Loneliness is an epidemic (and also a business): TimeLeft finds you friends for dinner and Weroad finds you travel companions

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Wednesday, eight at night. Fernando Sánchez prepares the last details to leave the house and attend a dinner. It is not just any social event for this Argentine real estate advisor who has settled in Malaga for just over two years: he will share a table with four other strangers, all brought together thanks to the combination of an algorithm with strong advertising on social networks and increasing loneliness that affects everyone from the youngest to the most senior population. This is the proposal of TimeLeft, a platform that offers its users to share three hours of conversation between dishes and drinks between five people who have not met before while getting to know a new restaurant. . With operations in 55 cities around the world, including Madrid, Barcelona and Malaga, the service appeals to gamification and simplicity to attract users. “After registering on a Monday and completing a short questionnaire, each day they gave me new information: a description of the diners' zodiac sign, then the restaurant's information and, before the meeting, a game to liven up the evening,” he describes. Sánchez.The simplicity of the proposed technology seems opposite to the complexity of the problems that TimeLeft seeks to solve – loneliness and isolation. “We are all in search of connection,” says Maxime Barbier, co-founder of the service, in conversation with EL PAÍS. “There is a business opportunity in big cities, where people no longer interact with whoever is next to them, but we are looking for new ties,” he defends. This entrepreneur of French origin, who has lived in Lisbon since 2020, boasts that, just two years after the launch of the current version of the service, he already attracts around 6,000 people across 450 restaurants every week. Behind this rapid progress, with dinners in 16 new countries in the last three months, there is the confidence of venture capital funds. “Investors are interested in investing in human connections,” the company highlights. With a first investment round of two million dollars in 2021, the proposal of Barbier and his partner Adrien De Oliveira changed from connecting individuals with the same dreams to bringing them together under one roof. The data supports investors' confidence that There is a need in the market. Around 22% of Spaniards declared they felt very or quite lonely in 2023, according to a 40dB study for EL PAÍS. The data seems aligned with a global survey carried out by the technology giant Meta in the same period, which states that one in four people feels at least a little lonely. Western societies are experiencing an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation,” declared a few months ago the main health authority in the US Government cabinet, Vivek Murthy. Both in Spain and in the rest of the Western countries, studies agree that young people Between 19 and 29 years old are among the most affected groups. This segment, characterized by entry into the labor market and the beginning of income independence, has generated interest in the “lone economy”, a term developed by Chinese academia in 2015, and also opens the door to new businesses. A study by the firm McKinsey assures that smaller homes and the tendency towards loneliness in Asian consumers opens up an opportunity of 10 trillion dollars on that continent alone. This involves everything from the development of new residence spaces, the already popularized 'coliving', to the offer of food services and activities for socialization. One of the advantages of these models is their low cost: the new wave of services such as TimeLeft are no longer responsible for large infrastructures or services of high technical complexity, but only for motivating meetings. These ventures seek to learn from the mistakes of other giants such as WeWork, which with its ambitious mission of “rebuilding the social fabric” through shared work spaces ended up in bankruptcy with a debt of 2.9 billion dollars. While restaurants, Barbier assures , at first they were skeptical, then they discovered that it is a clientele, in general, with good purchasing power. Like other alternatives to avoid a boring night, such as a video platform like Netflix or gastronomic proposals like HelloFresh, this firm is also committed to a subscription model, which for about 20 euros per month allows the possibility of meeting up with others every Wednesday. unknown. Although they insist that there is no single profile, they do find some patterns among the platform's users. 65% of the participants are women and mostly between 30 and 45 years old. This was the situation that Fernando Sánchez encountered at his first dinner: he was the only man at his table since two other participants did not attend. «However, the first clarification is that the focus is not on finding a partner, but on combating day-to-day loneliness. This is something, Barbier maintains, that dating applications cannot do. “Apps give the illusion of free choice: you have to be sure of everything before meeting someone. Not for us, you have to get closer to meet another person,” he points out. In this service, users do not have profiles, they do not decide who they are going to meet. and the algorithm is focused on generating good group dynamics, not couples.

Double the bet

Meeting for dinner is just one way within the range of possibilities offered by new platforms and emerging companies. From venturing to the Amazon jungle, for those with more time, to discovering the best specialty coffees for early risers, any proposal is valid to avoid being alone. “People like to travel but, above all, they love «He likes to share and get to know his own tribe,» highlights Laura Pérez, responsible for Spain and Latin America at Weroad, a tourism company that proposes removing the taboo on traveling alone. 90% of the 50,000 travelers who participated in its programs during 2024, the company points out, travel without knowing the group beforehand. The company, with origins in Italy and operations in Spain, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, seeks to unite groups of between 7 and 15 people with a common destiny. The market, Pérez assures, is full of travelers who want to see new places, but have no one to do it with and prefer not to sign up for the adventure alone. This requires a new tour operator model that goes beyond tickets and accommodation. “We are not a travel agency, we are a community of travelers, that is our business. We seek to share from the moment you buy the trip and that does not end with the return,” she says. One of the keys to profitability is that the trip is only the beginning of a relationship: 40% of travelers repeat. The firm, considered one of the leaders of 'travel tech' for its use of technology applied to tourism, already has demonstrated its strength with investors with two rounds of financing in which it raised 36 million euros. In addition to fresh money, the company added the support of H14, the 'family office' of Luigi, Eleonora and Barbara Berlusconi, three of the five children of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. “We are all looking for communities to belong to,” summarizes Eteri Saneblidze, co-founder of The Breakfast, a service that seeks to promote “modern creatives,” as she defines it, to meet over coffee. In this case, it is not about avoiding the comparison with Tinder, but rather with LinkedIn: “Our users seek to connect without a transactional element at the center, with the same intention and respect,” she says. With meetings in more than 13 cities, the firm ensures that Barcelona is one of the poles with the greatest demand. The three proposals, just examples of an upward trend, insist that their main nemesis – anxiety about the unknown – does not scare them . “Each encounter is equally stressful for everyone. As soon as someone says 'hello' everything changes,” Barbier confides. And they highlight that talking to strangers, contrary to the old advice of parents to their children, can open new worlds, also for investors. Follow all the information from Economy and Business on Facebook and xor in our weekly newsletter