The State of Tourism
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.
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.
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.