Alvaro discusses how the USA compares to other countries in accessibility, misconceptions about accessible travel, and future opportunities for DMOs to reach this important visitor market.
"Our mission as a company is to empower people with disabilities to travel the world without limits. "
Intro: This is Brand USA Talks Travel, elevating the conversation about international travel to the United States. Here's your host, Mark Lapidus.
Mark Lapidus [0:09]: Having grown up in Chile, I'm wondering for most of your friends and family, is touring the United States still high on their list of international places to visit?
Alvaro Silberstein [0:17]: Yes, absolutely. I mean, the US is the US, I would say. Every single person in the world, they grow up looking for US, American movies and actors and athletes and places. So I would say for every person in Chile, visiting the US is an aspirational thing, right? So yes, definitely. Actually, I was visiting my brother two weeks ago, in the Bay Area. We had a lot of fun. He wanted to come again soon.
Mark Lapidus [0:46]: Oh, you live in the Bay Area?
Alvaro Silberstein [0:47]: Yes, I live in Berkeley, in the east side of the Bay.
Mark Lapidus [0:50]: Oh, fantastic. My guest today is Alvaro Silberstein, co-founder of Wheel The World, a company built to transform accessible travel. Alvaro previously held management positions in Chile at Rye Labs and Matrix Consulting. Welcome to Brand USA Talks Travel.
Alvaro Silberstein [1:06]: Thank you, Mark. Very excited to talk with you.
Mark Lapidus [1:08]: Give us the origin story of Wheel The World. How did it all start, and why did it start?
Alvaro Silberstein [1:13]: Yes. So today I'm 38 years old. I've been a wheelchair user for the past 20 years, because I had a car accident and I broke my neck at level C5. I'm quadriplegic. And around five years ago, I came with a good friend, Camilo, with a crazy idea of traveling to Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park. I was already living in Berkeley, California, and I was so inspired by how accessible its nature in general here in the US. compared to my hometown Chile, that I wanted to travel to a place that I always dreamed to travel, that was Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park in the south of Chile. When we started planning the trip with Camilo, who is today my co-founder, and other three friends, we realized that there was no information about how someone in a wheelchair could explore that national park in Chile. Actually, we started talking with local tour companies, and they told us that we have never seen someone in a wheelchair do the trip that we wanted to do, that was completing the W Trek in the national park. So we started figuring out on how to do this trip, finding what were the accessible accommodations, how to move around. We realized that we need a specific equipment that was like a hiking wheelchair, that is manufactured in France. So we transform our trip into a project that was the first time ever of a wheelchair user to complete the W Trek in Patagonia. With the dream to then allow other people to repeat it, figuring out on how to do it, and leaving the equipment and training tour operators over there on how to help other people to repeat this trip after us. Long story short, we made this happen. I became the first person ever in a wheelchair to complete the W Trek in Patagonia. It was a crazy adventure. Our story went pretty viral. We were on the news. We were on the San Francisco Chronicle, in CNN. Mark Zuckerberg posted a video about our story. And what happened? There is hundreds of people started reaching out to us saying, "How cool that trip that Alvaro did. I'm also a wheelchair user. I also want to go to Patagonia." So with Camilo, we started organizing this trip to other people, basically because we knew the information on how to do it. And we started figuring out on how to access people on where to stay, how to move around, talking with the right person who had the wheelchair. In a couple of months, we allow around 50 people, plus their families and friends, to do this trip, people from all over the world. And that's when we started investigating and researching. And it was pretty clear that people with disabilities face challenges to travel anywhere, not only to do a crazy adventure to the end of the world. It's very hard to find what are the accessible accommodations to book in New York, and accessible things to do in L. A. or in Barcelona. Basically, because the information of accessibility is very hard to find, and because every person has different needs in terms of accessibility. So that's when we decided to found the Wheel The World. Our mission as a company is to empower people with disabilities to travel the world without limits. And what we have been building since 2018 is, in one sentence, the Expedia.com but for accessibility. We are listing at wheeltheworld.com hotels, tours, and activities with detailed information of accessibility. When I mean detail accessibility is, what are the width of the doors, the height of the bed, the type of showers, all this information with measurements and also pictures, and a booking engine so our customers can understand exactly what they will encounter when it comes with accessibility to book their vacations, considering accommodation, transportation, methods, and also activities in more than 200 destinations around the world.
