Would You Pay to Meet a Local When You Travel?
The most memorable trips are worth cherishing for the people you meet as much as the places you experience, but how far would you go to meet people when you’re on holidays? Would you pay to meet a local when you travel? Would you rent a friend?
One of the reasons I started blogging in 2007 was to write about the things we couldn’t cover in the guidebooks we authored. Some of the stories I wanted to share were about the people we met during the course of our work: a storyteller in Damascus, a chef in Amman, an artist in Dubai, a curator in Doha. In those days we were still mostly writing on the Middle East.
“It’s people that make my travels so memorable,” I wrote in one of my first blog posts. “And I don’t necessarily mean the people I befriend. Sometimes it’s a person I merely see on my travels, an exchange of knowing looks as we walk down the same lane, as we leisurely stroll the same route, as we nudge each other out of the way on a busy shopping street. Sometimes it’s a person I meet fleetingly – in a souq, in a restaurant, on the road – someone I may never see again. And yet, that moment – a smile, a stare, a wave, a tear – may leave a lasting impression.”
At the time Terence and I were shifting our focus from authoring guidebooks to writing magazine and newspaper stories. Prior to 2007 we mostly did guides and the occasional article. In the years following we reversed that situation.
One of the reasons we made the shift was out of frustration with the fast-paced nature of on-the-ground guidebook research (“pounding the pavement, ticking shit off” was how we described it) that didn’t give us enough time to get to know locals.
It was our delight in doing longer in-depth profiles on people for magazines that soon had us developing ideas for Grantourismo and a travel project that would enable us to move more slowly and settle into places so we could better engage with locals and gain more of an insight into how they live their lives.
In one of our early posts from January 20, 2010 – five years ago – I wrote “Local travel and connecting with locals is going to be a big part of what we do here on Grantourismo. Because sometimes it’s the people you meet on your travels, as much as the places you visit, that makes travel meaningful and memorable.” Sound familiar?
“Whether it’s an all-night conversation with an engaging character on a plane or train, the friendly receptionist on the hotel desk who never forgets your name, the owner of the corner store you buy your groceries from who teaches you a new phrase everyday, or an artist who enlightens you with insights into their culture you never imagined possible, simple or complex, encounters with locals, with strangers who become friends, can really make a trip and become one of the things we treasure most about a travel experience.”
That’s why we decided that meeting locals, local travel and living like locals would be such an integral part of Grantourismo and how we would try to travel from that point on. Another reason was because it was the local people with expertise and specialised knowledge who always gave us the best tips for great local markets, shops, restaurants, and bars, whether it was a chef sharing eating tips or a musician recommending live venues.
And that’s why we made it our mission to introduce those locals to you and share their insider secrets and personal tips as to what you should do in their hometown through specialist guides to eating, drinking, shopping, and so on, and our Local Knowledge series. It’s also why I started offering my own insider experiences of Siem Reap last year.
When we began to encourage our readers to interact more with locals when they travelled, we initially envisaged old-fashioned ways like saying hello to someone in an elevator or at a bar. In a post we wrote in August 2010 in which we reflected upon the people we’d met on our grand tour, we suggested other ideas, such as using social media, enrolling in a language class, doing a course, and developing habits like going to the same stall at a local market everyday.
Although it had always been our dream to see things change dramatically in travel to the extent that local travel become more than a passing trend and meeting locals became a priority for everyone when they went on holidays, we didn’t envisage at that time that one day it would become so easy for travellers to book an experience with a local online or to rent a local friend.
Back in 2010, there was a website that made it possible to hire professional tour guides directly around the world, cutting out the travel companies, although that was soon bought by a major online tour site. There was also Tripping, which started in 2011, which began as a global community of travellers looking for locals with shared interests, but that transformed into a search engine for holiday rentals.
Of course, there were peer-to-peer accommodation sites like Couchsurfing, which started back in 2004, where you could find a sofa to sleep on for free somewhere in the world, and in most cases that host would show you around and serve as a local guide.
