Bengaluru, intends to open a third branch in India in the near future.

“We also plan to offer customised tours for women,” Senapaty says. Setting her sights even higher, she hopes to open overseas franchises. “We envision all-woman groups coming to India to explore it,” she says.

However, when it comes to the challenges of the business, the biggest of them all is faced by Gouthami and Saxena. While they do their best to customise packages, they are completely dependent on hotels and transportation services to make facilities accessible to the disabled.

Diversity and inclusivity… these are, clearly, the markers of a brave new world of travel.

Published on November 20, 2015

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