Álvaro Silberstein is the co-founder of this U.S.-based Chilean startup that registers accommodations, tours and tourist activities so that people with reduced mobility can travel without having to adapt to the place, because the place will be adapted to their needs.
Álvaro knows what it means to want to travel the world without having the necessary information to be able to do so. At the age of 18, he was involved in a car accident that left him a quadriplegic and, since then, forced him to move around in a wheelchair. But that didn’t stop him. He graduated as an IT engineer and, years later, traveled to the U.S. to do an MBA where he met Camilo, who today is his partner in Wheel the World. Together they decided to start a business to make the world more accessible.
“I was organizing a trip with Camilo to Torres del Paine, in Chilean Patagonia, and we realized that no one had ever made this trip in a wheelchair. That’s when we realized that there was a great opportunity for entrepreneurship,” explains Álvaro from Chile, where he is currently working, the other part of the team is spread across LATAM and the USA.
“I always dreamed of being able to use a service like the one Wheel the World offers today.”
Finally, Alvaro became the first person to complete the circuit known as “W” in the Torres del Paine and, since then, he says, hundreds of people began to contact them telling them that they also used wheelchairs and that they dreamed of going to Patagonia. “We started to organize the same trip for people from Chile, Peru, Bolivia, the United States, Australia, France and we managed to get more or less 70 people to repeat the same trip I had done,” explains Wheel the World’s co-founder.
“People with disabilities face various challenges when we want to travel, but not just to go to Patagonia, but to find accessible accommodation in New York or look for accessible activities in Barcelona, because accessibility information has not been digitized and is not online.”
Alvaro stresses that the intrinsic purpose of Wheel the World is to make the world accessible and, since 2018, they have been building it: “When users log on to www.wheeltheworld.com they register, create their accessibility profile and the system recommends exactly what, of all our accessible tourism offer, best suits their needs, so that they can have an exact booking with what they need to travel to more than 100 destinations around the world”.
How did the pandemic affect your development plans?
The lesson of the pandemic was that even the worst scenario, the most pessimistic of all, can happen. We never thought that tourism would go to zero at any time, we never thought that the pandemic would last as long as it did, and luckily we were in the North American market and it allowed us to reactivate earlier.
2021 was our best year to date, and 2020 was obviously a year to forget. But it allowed us to focus on what was within our control, which was to make alliances to increase our offer of activities and hotels, especially in the northern hemisphere. In addition, we were able to develop our product and in 2021, as a result of that, we were able to grow again and this year we are going to grow by four times, compared to what we achieved in 2021.
“Wheel the World has over 50,000 people registered on the platform, of which, 80% are from the United States, the other 20% are from 15 different countries and, of those people, at least 2500 have already traveled with us.”
How are they different from other platforms such as Booking or Despegar?
Mainly in that, to find the little accessibility information that these platforms provide and how little verified, the user must make five clicks, because, obviously, they do not prioritize accessibility information that only serves 15% of the world’s population. Instead, because we focus on that, we can create a user experience according to their needs.
“Probably the next stage two years from now is going to be to complement our offering and our service through other platforms.”
Want to become the next Latin American unicorn?
We are excited to be the best solution for people with disabilities to travel, that’s our vision. There are 1 billion people around the world who have disabilities, who are spending more than $50 billion a year on travel, so if we are the best solution, we are probably going to become a unicorn.
What are the values that drive you?
I think one of our values is disruption, which has to do with thinking differently and doing cool things. This has allowed us to create a distinctive, unique product and to have created exceptional experiences. We are still the only provider of tours for people in wheelchairs in Machu Picchu, for example.
We have organized adventures for people who want to get to the top of a mountain in Hawaii and, little by little, it has allowed us to change the social perception that people have about people with disabilities and what people with disabilities are capable of.
Precisely, one of our objectives is to help society understand that disability is not an impediment to achieve things. We also seek to inspire people with disabilities who don’t yet have that mindset, and to push them to do so.
At Wheel the World, 10% of the team has a disability and there are 60% who do not, but have a family member or a friend or a person close to them who does. It’s a plus, not a strictly necessary requirement, but it ensures that people really feel the challenge as their own.
Alvaro never ceases to be surprised when he learns, for example, that a person fulfilled his dream of surfing in Hawaii, or that a woman was able to go on a Safari in South Africa with her husband, who uses a wheelchair: “He told us that they were always looking for ways to adapt to situations in order to visit a place, but, for the first time, they had felt that this experience and this situation was adapted to their needs”, that, Alvaro emphasizes, is the best feeling.
Wheel the World in figures
– 40 employees
– 57 % are women
– 10 different nationalities working in the team
– Growing 25% per month
– Close to raising a round of investment
Álvaro Silberstein | Co-founder and CEO of Wheel the World