As the year starts to draw to a close, travel fever has reached its peak. Many will be jetting off with family, others travelling overseas with friends; some may even be going on a solo venture. On these travels, the itinerary often consists of visiting the most popular attractions and taking in the local cuisine; sound familiar? For a certain Larry Lee, his next trip will be with a group of strangers, experiencing the thrills of adventure activities like surfing. But this isn’t a vacation for him. Rather, he will be acting as host for the trip — an overseas trip organised under the banner of his company, Sotravel.
Sotravel operates as a travel company, delivering overseas experiences for eager travellers, but it differs from other household names like Chan Brothers Travel and EU Holidays. Where these travel agencies are almost all about checking things off the list by visiting as many attractions as possible, Larry’s Sotravel is all about the community aspect when travelling abroad.
Picture this: you’re itching for an exciting adventure skiing in the powder white slopes of the French Alps or diving within the crystal clear waters of Krabi, but going solo isn’t as fun — that is where Sotravel comes in. Through the platform, you’ll be able to travel with like-minded people to make the experience unforgettable. Plus, you may just end up making a friend for life.
Trying to catch Larry for an interview proved a little tricky; his plans had him away for most of the month. However, I managed to find a single day he was free to drop by, even if he only had a couple of hours to spare. Those short hours about Sotravel proved illuminating, especially to someone who has only ever done the standard tourist fare.
The Beginnings of Sotravel
To understand why Sotravel was made, you must first know the background of Larry’s travel experiences, which aren’t too dissimilar to many others. Going as part of large tour groups, he described them to be rigid. Things were a little better when he got older and travelled alongside his partner; there was much less structure, and ventures away from the city were more frequent.
“I think that ties into how Sotravel ended up starting in the first place because the kind of travel that I prefer is not necessarily like going to a city and visiting museums, but more of getting into the outdoors and kind of like doing something adventurous,” said Larry, who also notes that many others in his age group also have the same kind of travel preferences.
But this isn’t the origin of Sotravel. Instead, you’ll only have to go back as recently as April of last year to see the beginnings of that story.
The scene is Copenhagen in Denmark, where Larry is going through an exchange programme at Denmark Technical University. He was part of the lucky batch of students able to study abroad following the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. Larry spent a half-year over there, and during that time, he stumbled upon a ski trip organised by Imperial College.
The student population in Imperial College holds a lot of Singaporean students, to the point where there is a Singapore club operating within the school. This very same club was organising a week-long ski trip in the French Alps. He signed up for it and managed to get a spot.
Clearly, the trip was incredibly profound for him, who spoke glowingly about the experience.
Over 50 people made up the trip, many of whom Larry had never met. But as everyone was near age and had similar interests, friendships were easily cultivated. Skiing may have been the primary plan for the trip, but it wasn’t the only thing they did. After a long day out on the slopes, there was still time to party with his new mates, with drinks and dancing galore. It all contributed to an unforgettable experience with newly made friends, taking in the atmosphere of the Alps over an exhilarating week, and it helped shape his understanding of travel.
“I would say I didn’t realise that this is what a ski trip is like. In my head, ski trips were always like, you go to Japan, maybe you visit the resort for one day or two days maximum, and then you’re out. That was my idea of a ski trip. Not spending one week in France as well as partying or anything like this. So my impression of how ski trips work completely changed,” he says.
“The big part that made it so good was also the like-minded people that I met. Some of them are still skiing with me right now. And I think that kind of connection that I made kind of changed my perspective of how I view the trips. Because it’s more than just a holiday, it’s also an opportunity to meet a lot of new people all at one go.”
Larry counts it as the highlight of his time during his exchange and the experience he was keen to keep doing every year. Now back in Singapore, his efforts to find something similarly organised were limited — so he went ahead and did it himself. With one Google Form, he invited people to join his ski trip, and tons of people signed up.
“That’s when I realised that it’s possible that it’s not just skiing; it could also be a lot of the other activities that people are looking at,” Larry reflected. “And surprisingly, we just started finding all these communities that exist in Singapore that don’t have that travel experience (catered) for them… they don’t really have someone that plans these kinds of experiences. That’s when we kind of realised, hey, there’s something we can do here in terms of bringing people together for their own respective communities and interests.”
So begins the journey of Sotravel, but it truly only kicked into full gear once Larry lost his job as a software engineer. At that point in time, Larry mentions that it was more of a passion project than an actual business — little marketing was being done, and no effort was made to set up more trips. Getting laid off proved to be the catalyst.
Larry worked on getting the website set up to be more functional. Previously, if you clicked the search button, nothing would happen. Now, the website can showcase what trips are happening each month, and you can also pick the region you are interested in travelling to — it is much easier to find and filter things to what you are looking for.
Currently, he works on Sotravel alongside another founder, with three interns aiding him when I spoke to him a few months ago. In addition to dealing with software matters, Larry manages the marketing for Sotravel — TikTok plays a significant role and is one of the platforms he dedicates his time to, showcasing his adventures at various places. Telegram is also heavily utilised to decimate details about trips and tease new stuff to followers.