Home-swapping or home exchanges as a concept had been around since the 1950s and holiday rental sites were really nothing new. My family rented holiday houses and beach cottages in the 1960s and 1970s which they discovered through word-of-mouth. In the 1980s we called local real estate agents we found in telephone books in the beach towns where we wanted to holiday. Terence and I found our first overseas summer rental in Venice in 1999 online, albeit through an old-fashioned Venetian real estate agent with a rudimentary website.
Holiday rental sites like HomeAway, which launched in 2005 and later bought VRBO, VacationRentals and OwnersDirect, and sites such as Stayz and others were essentially just online property agents that specialised in short-term rentals, although they promoted the ability to ‘live like locals’. As did Airbnb, which started in 2008 (although it prefers to call itself a “community marketplace”) and Roomorama, which began in 2009 (which also likes to talk about “online rental communities”).
Site that facilitate direct connections with friendly locals around the world, who had no special qualifications but just wanted to show you their city or town, took a lot longer to take off.
Yet throughout 2014 rarely a week passed without us receiving an email from a travel start-up telling us how their new site would enable travellers to connect with locals and asking our advice or inviting us to test it out. There were so many at one point that I deleted most, filing away just a few to investigate in the future when I had more time. Interestingly, a quick search today revealed that many of them didn’t survive or even get off the ground.
One start-up Trip4Real grabbed my attention for a few reasons and it wasn’t because of the very Aussie name that made me nostalgic. (Do teenagers in Australia still say/write “4 real”?). It was partly because it was based out of Barcelona, one of our favourite cities in the world. We know a lot of Catalans and they are some of the friendliest people on the planet, so if anyone was going to make a success out of this ‘book a local’ start-up, they probably would.
The motto of the Founder/CEO Gloria Molins, “You only truly know a place when you know its people”, succinctly summed up our own philosophy, and one of the world’s greatest chefs Ferran Adrià was a partner/investor. They were all points working in their favour, as far as we were concerned.
Trip4Real’s focus is on booking experiences, activities and tours ran by locals, so it falls somewhere in between those sites I mentioned above that no longer exist. There’s everything from a typical Spanish experience, a tapas and wine tour with a local foodie, to a more educational yet edgy tour on the history of Barcelona’s graffiti tradition which dates back to the medieval period. Who knew?
As you’d expect from a start-up that an Adrià is involved in, there is a big focus on local food experiences (a whopping 144 were listed when I checked!), from the quintessential to the quirky. There’s everything from a Catalan cooking class in a chef’s home and picnics in the vineyards in Priorat to a jamon tasting on a market tour and a gin and tonic experience with a local cocktail master on a terrace in Gràcia (which is where we like to stay when we’re in Barcelona).
When we connect with locals around the world for anything other than socializing we always seek out experts. We go to chefs to learn how to cook the cuisine and bartenders to learn to make drinks. Trip4Real appears to offer experiences and activities with a combination of experts qualified in their fields and everyday locals who don’t appear to have any special attributes that make them suitable for running tours other than their passion for the subject and their city. This is my main quibble. I’d like to be able to discern the experts from the enthusiasts.
But maybe that’s not such a big deal to most travellers. You tell me. Perhaps not everyone requires experts to lead their tours. Maybe some people simply want to meet locals when they travel and they don’t mind whether they’re especially qualified in anything or not. They’re just happy for their new friend to introduce them to an off the beaten track neighbourhood and some happening local spots.
Indeed, some of the travellers who have done my Inside Siem Reap experiences have said that they really enjoyed hanging out and sipping cocktails and dropping into bars where I knew the staff and owners. They might have arrived as strangers but many have left as friends and we’ve stayed in touch by email and social media. I wonder how often that happens between professional tour guides and their clients?
My mother often said that like my father I have ‘the gift of the gab’ and can talk to anyone and everyone about anything and everything. I certainly inherited my dad’s gregarious nature and have no trouble making friends. However, I appreciate that some people are more introverted and find it harder to meet people, especially when they’re away, and particularly when they’re in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language. Hiring a local certainly saves a lot of time making small talk.