Mark Lapidus [5:12]: Is this the reason why you moved to the United States, because a lot of the work is here?
Alvaro Silberstein [5:16]: No, I moved to Berkeley, California to do my MBA.
Mark Lapidus [5:19]: Oh, nice.
Alvaro Silberstein [5:20]: Actually, my essay to apply to UC Berkeley was, "I want to become an entrepreneur to solve problems for people with disabilities." I always wanted to become an entrepreneur. And at some point, I realized that I was always figuring out solving problems regarding my disability that could be replicated for so many other people, that I thought that my life mission would be to help other people with disabilities to live their lives fully and easier. And that was my essay. I had no idea that would be related to travel, but travel has always been something close to my heart and very important for me. And with this Patagonia adventure, everything got connected.
Mark Lapidus [6:06]: You must collect a lot of information. You're talking about things that are extremely detailed. So how do you go about doing that?
Alvaro Silberstein [6:12]: Yes. So we are collecting more than 200 data points of accessibility on average when it comes to hotels or tourism attractions, museums, you name it. And we already have a map, around 5,000 listings. So it's a lot of data points, very detailed. And what we have done to do it is, that we built an app that we call the Accessibility Mapping System. That is a tool basically to collect all the data points that we need when it comes to accessibility for a hotel, for a transportation service, a museum, whatever it is that we can list. Who is using this app? What we call mappers. That is people from our community. They sign up to our community. They are trained by us, through some online training flows; basically, we allow them to understand how they can map a hotel or an attraction, why it's important that they do it correctly, otherwise they will screw someone's vacations, right? And we arrange them site inspections so they can go and map this accessibility that then we list at wheeltheworld.com. Not only that, our system allow us, because we have built our standards, that once we raise all these data points of accessibility, we can build an assessment that is automatically done for that hotel or that attraction on how is their accessibility and how they can even improve it. And for what types of disabilities, those features are allowing someone to travel or they are making it more challenging.
Mark Lapidus [7:50]: Do hotels and attractions get in touch with you, or do you get in touch with them, or how does it work? Does it work both ways?
Alvaro Silberstein [7:57]: Today, we are reaching out hotels and attractions. We are expecting that through scale and through our raising more brand awareness of Wheel The World, it can be the opposite, right? And making them to connect with us. We are pretty sure that that will happen sooner than later.
Mark Lapidus [8:13]: A lot of our listeners work at Destinations. How do listeners get ahold of you?
Alvaro Silberstein [8:17]: Yes, you can go into our website and contact us, and we will work with you and help you on assessing you on how is the best way to approach accessibility as a destination.
Mark Lapidus [8:17]: What advice do you have for US destinations just getting started making accessible travel available?
Alvaro Silberstein [8:32]: First thing is to understand the state of the art of your accessibility. If your goal is to become more inclusive, make more travelers with disabilities to travel to your destination, you said, "Okay, how is my accessibility? What are the things that are working? What are the things that are needed to be worked on?" And for that, you need to understand in detail what's the accessibility of your full value chain: accommodations, transportation services, airport, activities, et cetera. Secondly is to help those services to then understand what's accessible, and how they can improve that accessibility. And make them be aware that this is a big market, that they should invest in better accessibility. And thirdly, once you already have identified what's accessible and what are your strengths when it comes to accessibility, promote it. Promote it the right way. Reach out to those communities so people with disabilities are aware that they can have a pleasant trip to those destinations. In three ways, it's like assessing accessibility, training, and building awareness, promoting that accessibility to the disability communities. And how to make that happen? I would try to build a strategy on how to make your destination more accessible, with goals that you can accomplish step by step. You will not make your destination fully accessible from day to night. It's good to go step by step making small improvements, small adjustments to work towards that end game.
