The State of Tourism

pretavoyager-ontourism

Often I take for granted what I do and how I travel. Then someone asks what my job is and for some reason it feels like an uphill battle to explain what are ultimately fairly simple concepts. It makes me wonder why we complicate things. Then I realized that so much is engrained in our heads just because for so long processes have been done a certain way. That brings us to tourism.

This morning I had a conversation over DM with Vayable CEO Jamie Wong that got me thinking. I had shared this piece on Rue89 which featured Vayable, and where I was quoted [Chrome or Google Translate if you don't speak French]. She was surprised the article was as positive as it was (the fear is always that people will see a service like this as commercializing human relationships – which I had never considered). But then I read the comments [bottom]. Ouch. I’m not sure if the comments were aimed more at the journalist’s reporting or the nature of Vayable, but I thought I’d use this opportunity to respond as I’ve been pondering how we travel a lot lately.

The way I travel.

I was lucky enough to be born into a traveling family where regular trips were the norm, not a special occasion. Every spring break we’d visit somewhere new (Hawaii was my favorite as I got to plan the trip a bit with the help of people I met in an AOL chat room), and every summer go to Boston to visit and stay with family. On my first trip to France when I was in high school we stayed with old family friends. This opened my eyes to traveling and learning the mundane things from a trip to the local boulangerie to the novel [to me] concept of putting flavored syrup in your water. Sometimes the most mundane things have the most lasting impact – and some are more meaningful than others.

To this day when I travel 90% of the time I stay with friends. Yes, it’s far more cost effective, but it also gives me an insight into the place, and the joy of face-to-face contact (I spend a lot of QT with my computer). There are services like Airbnb, but this is kind of how I’ve always traveled.

Life in Paris

Without intentionally trying, Paris is one of those things I’ve become an expert on. I probably have 30-40 friends and family pass through the city every year (yes, some closer than others, but still a pleasure to have a friendly face from home, and we bond in new ways as we re-connect on my turf). In June I had 15 visitors in 2 weeks (I barely survived!). I also have friends who have friends, and they are often connected to me. I created my Visit Paris page to help keep myself sounding like a broken record and answering the same questions over and over. All the information is one place and everyone wins!

The irony of having visitors all the time is Paris is that they’re on vacation (mentality: splurge!), while you live here and don’t necessarily have a disposable income, while trying to juggle work and life. Before you know it, you’re becoming a personal concierge to every friend and friend of friend coming to Paris, just because you’re awesome. Alas, despite living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world I still have bills to pay.

The Business Model

The internet has taught us bad habits. Now / free / give / me. Bloggers + creative types are asked all the time to work for free, but somehow you’d never ask your dentist, lawyer, or accountant for favors of the sort (yet ironically, they tend to have really ugly websites and probably can afford to work for free). Quite frankly it’s exhausting sometimes and an uphill battle to explain to people and educate them on why they should value you. (secret: They’re probably not your ideal client anyway).

So when I heard about Vayable, I immediately appreciated that it was a start-up with a business model for the user. (I can’t tell you how many times I get “offers” to write guides to Paris giving away all my favorite places in exchange for “exposure”; the irony is that if you follow my blog, twitter or instagram, I am happy to share and that information is readily available). Between rent, expenses and student loans, working for free is not an option.

But that being said, I see my blog as my free model, and my tour offerings as my paid model. I’m not forcing you to take my tour, but we do have a lot of fun. Thankfully the people who take my tour leave much more thoughtful – and positive – reviews than those reading Rue89. I always find it fascinating that people are so quick to judge without doing their homework or trying something new. I’d kill to be a fly on the wall and see how they travel, or to see what they do for a living. I’m fortunate I love what I do (at least when I feel like I’m not being taken advantage of, and properly valued).

