Making travel safe and affordable for single women over 50. Well, that was the plan…
The New Travel Business by Sue-Anne Mayne
Last year, with a limited budget, a hankering to explore new places and an empty nest in sight, I set up a friendly homestay community for ID-verified women over 50. Quite a number of midlife and older women who suddenly find themselves single – or like me, are married to someone who prefers to potter at home – don’t have anyone to travel with. And the prospect of staying in a soulless hotel room, or dining alone with only a book for company, is singularly unappealing.
Enter SisterStay – connecting life-loving women everywhere so that we can travel alone, but stay with a friend – albeit a friend we’ve not yet met. I thought it would be an overnight success – as did my early partner – but it turns out starting your own business, if that’s what this eventually becomes, is a long, hard slog. And many go broke or give up along the way. Most small businesses take at least two to three years to become profitable – even without a pandemic!
Before starting SisterStay, I didn’t have a Facebook profile and I’d never been on Instagram. All I wanted to do was bring women together so we could all make the most of life. I had no idea social media was seen as such an important part of establishing a brand. Even the words “establishing a brand” make me feel like I’ve accidentally wandered into the wrong conversation.
I naively thought I’d mention the idea of SisterStay to a few women’s groups and it would be up and running overnight. I knew exactly which groups to approach; I just didn’t know they would be tougher than the Bank of England to break into.
So, I scanned the Internet for months trying to find a suitable and affordable ‘marketplace website’, then I spent another few months learning to tailor it to SisterStay’s specific needs – all the while watching the bank account decrease and the host numbers stay stubbornly low. One or two generous-spirited businesses saw early merit in the idea and let me place a blog on their website, but mostly it was just word of mouth that put us on the map (so to speak). Slowly, slowly, we gathered a trickle of interesting women who really wanted to be a part of a friendly community opening their homes to welcome others.
Then, in February this year, for the first time, a women’s group magazine actually approached me for an interview. It felt like a real turning point. At last, someone was knocking on my door instead of me constantly hammering on theirs. And our first overseas Hosts began to list in Italy, Australia and the US.
But all the time that I was feeling 2020 was going to be SisterStay’s big year, the one in which women everywhere would discover how fun, easy and affordable solo travel could be, coronavirus was brewing and preparing to shut the whole world down. Not just one country. Not just one industry. COVID-19 has decimated businesses all over the world.
Luckily, SisterStay has only one (absolutely dedicated) employee – me – but it also has a community of women who want to travel but can’t leave their homes and although now is the perfect opportunity to research and contact other potential members, it looks really insensitive trying to drum up business – especially travel business – in the middle of a pandemic.
The main travel season is short at the best of times. This year may be the shortest ever on record. If it actually gets going at all.
In the meantime – while trying to balance a very full and busy house with the whole family home again under lockdown – I am also endeavouring to put out regular social media posts which sound positive, but not frivolous. Sensitive, but still fun.
And I am trying to consolidate that feeling of ‘community’ with newsletters and quizzes and a member-to-member ring-round. Next week, I’m organising my first ever multi-user SisterStay Zoom call! I couldn’t even spell Zoom before all this began.
Setting up an organisation like this – and keeping it alive during lockdown – has been way more complicated and time-consuming than I ever imagined it would be. The learning curve is steep and relentless. But I am absolutely committed to making it work. I truly believe – even if it never makes any money – that older women everywhere deserve to be able to travel and explore and have fun, safely and affordably, and that we are best placed to help one another to do that.
In a funny way, this weird period of lockdown might actually be just what makes people sit back, take stock and really think about how they want to travel in future. Certainly cruises don’t look so exciting right now. But nor does any form of unsustainable travel. We have seen how lots of cities like Venice and Barcelona were suffering from over-tourism. It was awful for the local residents and it detracted from the experience of the tourists. Who really wants to battle with crowds and angry locals while on holiday anyway?
We need to find a way to travel more responsibly, with a greater appreciation for the planet and its local inhabitants. Instead of ticking off all the sights in the major cities, perhaps we will start to explore the day-to-day rhythm of the places we visit – even in our own countries – spending time with the local residents, seeing how they live and forging personal connections which will stay with us way longer than any checklist of tourist hotspots.
Maybe lockdown was just what we needed to imagine a better way forward.
Sue-Anne Mayne is the Founder of SisterStay, a friendly homestay community for ID-verified women over 50. She loves life and is determined to keep living it to the full as she grows older. Her mission – to make sure women everywhere stay positive and engaged – is what gets her out of bed every morning, even under lockdown.
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Stay safe. Stay sane. This isn’t forever. We can do this.
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