Mark Lapidus [10:11]: If I didn't make it clear to our listeners at the beginning of this podcast, I should say that Wheel The World is global. I am curious as to what percentage of your business is here in the United States, and what percentage is elsewhere. And I'd also like to hear how the United States ranks against other countries in terms of being accessibility-friendly.
Alvaro Silberstein [10:29]: There are two great questions. So first, we have done already more than 5,000 people travel with us, okay? And we have a community of around 80,000 people that has been joining our communities through our different channels. 80% of them are US travelers. 20% of them are people from outside the US.
Mark Lapidus [10:52]: So 20% of those folks are coming to the United States, and 80% are Americans going elsewhere.
Alvaro Silberstein [10:58]: Exactly.
Mark Lapidus [10:59]: We'd like to see if you could reverse that, by the way.
Alvaro Silberstein [11:02]: Even these 80% of US travelers are traveling 50% internationally, 50% domestically, so here inside the US. And the second question, so the US is the most accessible place in the world. That's a fact. You can compare it with Australia, with the UK, with Europe in general, with any place in the world. And the US is the most accessible country to live and also to travel to. And many times I believe that is not communicated enough. People outside the US don't know how accessible the US is until you are actually here. That also was one of the reasons that I'm living now here, because I can be much more independent here and I can live my life much more to the fullest compared to where I lived outside the US. It's not communicated enough how accessible this country is because it's impressive. Actually, that was one of the inspirations for me to go on that crazy adventure to Patagonia, right? I went to Yosemite National Park and I had such a great experience. I went to the Redwoods, and I could hire an amazing wheelchair that allowed me to go around the different trails. And that inspired me to go to places outside the US that I never thought that it would be possible. So yes, I think the US should be the number one destination for any European, or Asian, or Latin American with disabilities that are wandering to travel abroad.
Mark Lapidus [12:35]: Well, I think we'll leave it there on such a positive note. Thank you for communicating so much wisdom in such a brief period of time.
Alvaro Silberstein [12:41]: Thank you, Mark. And just to finish, I want to inspire the audience to consider accessibility and targeting the market of travelers with disabilities that are spending more than $120 billion in travel every year just in accommodation, transportation, and activities. There's more than one billion people in the world that has disabilities. And if you consider our families and friends, there's at least another billion people in the world. They don't have disabilities, but they need accessibility as companions of someone who has it. And if you think somehow like, disabilities is the only minority that actually is not a minority, because all of us will be part of sooner or later because of aging. All of us will have a disability at some point. Some of us got to this community before than others. But accessibility is something that should be a priority because will impact every person at some point of their lives. And we all want to travel, right? So it should be considering the travel industry. I'm very happy and I'm very optimistic that moving forward, we will make this industry fully accessible for anybody that wants to travel.
Mark Lapidus [13:52]: Keep up the great work, Alvaro. It was so nice speaking with you. There's just so many good reasons to make destinations more accessible in the United States, and I'm sure we're going to continue to talk about it on this podcast.
Alvaro Silberstein [14:02]: Awesome. Thank you very much, Mark, for the invite.
Mark Lapidus [14:05]: If you'd like to get in touch with Alvaro, his email is [email protected]. And that's Brand USA Talks Travel. I'm Mark Lapidus, thanks for listening.
Outro [14:16]: Your feedback is welcome. Email us at [email protected] or call 202-793-6256. Brand USA Talks Travel is produced by Asher Meerovich, who also composes music and sound. Engineering by Brian Watkins. With extra help from Bernie Lucas, Nthanze Kariuki, and Casey D'Ambra. Please share this podcast with your friends in the travel industry. You may also enjoy many of our archived episodes, which you can find on your favorite podcast platform. Safe travels!