The Paris Formula

Between my 30-40 visitors a year + my ~50+ Vayable tours (many of those groups have up to 4 people), I’m still always in awe of the mentality of the “Paris checklist”: Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Louvre, etc. Honestly, it’s not hard to see any of those places, but I think people get so caught up in them I think they put on blinders to the crowds and lines and how not fun it can be at times. However, there are ways to see these places that can make them more enjoyable, but it’s not necessarily written in a guidebook. This is where my tours come in – I want to help people be creative in how they see the city. I also firmly believe that people should take their own interests and passions into account when planning a trip, before defaulting to the “must sees.” Just yesterday I gave a tour and we were talking about how the guy wanted to visit an archery store in Paris. I thought that was awesome. Because my tour was in real time and face-to-face, by someone who lives here I could also warn him that there’s a chance it may be closed in August and how I’d suggest going about finding out if it was indeed open. My tours are not about the big picture, they’re about the little secrets that help you understand the city and enjoy it to the best of your ability. Often the basics are what are missed that can greatly affect your experience. I also think cultural exchange is huge, and if you understand basic etiquette rather than taking it for granted, your trip is going to be more meaningful.

Traditional Tourism

I often forget that the way I travel (very unplanned, start with a good cafe) is not the norm. But I also am open to any experience, even if it’s dubbed “touristy.” Sometimes you need to take a moment to be the tourist for a day. Often we don’t take full advantage of the city we live in (not my case in Paris), so tours can be an interesting way to learn something new or see a place in a different way.

When my parents were in town in June we did a few things that would be filed under “touristy.” And it’s not that what we did was touristic, but how we did them. The first was a boat tour in Lyon. The young French tour guide read a script from a binder in both French and English as we floated by various sites. The way her voice came out I could barely understand either language. It got me thinking, if tourism is such a big industry – particularly in France – this lackluster job is the best they can do? The content at times was flat and generic.

The following week we took a bus tour to the D-Day beaches. It’s admittedly hard to get there if you don’t have a car / don’t know where you’re going, so it’s nice to have a little guidance and insight into the area and what’s happening. Our bus was all in English. From the look of our guide there was not much to differentiate her from any of us on the bus. The information she shared was interesting once you got past the rather monotone voice. Granted it has to be a challenge to give the same tour all the time, which is why in my own offerings I start at a different location (where my guests are staying) each time to keep it fresh and interesting for me. Overall it was fine, but I’m always looking for an excuse to rave about something because it’s so great.

You Get What You Pay For

The old saying “you get what you pay for” is true, but how come some of these tours that fall flat still have people coming back again and again? There’s been a lot of talk recently of the romantized vision that Anglos put on Paris. Often I fear that people put on blinders when they come to Paris and only see what they want to see, when there is so much more to see (and I don’t mean in terms of checking off as many monuments as you can). Maybe there isn’t an outlet for feedback or constructive criticism? (TripAdvisor reviews are controversial too). Or maybe people don’t care and if it works it works?

The entire start-up world is full of ideas trying to think differently, and it’s interesting to try to figure out what works and what  doesn’t. I’m not saying every start-up knows what they’re doing, but I appreciate the intention.

Why were the reactions to the Rue89.com article so strong? Often we take for granted what we know about a place when we live there, so for someone who lives in Paris it may not interest them in the way it would a visitor, particularly a first time one (but you always have the option to learn a new skill with many of the offerings).

I find that usually it is the most basic information that is taken for granted. That’s what I attempt to communicate in my tours. With Vayable there is a human behind the tours, and a personality too. We are not reading from a script. I’m not a tourism professional: I’m a graphic designer with a background and anthropology and communication that helps inform how I see the world.  I like to question things, including how the formula for travel is to get the book and go. It works, but I think we can make it more personal.

Experience Design

As a designer I see the world around me through that lens. More than just the graphics on the wall, I like to think of design as experience as well. It’s not just the quality of English on the [mainstream] tours I struggled with, but the entire experience. Not every experience has to be flawless, but I’d argue that there’s a lot in the tourism industry that could be improved. But when we travel it is ephemeral, and perhaps we just like to remember the good (except when the experience was so bad it’s a good story!).

I for one, am a big fan of the Vayable experience. Every one is different, I’ve met really awesome people from around the world in the past year that I’ve been offering them, gained insights into how people travel, and learn new things about Paris through the questions my guests ask. In return guests feel empowered and informed. Every guide is open to design their own experience (stay tuned for the great time I had on Emily’s tour in Dublin). I’ve always thought these tours are great way for bloggers to build their brand and have a paying model out of what is typically a time-consuming, under-valued passion. And while often the tours are aimed at visitors, there is no reason a local can’t sign up.