Indeed, when talking about how the company has grown, Larry spoke with excitement at seeing how far Sotravel has gotten since a very fateful ski trip in the snowscapes of France.
The Offbeat Overseas
Given how much Larry talked up the French Alps, it is little wonder to see it as one of the available destinations on Sotravel, where it is one of the highlight trips; you can even choose between two different seasons to go for, Spring or Winter!
But there is much more on offer. If anything, Sotravel has quite a diverse range of destinations not found on typical tour agency packages. As I scroll through the website, there are trips to Sri Lanka’s Weligama and Spiti Valley in India to pick out from, with another to the Dolomites, located in Italy, being planned as an upcoming location. There is even a sizable waitlist on standby for slots to open up.
Larry was rather passionate when I asked him why these off-the-beaten-path locations were being offered. Listing India as an example, he elaborates: “India is actually an excellent travel destination in terms of adventure. They have mountaineering there, they have skiing there — and the skiing is comparable to the European Alps. They have lots of cycling expeditions… I think it’s just very underexplored. India is so near to us, yet we’re not really visiting it because people don’t really know what you can do there aside from visiting the cities. And I think that’s a waste.”
Even with these places available, a big differentiator of Sotravel is that groups experience the locations over a longer period. If you’ve signed up for a 7-day trip to Niseko, you stay there for all seven days. That means more time to take in and appreciate the surroundings of the place you’re at, and that’s something quite refreshing. There have been many times I’ve been frustrated by the mad rush of being on tour and lamenting not being able to spend more time in a particular place. Sotravel eschews all of that.
How do they choose which destinations to go for then? That process involves two main things: what activity will be done and the safety conditions. For example, if Larry wants to have a surfing activity available for his guests in December, that helps narrow down the number of locations they can visit. Then there’s the matter of safety, like if the weather conditions are good for surfing during that time. Other small administrative matters, like whether or not the place can host a large group in the first place, are also considered.
As of writing, Sotravel has 26 available trip destinations that users can pick from, and there are more destinations to look forward to on the way. Larry recently updated that he has been speaking to travel partners from Africa to have it as one of the subsequent regions that the company will be heading to.
Adventuring for Amateurs and More
While the countries being travelled to may be uncommon, the activities are most certainly unconventional. With Sotravel focused on being a social travel platform, it is no surprise that many of the company’s offerings are adventured-centric.
I’ve mentioned surfing and skiing a couple of times, but there is also outdoor climbing, kitesurfing, trekking, and much more available among the things you can do. The highlights are the Great Singapore Trips, which can number from 30 to 50 participants — a big crowd that invites many opportunities for a lively travel experience. There are also more intimate options, which have a range of 4 to 14 people. Many of these admittedly sound like extreme activities, but most of the trips are very friendly for beginners.
“So even climbing, it’s beginner friendly. You can come in as a complete beginner — no bouldering experience, no indoor climbing experience, and you can still go on a trip because there is (one) category catered to beginners, which is called top ropes. And then there is also the other one, which is called lead climb, which is catered to the people that have experience,” Larry explains. However, he also says that this aspect needed to be adjusted over time since there was no separation of the two categories before.
Even between the selection of trips available, Larry has made sure to have different levels of accessibility for people. He points out the Ha Giang loop trip as one with the lowest entry barriers and is something almost everything can take on and experience.
“You sit behind a driver for three days, essentially. It’s casual; it’s not even intensive. So it really varies from trip to trip.”
That being said, Sotravel does discourage people from bringing children and the elderly along for their list of trips, given how these activities draw a certain age demographic. Larry was keen to stress the importance of community curation for Sotravel, which is why the company went in this direction.
“Our goal is (to) really connect people, and you want to connect people that actually want to be together, want to chat together, want to have fun together. And that usually comes in with (similar) age groups,” says Larry. “We recently ran a surf trip just for university students, and the demand for that was actually really high because people want to be around people in their age group. And that’s what we kind of strive to do. We don’t want people to feel left out [if an older person is part of the group].”
The decision has largely been beneficial. Peek at any of the company’s TikTok videos, and you’ll see a consistent pattern — a close, tight-knit community having fun together as they are experiencing the trip.
But I was also curious if there were times the community wasn’t as rosy behind the scenes. We often see a ‘’Hollywood’ version of things online, so I wanted to know if unsavoury individuals have ever been a problem since Sotravel started. It was surprising to hear Larry give an immediate answer; no, there hasn’t been such an occurrence yet.
Safety checks and protocols are still implemented to mitigate risks, but Larry was relaxed when discussing the issue (or non-issue).
“I would say this is really (like) planning for doomsday kind of thing because it doesn’t happen as much as it pops out into our head…So many bad things can happen, but the truth is that cases (like these) hardly happen. And you want to prepare for it, you want to put safety checks for it, but at the end of the day, you’re going with people, with a community, with friends that are yet to be. And I don’t know — to me, I find the concept of meeting not good people very unlikely,” he muses.
He summed it up rather eloquently: people don’t think about how they might die while driving even though the risk of car accidents is much higher. So why worry about a person who is probably not a serial killer?
