Trailblazer: Real experience

Habbo Hotel founder Dee Edwards has plans for a new online travel service. She tells Danielle Long about her vision.

Dee Edwards needed a holiday. In 2000, she set up Habbo Hotel, an online community service where users - particularly kids - create a virtual character and interact in a virtual world. Habbo Hotel has been a huge success. It is available in 16 countries and receives more than 5.4 billion visits each month. After three years of steering the business as managing director, Edwards left the company to take some time out and travel.

But, instead of a break, what she saw was a gap in the burgeoning travel market for a travel company that offered online users authentic experiences and not cheap package deals. "I knew a lot of people who were frustrated by the existing travel opportunities and wanted to do something different while they were on holiday," says Edwards. "Companies like Expedia and put together flights and hotels, but no one was putting experiences together."

Edwards says she took inspiration from the growing ethical and responsible travel market, which promotes culturally respectful and eco-friendly travel. However, the market is short on ideas for people who don't have three months of the year free to work in a school or animal sanctuary.

Teaming up with a former colleague, Chris Bland, whom Edwards had worked with at digital agency Razorfish, and investor Martin Shilcott, she created TellTaleTravel to offer tourists authentic and eco-friendly experiences during the space of an average holiday, beginning in Thailand.

Edwards and her team travelled to the country to find the right people and experiences, hire local staff and provide training. All the experiences - from authentic Thai cooking lessons with local women to working for a day as an elephant carer - are exclusive to TTT and have been "road tested", she says.

Following a soft launch in November, launched an online holiday planner last month in beta format. The planner has filters, so users can choose between 'back to basics', 'simple luxuries', 'total immersion' or 'breathing space'.

Once the selections have been made, the planner provides transport and accommodation options, as well as additional options for two weeks before and after the dates you have selected to travel. For now, TTT only caters for holidays in Thailand, but the hunt is on for more destinations.

"We all love to get the inside track and do things that others haven't done. Travel is not just about the destinations any more - it's the experiences as well," says Edwards.

She believes TellTaleTravel will find success with its unique service and niche target market, which is couples aged from their early 30s to early 60s - "soft adventurers" who want to do something different on their holiday, but want to do it in comfort.

"Our experiences are special and I don't think you can get them anywhere else," says Edwards.

However, if a big operator like came knocking, Edwards would be more than happy to talk. "Partnerships are definitely something we are pursuing," she says.

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