It was on a lonely solo business trip to the US in 2008 that Carolyn Pearson, founder of Maiden Voyage decided to create a network for professional women business travellers. Today maiden-voyage.com has members from more than 100 countries – enabling businesswomen to connect while travelling, offering global ambassadors to share information, from where to grab a good manicure to local business etiquette and dress codes and compiling a list of ‘female-friendly’ hotels that adhere to the highest safety standards. We talk to her about her ongoing mission to empower women travellers - and how to turn a business trip into a pleasure.
We’ve created an army of stroppy women!
Carolyn Pearson looks justifiably pleased with herself when she describes how far she has come since she set up maiden-voyage.com in 2008. Her social network for female business travellers came about after one business trip too far – yet another weekend of feeling trapped in her hotel and uncomfortable with going out on her own in a strange city.
Now she has nearly 12,000 members in more than 100 countries – all with access to Maiden Voyage’s 81 global ambassadors, a database of female-friendly hotels and a secure social network of other female travellers. While it’s free for individuals, large corporations pay for their staff to join. “Our clients are some of the world’s biggest organisations: oil and gas, Silicon Valley tech giants and some of the world’s biggest entertainment companies. They love what we’re doing,” says Pearson. “When we speak to HR teams, we find that Maiden Voyage actually helps with retention and attracting female talent.”
The global ambassadors are on hand to provide invaluable information for female business travellers, everything from local business etiquette and dress codes to the most relaxed places for lone females to eat and drink without feeling self-conscious. Personal safety is one of Maiden Voyage’s prime issues, and that starts with training hotels to be more aware of female travellers’ needs.
Pearson points out an obvious but often overlooked example of where hotels go wrong. “Women now challenge hotels when their room number is announced out loud,” she says of her “army of stroppy women”. “We’ve really pushed back on that, not just at reception, where we ask for another room and this time be discreet about it. But also at breakfast, when they bellow it across the dining room, or in the spa, where there’s a book where you have to write your name and room number.”
Having the confidence to stand up for yourself is key, says Pearson. “If you have a problem with the room that you’re in, challenge it. If you’re right at the end of a corridor opposite a fire exit, I would ask if they have something nearer to the lifts. I also wouldn’t want to be on the ground floor. Women need to be aware of their rights and go back and say they’re not comfortable with the room. Because you’re not effective if you’ve slept with one eye and one ear open.”
Arming yourself with knowledge about the destination is another way of empowering women travellers, particularly about which areas to avoid and if there are any cultural or religious issues to be aware of. And don’t be afraid to show some self-assurance rather than rely on the old lone-traveller tricks. “Put your iPhone and your book away and look around and engage with the environment,” she suggests.
You could be sitting at home, but your company has paid to send you somewhere. I always try to make a little mini holiday out of every business trip.
Pearson raises a crucial point about hotel safety that might sound alarming but is important to know. Her main criterion for female-friendly hotels is that there is a separate lock on the door, either a chain or a bolt. “We’ve done a lot of research and we know the statistics from women who have had some incidents. And we know of some pretty horrific incidents of women who’ve been assaulted in hotels by staff,” she says.
“If there’s a second lock, then the staff can’t let themselves in with a master key. I wouldn’t say lock it just when you go to bed – do it when you get into the room. I’ve been in hotel rooms that staff have let themselves into pretending that they’re in for one reason and clearly they are in for another – probably to rob the room. If you keep that door double locked at all times, you’ll be safe.”
Pearson stresses that politeness should come secondary to personal safety, and passes on advice she has picked up from the Metropolitan Police. “We work with them on hotel security. They say you wouldn’t answer your door to a stranger at 10pm, but actually a hotel is a public place,” she says. “You’re answering your door and letting someone into your territory. So use your chain or the spyhole. If you’re not certain, check with reception. We had one woman who said she had some guy knocking on her door at 8am saying he was from maintenance. She rang reception, who said maintenance wasn’t even in yet.”
According to the Women in Business Travel Report, commissioned by Maiden Voyage in 2016, 79 per cent of female business travellers felt they were underprepared to deal with incidents they had encountered while away. “Complacency is your biggest enemy,” says Pearson, recalling a recent incident while staying in a London hotel. “I was going into the lift and a guy was coming in, and before I knew it I was out of the lift again. My instinct had just taken me straight out of the lift. I pretended I had forgotten my key. It wasn’t even conscious any more, because I was so tuned into what I needed to do.”
It’s a delicate balance between instilling confidence in women and not putting them off the idea of travelling for business. And it’s something that comes up regularly in the safety courses that Maiden Voyage offers its members, both online and in person.
“Be aware of the dangers but don’t let them debilitate you,” advises Pearson. “We struggle with that because every day we hear of horrendous situations. We could scare ourselves to death and then never travel. But I’m more inclined to travel by myself now, because I’ve got a plan B and a plan C.”
Indeed. In fact, Pearson’s next trip will be a sailing holiday in Tahiti – on her own.