Of course quality control is a concern with any service, but there’s an aspect of the start-up scene that travels via word of mouth. Just like when I read articles, when I know who the author is – or can look it up through a link – it adds a personal connection. (Perhaps I’m the exception here too). On most tours you’re not really sure who you’re going to get stuck with. I’m fortunate that often people sign up for my tours because they read my blog. It’s a fun way to connect with readers that wouldn’t have happened in the past.

But overall the thing I think Vayable has the most success with is helping create a bridge for people to see and experience a place in a new way that’s sustainable for everyone. To me, that’s good design.

 

You can also find me on Instagram + Twitter! I teach InDesign and map making over on Skillshare – it’s great fun and open to everyone!

22 comments

    • Thanks, Danielle! I needed to get my little maninfesto out in the open ;) Hopefully gets people thinking! … Love how you get people + about + exploring too!

  • What a fabulous response! I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of tourism here in the U.S. and have noticed similar trends. I’m a huge fan of touristy spots (Having a beer at Cheers in Boston? Check.), but the local experience can be incredibly rich and rewarding. The Vayable concept is amazing and I can’t wait to take a tour next time I’m in a city that offers them… still hoping to get Paris on that list sooner rather than later!

    • There is definitely room for both! Sometimes when travel becomes too “authentic” or “go local” it still feels a bit forced. I prefer to think of Vayable as being “real” with real people.

      • I love that and couldn’t agree more. Here in Sacramento, the “go local” movement in tourism is strong, but also feels very (very) much like a tag line. I think that’s why Vayable appeals to me. You’re completely right: it’s just real. Keep doing what you’re doing, Anne. There’s an audience for it and we love it!

        • so true. Branding drives me nuts sometimes, especially when it’s over-branded.

          Baltimore used to have simple b&w “believe” posters. Then Landor came in and branded the city with a generic pastel logo (so not Bmore) and the tagline “get in on it.” Sometimes you just need to build the vehicle and allow the city to speak for itself. Paris is fortunate to hide behind its beautiful architecture ;)

  • My husband and I spent 3 days a couple of weeks ago on your turf. We didn’t see the Eiffel tower, the Champs Elysees or the Louvre. Instead, we went to see Merci, the canal St Martin and many of the places you talk about on your blog and Twitter (have been following you for a while). We bought delicious pastries at Du Pain et des idees etc…
    Those comments on Rue89 are from people who travel very differently to you (and me) if at all. I also find that when you make money in an ‘unconventional way’ people often assume it is not legal.
    All this just to say thank you for your amazing blog, tips, and honesty. I, for one, love it.

    • Annabelle, thanks so much for the awesome note. Totally made my day. Happy others see the world the way I do.

      I love that I keep my tours customizable, but I’m learning to sense when ultimately they do want to see the main attractions ;)

  • I love this post, a great response. You’re a great inspiration and if only I had the money I’d love to take one of your Paris tours! Bon continuation!

    • I try to keep the price point low enough to attract my “kind” of travelers, but also is a bit of planning/admin beyond the 3 hours together so have to take that into account. Another alternative is to become a Vayable guide. Once I got to Ambassador level I get great deals on other tours while I travel… Glad you enjoyed the post :)

  • I must admit that when you first mentioned this concept, I was one of those leaving a less than favorable comment. But I’ve come around.

    It seems most of the commenters to the Rue89 article base their disapproval on the notion that making money in these small ways is a poor substitute for full employment and proper remuneration. Others prefer options on the internet by which the traveler can exchange or receive for free lodging, guiding, etc.

    Regarding the first objection, I’m reminded that the share in Russia’s agricultural production of household plots increased to 53% in 2005. When economic systems break down, people don’t just starve, they invent new economies. It seems that is what’s happening here. But you can understand how this kind of micro capitalism would be unpalatable to those who disdain all forms of capitalism. France is not exactly the most entrepreneurial of places.

    Regarding the second objection, there’s no reason why the two can’t coexist. Some people might prefer to exchange apartments, while others might prefer to rent.

    ps I love this comment: Je vais leurs proposer de sillonner Paris sur mon vieux scooter avec mon casque intégral a visière sale sur la tète ..

