Friends Alvaro Silberstein and Camilo Navarro came up with the idea for the Wheel the World travel booking site following a 2016 trip to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Initially, they thought this type of trip would be near impossible with Silberstein in a wheelchair after a car accident as a teenager left him paralyzed.
Turns out it became the trip of a lifetime thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign to finance a scouting trip and the purchase of a state-of-the-art hiking wheelchair. Silberstein said with the help of Navarro and other friends, he became the first to complete the Patagonia trek by wheelchair.
Then in 2018 while in graduate school at UC Berkeley, they decided to launch Wheel the World so that others in similar situations as Silberstein could find accessible travel experiences.
Three years later, about 1,300 people have booked trips through the Berkeley, California-based company’s website, which offers over 400 listings to more than 50 destinations. On Monday, they announced $2 million in a seed round led by Chile Global Ventures and Dadneo, with the support of Plug N Play Tech Center and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.
“We have a clear belief and purpose to make the world accessible,” Silberstein said.
Wheel the World collects over 200 data points on hotels through its Accessibility Mapping System, like hotel room measurements, and digitizes them to build its marketplace so that travelers can determine if that particular room will meet their needs. Users go on the site and build a profile, outlining their accessibility needs, and Wheel the World will recommend the best listings.
The company will also work with hotels and tours to attract this new segment of travelers and how to work with people who have disabilities, which Navarro said was 1 billion people globally, along with another large population of family and friends that would be involved in trips.
“Tapping into this market of disability travel will be tapping into more than $100 billion globally,” Silberstein added. Indeed, in 2018 and 2019, travelers with disabilities took a total of 81 million trips, spending $58.7 billion on their own travel alone, according to a 2020 report by Open Doors Organization, a nonprofit organization teaching businesses how to make their goods and services accessible to people with disabilities.
Silberstein and Navarro plan to use the new funding to build out Wheel the World’s software, make additional hires and add travel listings to the platform. Navarro expects to have over 3,000 listings by the end of 2022. The company has 23 employees today, and Silberstein is planning to double that over the next year.
Though the global pandemic was tough on the company, the founders said they used the time to design their system and think about their value proposition. It seems like the results paid off: The company recorded its best months ever for each of the last three months, Silberstein said.
“This year we are seeing travel inventory coming back, more people are vaccinated and we are pushing our inventory to grow more near where our users live so they can travel closer to home as well as far away,” he added.