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Want to Go Off the Beaten Path? This Thai Start-up Can Help You

Very Local Trip is disrupting mass tourism by facilitating local connections

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BY Lian Kyla Dyogi - 23 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

In this DIY tech facilitated travel age, it seems easy to “live like a local” or at least, go where they go. But after the 5th hour of scrolling through countless Trip Advisor recommendations, that pre-planned tour suddenly seems very tempting.

If only you had a friend to show you around. Very Local Trip, a Thailand-based start-up, provides willing travellers a “local friend” to show you all the nooks and crannies of your chosen destination.

“If you’re with someone who can really show you these amazing places, you maximize your time, you discover the culture at your own rhythm, and you can even make new friends at the end of the day,” says Maxime Besnier, founder and CEO, who after having worked in the pharmaceutical industry in France thought of the “local friend” concept after living in Thailand as an expat for several years.

Since starting in Thailand, operations have expanded to a number of countries in Asia including South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Laos, Hong Kong, and Cambodia. The company currently offers two kinds of tailor-made trips: urban trips in big cities with half-day, full-day, or sometimes evening trips; and community-based trips in partnership with a local resource center in Thailand. Besnier says that the trips attract high-end travellers interested in “community based tourism”.

Originally imaged as a “kind of Airbnb for tours” and built in a similar Silicon Valley-esque fashion (e.g. build the best platform available in many countries then pitch to investors), Besnier switched strategies, finding it more effective to grow the business step-by-step and focus on B2B channels. Hence, the choice of a website instead of an app, which would be the choice if the start-up was B2C focused.

Currently, 90% of their clients are from B2B channels while only 10% come from B2C channels. Besnier shares that this strategy, partnering with a few key travel companies, unshackles them from the tediousness of customer inquiries and requests and frees up their time to focus on helping their clients develop a “new portfolio of experiences.”

Experiential travel with local friends

The quality of the product is largely hinged on the local friend. From freelance photographers and journalists to digital nomads and creative entrepreneurs, Very Local Trip curates individuals who are passionate about their cities and cultures, to guide their travellers. These friends work on a freelance basis for the start-up.

The secret to finding them? Good old-fashioned networking and word of mouth. It’s a referral chain where one local friend recommends another, as what happened with one journalist and blogger from Ho Chi Minh who then referred Besnier and his team to her friend who lived in Hong Kong.

Quality is important for a travel start-up hinged on creating not only memorable experiences but connections as well. “We really prefer to have just one or two really really great persons instead of having twenty people…we are very selective,” says Besnier.

Whether or not their “experiential travel experiences” are able to change perspectives, Besnier doesn’t know, but he says connections are made, whether with the communities or the local friend. While it doesn’t happen all the time, Besnier says that sometimes the local friends and travelers keep in touch, the latter often inviting the local friend over to their house if ever he or she finds themselves in their country.

As most of their clients currently come from Europe, Besnier says they have yet to focus on Asian travelers, Chinese travelers in particular being a fairly large and untapped market. For now, they’re trying to unlock more destinations, with expansions to other countries in Southeast Asia, and Central Asia and the Middle East on the horizon.

Ever cautious of scaling too fast, Besnier wants to keep a moderate pace, and is more interested in developing quality experiences and another community-based tourism project in the south of Thailand. Reiterating that it was their focus on experiential travel experiences that gave them an edge in the first place, Besnier says, “We don’t want to develop and grow too fast and go for the standard mass tourist.”