    When we were in Naples all we wanted to do was sit on the back of a local’s scooter just to see what it would feel like to cheat death for an hour. I believe that if the commenter took his sarcastic idea a bit more seriously, he would soon be able to buy a new casque intégral a visière to replace his version sale.

    • Thanks for your insightful comment, Roger. Glad you’ve come around, and fantastic remark about sitting on the back of a local’s scooter. Too funny! That guy is clearly not thinking like an entrepreneur, which you need to do in this economy. Ironically all the limitations/bureaucracy put on me as a foreigner in France has forced me to get creative. Vayable was there at the right time and worked with my lifestyle (after grad school the idea of a full-time job made me cringe). Thanks to social media we can cross promote each other without a huge marketing budget. Well, there’s another perk ;)… But don’t be fooled, just because you have a listing on the site or a great idea it doesn’t translate to instant rewards –- anyone who follows me on twitter or instagram knows I spend time on promoting my offerings (thankfully each experience helps sell the next). We’re definitely in a get creative entrepreneurial self promotion economy.

    • It seems to me that there is a very (VERY) strong feeling in France that if you work, It. Must. Be. Full. Time. And you must get your vacations. Everybody MUST be the same, otherwise something is wrong. I’m sure it has something to do with solidarite or whatnot, but the concept of just doing one thing your whole life (sarariman and whathaveyou) is so foreign to me, I just can’t see where they’re coming from.

      • Well stated, Phil! I’m fortunate to have French friends who are freelance so understand (and inspire) my life. Still, I’ll admit they are far more specialized than I am in my work. I’d get bored if I did the same thing all the time, so no complaints from me!

  • Amen to your response, Anne! I was shocked by the comments on the rue89 post… I’m sure those commenters are people that travel in such a different way than you (and me) and because for them it’s weird/alternative/expensive/not “professional” they judge it must be “au black” or all about making money off of everything. Ugh… Always so disappointing to realize certain Frenchies don’t think outside the (tiny French) box! And Roger’s scooter tour suggestion is awesome! I’d love to do that one day… if I dare ;)

    • Great find, Judith!

      When her new friends asked her for money it reminds me of an experience I had in Cuba where our new friends wanted us to pay for their drinks. At the time I was annoying thinking they saw us as rich Americans, when in fact those of us on that trip did have more than they did. And they had been so sweet to show us around and took us to salsa dancing. The good news is that experience made me more cognizant.

  • Such a great post Anne!

    I have to say your tour was the absolute highlight of my trip to Paris this summer – it was exactly how I wanted to see the city and how I prefer to travel. I also find the way that you create different streams of income to enable you to follow your passions incredibly inspiring. Thanks for sharing!

    • Travelers like you are totally my ideal target audience, Christina! We did have a fun afternoon together.

      It’s funny, as I talk to other journalists about my tours the concept of different streams of income and piecing together different gigs (voluntarily) is kind of foreign to them!

  • What an interesting concept, Vayable. I saw your InDesign course on a FB post, tracked you down, found your website, blog, twitter and other pages. You seem like my kind of woman!

    As a photographer who once lived in Paris studying architecture, and a world traveler who first circumnavigated the globe at age 4, I appreciate the way you see the world.

    My partner and I are huge fans of traveling off the beaten track. In Mumbai, for example, we went to a busy fish market at dawn and were the ONLY westerners there. The video footage I made is spectacular (of course photos were not allowed….)

    And of course I completely identify with all the requests for freebies. Everyone assumes great photos are free, and ‘exposure’ is a good substitute for money to pay bills.

    • Tanya, one of the things I struggle with regarding photo tours on any platform is somehow photographers still get undersold. Book an engagement shoot with a photographer friend and there’s a price. Others choose to book tours where the guide offers to take their picture, and somehow that runs way less than the engagement shoot. Perhaps there is not retouching later, but then photos the photographer is less proud of are out in the world. Anyway, just another facet I struggle with on this whole topic.

      Also, I’d be far more open to a trade of services, but I tend to be offered a coffee, or the ever elusive “exposure.” Neither pay the bills.

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