Read my latest for CNN here.
The rise of ‘local guiding’
By Daisy Dumas 23 April, 2012
At the risk of offending professional travel agents, I’m going to ask: has your time gone?
From Tripbod.com and Twigmore.com to LocalGuiding.com, a new breed of travel site is allowing globe-trotters to connect with real locals, potentially relegating those dog-eared guidebooks, dodgy tour groups and the ever-present fear of being ripped off to the sepia-hued “when I was a kid” folder.
Whether you want a party-heavy itinerary in Hong Kong or a friendly face and a coffee in Rome, this new way to see the world has you covered.
And, as its protagonists like to point out, it often has you covered in ways that are better and cheaper than the “pros”.
The fast-growing trend for local guiding is fueled by technology.
Twigmore operates by connecting friends-of-friends on Facebook. A Facebook user with 150 friends has around 22,500 friends-of-friends; a huge catalog of potential tour guides.
“It bottles coincidence and helps people to feel empowered,” says Stephen Smyth, who dreamt up the site after realizing that a trip to Seoul in 2008 was made “10 times” better by having just one friend-of-a-friend in the city.
Twigmore connections led to an impromptu birthday party in Mumbai for Mili Narayen, who says she relies upon the “certain taste level” of the friends to recommend nights out in cities that her “tribal” network reaches.
Twigmore can also act as a security blanket, helping travelers to turn to trusted contacts in emergencies, for example. “It’s like travel insurance but the social edition,'” says Smyth.
The eBay of travel sites
With its roots in ethical volunteering, Tripbod is an altogether different beast.
Designed for the 98 percent of travelers who say they do not want to feel like a tourist, the site links vetted locals-cum-guides with visitors, creating trip itineraries or providing tours.
Founder Sally Broom explained that it operates “like eBay,” with Tripbods — aka local experts — setting bargain rates for their knowledge.
Families have proven to be great customers, with one Singapore mum doing a roaring trade in child-friendly city stopover itineraries, costing S$53 (US$42).
Many of the guides are professional travel writers, but most are people who “love where they live … it’s their opportunity to be an entrepreneur,” says Sally.
Muz Azar, a Londoner, used Tripbod on a visit to New York. He has never traveled with a tour company.
“I know full well they would have deals with specific partners meaning their impartiality would be impeded,” he says.
Instead of becoming a “Times Square sucker,” he found himself at underground parties in Williamsburg, and at the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side. “Having a local on your side opens up your world so much … and you know the Tripbodders genuinely enjoy it.”
Eric Monkaba, owner of backpackerconcierge.com, has experienced Tripbod from both sides of the equation. The travel expert makes “highly valued recommendations” and charges just a small fee for his insight.
He contacted a fellow Tripbod for a visit to Barcelona, taking advantage of the kind of itinerary that large companies can’t accommodate, without having to spend time of his own planning — and says that while on holiday, he only ever opened a guidebook for its maps.
Tripbod, he says, has the enviable position of being the go-to site for many travel industry insiders: “Where else can you find customized information from small travel business leaders and guidebook authors for such a great price?”
Tour guide as mentor and friend
In essence, though, the rise of the cottage-industry guide, boosted by the Internet and kept afloat by savvy, economically minded travelers, is parroting a high-end travel phenomenon that is nothing new.
Companies such as Mary Rossi Travel, based in Sydney, have always made it their business to provide top-notch, locally based guides with foundations in art and history.
Claudia Rossi Hudson says the best in the industry “become a friend, mentor, concierge — they become your interpreter of the city” — but their service doesn’t come cheap.
“A good guide will take your preconceived notions and mould them into informed opinions,” something that she believes turns experiences of going to cities into experiences of loving cities.
LocalGuiding, a site that links professional local experts to trippers and cuts out the agency middleman, is a happy medium between tradition and going it alone.
“LocalGuiding wants to help travelers and tourists who are no longer satisfied with traditional mass tourism,” says founder, Robert Blessing.
“We want them to experience the essence of a destination as it truly is, and not how mass tourism companies can sometimes masquerade it.”
Customers rely on a feedback system that rates each vetted guide, giving power to consumers.
The added advantage, Blessing explains, is that the “blind date” element of meeting a guide is erased — tourists build up rapport with the local, who tailors trips specifically without the costs usually associated with bespoke travel, or the cookie-cutter monotony of many tour groups.
And that is where links with locals, friends-of-friends and passionate guides — just clicks away and for prices that are far from eye-watering — appears so far to be a faultless formula for discovering new destinations.