Her love for travel first kicked in when her parents took her on a trip to Himachal Pradesh when she was just a child. Years later, recognizing a mutual interest in travel, she and her husband continued to make journeys to places far and beyond. However, as lives got busier and her child grew, traveling freely got more and more difficult. She started looking for people to travel with who were in a similar phase of life as she was.
Malini Gowrishankar wanted to witness the Rhododenron bloom in Sikkim and taking her family along was out of the question. What she needed was a fairly affordable, yet safe and reliable travel option. “When I looked into this industry, I realized that there was a latent need for many urban women but there weren’t too many options,” says Malini, founder of F5 Escapes, an alternate travel company, focused on providing offbeat travel experiences to the urban woman.
She published an itinerary on her Facebook page and invited women on her network to join. Two of them actually joined and they had great fun travelling to Sikkim. “That was when I realised this is going to be it. There are enough travel agents and tour operators – but not many who would understand the needs and interests of women.”
Malini was a part of the IIM Bangalore’s MPWE (Management Program for Women Entrepreneurs) in 2013. She spent that time trying to polish her idea and working on a rough business plan. F5 Escapes was founded in July 2013. The first fixed departure tour ran in the last week of July with four women to Shivanasamudra and received excellent feedback.
“F5 is the shortcut for ‘Refresh’ on the computer keyboard. ‘F5 Escapes’ helps women hit the ‘Refresh’ button in life. And how? By escaping drudgery, by travel!” says Malini. F5 Escapes helps women by finding unique activities to do locally – from transplanting paddy in Shimoga to flying kites at a campsite. They also focus on women-recommended places to stay, visited either by one of the team members or strongly recommended by a known inner circle – avid women travelers who have been there, done that and can vouch for the place.
1. Urban, working women who want to travel solo.
2. Housewives, whose husbands are abroad or in a travelling job.
3. Single women.
4. Empty-nesters (done raising children and are now looking to enjoy life).
5. Girl groups such as kitty party clubs, ladies associations, college groups etc.
F5 Escapes also extends customized itineraries to the families of clients, but strictly on a referral basis. As they expand operations, inbound travelers and corporate women groups will be added to the mix as well.
WoW is the pioneer in all-women travel. There are a few other groups that have started up in this space. But F5 stands out as a socially inclined venture with offerings of local experiential travel. The team is proud of the fact that their first customers were total strangers who believed in the idea and travelled with them. Though every offering seems to have generated considerable interest, getting a lot of women to actually travel with them still remains their biggest challenge, but the team is working on finding ways to make this decision for women easier.
Malini’s professional journey makes for an interesting story – after working for over seven years in the IT industry (the most recent being ThoughtWorks) as a techie, she decided to pursue her hobby of voice-overs full time. For almost three years she actively lent her voice for e-learning, radio and TVCs, short videos, animated CD ROMs etc. During this period, she also worked as a freelance consultant and as a Tamil Radio Jockey with TimbreMedia.
What began with one entrepreneur and one employee, Bangalore-based F5 Escapes has today expanded to four, which includes Malini Gowrishankar, Kavya Balakrishnan, Sanjana Sarma and Dipanwita Das. It is a six-month-old start-up, entirely bootstrapped. While 2013 saw a few short duration fixed departure tours, 2014 will see customized itineraries and longer duration tours. As of now they are focused on solidifying the offerings and attracting the critical mass of audience.
The potential of travel and tourism in India is huge, but remains largely untapped. A few incidents from the recent past have painted India in a negative light, affecting tourism, especially for women. While most other countries have reliable travel options for their domestic/international women travelers, India is yet lacking something reliable in this space.
“It is the need of the hour to provide our women with well-researched, women-friendly, women-recommended travel itineraries so that they can take off on their own or come with us,”says Malini.