Meet Stephen Chalmers, the entrepreneur helping people with carers see the world

With Altogether Travel, Stephen Chalmers is tapping into the fast-growing market for social care.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 18 May 2016

With an ageing population and greater awareness of the needs of young disabled people, the social care sector is growing rapidly. It was recently estimated to be worth £43bn to the British economy, and employs 6% of the workforce.

It's that market that Stephen Chalmers, who has worked in the care sector since he left school in 1988, is tapping into with Altogether Travel. Based in Cumbernauld, a town to the north-east of Glasgow, the company provides those in need of care with the opportunity to see the world. ‘Most care companies don't travel on holiday,’ he told MT. ‘That means there's a massive amount of people out there who can't even consider a holiday.’

His idea combines the traditional travel agent model with the services of a social care provider. Customers can come to the company with an idea of where they want to go and it can arrange the booking of tickets, as well a providing a trained care provider to look after their needs.

‘For as long as I can remember I've always had these business ideas but never done anything about any of them,’ he says. ‘Probably through fear I suppose, of giving up a job. But the idea that came to me for Altogether Travel just literally wouldn't go away. I had it for months in my head, I thought I need to do something with this idea.’

Though the business was incorporated in 2011 and is starting to get some solid traction, growth has been slow. ‘I've deliberately taken my time with things I have to say – I've really not rushed in and advertised loads,’ says Chalmers.

It was also partly down to the year he had to wait to get accreditation by The Care Inspectorate. ‘It took considerably longer than I expected it to,' he says. 'I'd quit my job at this point so thought to myself 'Ah, what I have done? That's a big mistake. My wife's going to kill me' and things like that. It was dark days back then I have to say.’

While waiting for accreditation, he recognised he needed to learn some more about business. He is currently studying for a business degree at Glasgow Caledonian University. The course includes a year in industry segment, and rather than going off to spend it with some big business services firm, Chalmers will use that time to work on his own business.

‘This is a year that for me I need to see the company grow,’ he says. ‘I've taken my time, I've learned, I've adapted and I know it works. So now it's how can I scale that?’ That’s likely to involve external investment, something Chalmers says he has been considering but didn’t feel like he was ready for before. His work hasn't gone unrecognised - he won the pitching competition at MT Live Edinburgh in May, and has been shortlisted for a number of entrepreneur, travel and care industry awards.

Chalmers says his biggest inspiration is Saga, the travel agent for older people, though he points out they’re missing out on a big segment of the market he is trying to tap into. ‘They're only dealing with people over 50,’ he says. ‘Our oldest customer is 98, a lady from Edinburgh who was going down to the Lake District, and our youngest customer is 18, so we've got that huge big range of people who've either got care needs or disabilities.’

The business now has 13 carers on board. ‘For some of them it's the best job in the world,’ says Chalmers. ‘They've been to America, we've got somebody going to Canada next month to see the Rockies on a train journey. The holiday companion was over the moon when he found out what trip he was going on.'

An Altogether Travel customer visits FloridaHe says the biggest challenge for him as the business grows will be learning to cede a little power to others. ‘I've taken my time with things and it's been me controlling everything,’ he says. ‘I know if I want to grow the company I need to bring people in at the level I'm doing – not just holiday companions but on a management team level.

‘A lot of people describe their business as their baby, and it is for me it still is, I'm very protective of it. But I know for the company to grow and scale in the way I want it to I need to relinquish a bit of that control.’

So far the company’s helped 30 people go on 50 separate holidays. ‘It's something we all take for granted until someone can't have one, and then there's something missing from their life so that's the nice thing we can put back for them,’ says Chalmers.

One of them was a woman with mental health issues who had never been on holiday for 20 years. ‘When she got back she asked where she could go next,’ he says. ‘We've opened up a new world for her that literally didn't exist before.'

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