Hosting your Holidays
For some of the trips on offer, you’ll notice that a trip host is attached. Trip hosts function much like what you might expect from regular tour agencies — planning out the itinerary, handling the operations and logistics, guiding people around, etc. — but they are an active part of the activities, joining in on all the fun. The aim is for participants to consider these hosts as part of the group and enjoy the entire experience together.
At first, I thought Larry was the trip host for all of the available trips; after all, he is a constant presence in most of Sotravel’s videos. This is not the case, at least currently. During the company’s early periods, Larry attended most of the trips to ensure that everything went smoothly, admitting that the scheduling proved quite tiresome as he usually placed these trips back to back.
But he counts it as a necessary effort. As a business owner, he wanted to ensure that everything was running smoothly, evaluating whether participants were having fun, and seeing what could be improved for future editions of the trip.
Nowadays, Larry has more flexibility in choosing when to host, and as an avid skier, he is biased towards the company’s ski offerings. If you’re following along for Sotravel’s ski trips, there is a good chance he will be there! Otherwise, you’d still be able to enjoy the company’s other reliable hosts.
And while we are on that subject, remarkably, Sotravel does not hire any of its hosts. Instead, the company relies on ex-participants or referrals from friends to take up the role voluntarily, though they do get some benefits on the side. There is a purpose behind that direction; Sotravel believes that a trip host has to be trustworthy and can be depended upon as an active participant to cultivate that all-important factor of sociability with a group. Larry notes that many of the upcoming hosts are people he has met during these trips; remarkable individuals who fit the ethos of Sotravel.
When I spoke to Larry, he said there are around 8 hosts within Sotravel’s roster, though it changes frequently. Each host has their specialities, but the beauty about the hosts is that they can flexibly interchange activities.
“Someone that does skiing also likes diving, likes hiking as well, maybe not climbing — I don’t personally like climbing that much — but a climber likes hiking and likes diving, and then maybe not skiing…So there’s a lot of synergy to have all these adventures on one platform, instead of separating it out to, oh, you’re a diver, oh, you’re a skier. No, you’re just an adventurer. That’s how we see it.”
Trip hosts are a big part of Sotravel, but the company also plans to have trips without hosts. These are reserved for trips with a pre-established structure, such as the upcoming venture to Mount Rinjani. Sotravel will host a call with the participants to iron out any administrative issues. Then they can go free and meet the country’s local host — hopefully translating into a more free-and-easy feel for the trip.
The last thing I was keen to discuss with Larry was the price. With the world readjusting back to normal after the pandemic put travel on hiatus, the cost of going abroad is rising; I know that first-hand, considering the toll on my wallet in preparing for my trip to Japan. Looking at how Sotravel prices their trips though, they are surprisingly affordable.
Take, for instance, their 8-day Great Singapore Snow Trip in the French Alps for spring, which covers accommodation, food, and local transportation. And it still has an alluring price of S$1,499 per person. Larry was confident enough to say that nobody else could compete with his company’s prices while providing all of these perks.
Is there a catch? Not at all, according to Larry. Instead, keeping the pricing low is meant to be extra encouragement for those looking for these types of adventure experiences. One of the things he noticed about people’s behaviour when choosing a travel experience is that cost is one of many important factors, if not the most important. As much as there is value in getting to meet like-minded people to have fun with, money is still king; so he has had to adapt.
“We want them to look at the prices and be like, ‘if I self plan, it will be more than this, or if I self plan, it will be around this price, so I might as well go with them [Sotravel], and everything’s really settled for me in terms of the planning.’ That’s the thought we want people to have.” explains Larry.
Elaborating further, he states that anyone who signs up early will likely get the trip at cost price, sometimes even below that. Prices are based on demand, so any person taking the last few slots will have to pay more, though Larry says he tries to keep the price attractive. The idea is to incentivise people to form a group quickly to ensure a trip goes ahead.
How, then, can Sotravel continue putting food on the table while keeping these prices? Well, a large portion of its revenue comes from commissions and group discounts from vendors when trips have a big group of participants, with the discounts helping to boost the company’s margins. Also, as a former software engineer, Larry maintains the website (entirely built by him), which helps drive costs down from needing an administrator.
Sotravel is growing ever bigger, having just hit $500,000 GMV (Gross Merchandise Value). So, with the company bringing in the good vibes by way of social travelling, where is there to go from here then? Right now, the focus is on expanding the team and delivering on supply and demand. For the latter, people have been asking for destinations and activities that aren’t yet available on the platform, and the company is pouring its efforts into scaling up inventory to meet their demand.
Ultimately, the aim is to have participants be able to go everywhere around the globe — name the location, and Sotravel will have it. “Every adventure that you want will be there. That’s the goal. And that’s what will happen, maybe by next year, if we are fast enough. Hopefully!”
Want to know more about what Sotravel’s adventures are like? Check out their socials on TikTok, Instagram, and Telegram! You can also follow Larry on his personal TikTok as he updates about his life running the company.
If you’d like to book yourself a trip and meet some new friends, you can find a complete list of adventures on Sotravel’s official website.
Visuals courtesy of Larry Lee and Sotravel.