Travel like a local

The trend for doing things 'like a local' is not going away. But can technology break down the barriers between travellers and locals and bring them closer together?

By Donald Strachan
Published 10 Jun 2015, 11:30 BST

These days, you can travel an awful long way to be local.

We increasingly want to stay local — in a flatshare, apartment or holiday rental. We want to eat like a local, feasting on local produce in places where locals eat (and no, we don't mean McDonald's). We want our guided tour to be run by locals and we want it to take us to places where locals go — not just 'the sights'. We don't just want to visit; we want to get embedded, to see a destination through local eyes. Being labelled 'a tourist' is pretty much the worst insult for some travellers.

Sure, it's tempting to arch an eyebrow at these ideas. Can we really 'travel like locals'? It sounds awfully like evangelism, with a dash of marketing-speak and a hearty slug of gimmickry. Do you really want to see my city like a local? If so, you're welcome, anytime. There's a pile of washing up and the daily school run to do — purely for added local authenticity, you understand.

But developments in the travel industry suggest such scepticism might be misplaced. There is something new going on here, and technology has been a chief enabler.

Tech makes it happen

The most influential tech tool is the smartphone. In 2010, around 8% of queries to travel search engine Kayak originated on a mobile device of some kind. In 2015, that number may reach 50%. The mobile has become a catch-all travel gadget.

Mobile phone location technology has made it easier than ever to connect right now, right here, rather than plan set-piece events ahead of time. On niche apps, location-based services like Foursquare or review-stuffed maps by Google and others, chances are you're reading the same reviews locals read when deciding where to eat, drink or go clubbing. As the cost of roaming inevitably (but, alas, slowly) falls, this convergence will intensify.

"People want access in real time to the things happening right around them," says Rachel Goldberg, at SideTour, an online 'local experiences' marketplace that covers more than 30 cities in the US. Smartphones enable us to make the local connection.

A second tech ingredient is the transparency of online living. Many peer-to-peer services encourage users to connect Facebook or Twitter profiles to their listings. These social networks provide the 'social proof' we seem to need to feel safe lending our house to strangers on Airbnb or sharing our car with someone we've never met on BlaBlaCar. Warts-and-all reviews and detailed public user profiles add to the overall transparency, and therefore trust.

The rise, and increased sophistication, of metasearch engines has also contributed. According to data gathered by Sojern, the number of searches conducted by its metasearch partners in Europe has risen by 27% in the past year alone. Kayak's travel metasearch app has been downloaded around 35 million times. Metasearch technology has made it easier than ever to book tours and experiences directly with local providers, rather than relying on gatekeepers like travel agents, tour operators and other packagers. Why book a bar crawl or food evening with your tour rep when you can book something directly with a genuinely expert local?

In recent years I've been walked around the radical history of Shoreditch by a former homeless resident of the area. A born-and-bred Neapolitan took me to Naples' best chocolate shop in the historic centre. In both cases, I found something more than I would at a museum or tourist attraction.

"The difference is in the authenticity, and the experiences that locals offer are different because they show the underbelly of a place," says Gloria Molins, founder and CEO of Barcelona-based start-up Trip4real, a company that specialises in connecting curious travellers with locals eager to show off a different side to their home city.

Of course, it's not just about the technology. "You don't need it. It's about connections," says Bart van Poll, whose Amsterdam-based company Spotted by Locals is one of those updating the 'friendly local advice' model for web-powered travellers. "Guides who could arrange a local experience have been here for centuries," he adds. "The internet — and especially mobile phones — have made things a lot easier, though."

Image: Getty
Image: Getty

Close to the ground 

Spotted by Locals is typical of the key players on the 'travel local' scene: often fairly recent start-ups; small, nimble, bootstrapped companies that have been able to get ahead of the curve. Bart cofounded the company in 2008 with wife Sanne. Their motivation was simple: to provide travellers with up-to-date and in-the-know recommendations. This travel advice lives on the web, as a series of blogs written by teams of 'Spotters' based in 60 cities across Europe and North America, and in offline apps for Apple and Android smartphones.

"If you've seen the Eiffel Tower once, you don't have to see it again," Bart suggests. "We meet more and more people like us who skip the highlights and are only interested in experiencing a city like a local. Many people didn't understand it when we started, but this is changing."

Around 200,000 travellers visit the blogs every month and app downloads number more than 100,000 to date, according to the company. Spotters are paid a share of the revenue their contributions generate, but on its own the money "isn't enough motivation to become a Spotter," says Bart.

Another small company with a dedicated local focus is Trip4real, a marketplace for 'peer to peer experiential tourism' founded in 2013. Travellers can visit Trip4real and book experiences hosted by locals in their destination. The site has over 25,000 'users' and lists 3,500 experiences, according to the company. This January, Trip4real made moves outside Spain, selling activities in London, Rome, Lisbon and Paris. Offerings usually have a leftfield flavour: dinner in a decommissioned Tube carriage, say, or exclusive access to a privately owned Modernist apartment in Barcelona.

A similar local ethos powers New York-based experience marketplace SideTour. Around 95% of SideTour's customers are locals themselves, but activities like an intimate jazz evening and fish fry in a Brooklyn brownstone are as well suited to travellers as to residents looking to see a new side to their home turf. SideTour was bought by deals specialist Groupon in 2013, and in the past 12 months has expanded from covering six North American cities to over 30.

What's so valuable about a local angle? "Local experts understand the cityscape as a whole, as well as the scene they're part of, whether it's painting or Korean cooking," says SideTour's Rachel Goldberg. "Local hosts show users a slice of life they may never have been exposed to before, letting them discover something that may have been right around the corner."

"You need time, lots of time, to know little details," says Bart van Poll. "Because I travel at least six months a year, I could never be a Spotter for my city, Amsterdam…"

Locals aren't equipped to do everything for travellers, though. How much do you know about hotels near you, for example? Why would you? "Locals who don't travel much will find it difficult to explain what's 'special' about their city. These are things well-informed visitors often know a lot better," says Bart. "We try to have at least one expat in each Spotters team, because they often have a very different view on a city."

Big beasts

Large industry players are getting down to local level, too. Users of photo-sharing service Instagram gather together at #Instameets, where locals and visitors can explore and snap together. A notable convert to the local mantra is TripAdvisor. In May 2014, the behemoth bought Tripbod, a London-based start-up. Founded in 2007, Tripbod connected travellers with knowledgeable locals around the globe. Travellers could pay a local 'Tripbod' to design them a personalised itinerary to match their interests, for example. How does such a one-to-one service fit into the world's biggest travel website?

"Like a dream," says Sally Davey, Tripbod's founder and now product director at TripAdvisor. "The vision was to raise the voice of passionate but unheard locals and provide direct access to trusted, authentic, personalised advice. We were doing that … but now we have a playground of 315 million travellers [TripAdvisor's monthly traffic]. At Tripbod we'd only been able to scratch the surface of the potential."

One result of Tripbod's integration has been a foray into commissioned travel advice, with a series of themed guides compiled — you guessed it — by savvy locals. There are guides to romantic Berlin, Rome's best shopping, Madrid for families and more. In February TripAdvisor added new city neighbourhood guides, again written by members of Tripbod's network of locals. The Neighbourhoods feature initially cover 14 cities, including Prague, Tokyo and San Francisco. Integration with TripaAdvisor's mobile apps is tight, making it easy to explore food, hotels, and attractions on the move.

Stay local

The biggest influence on the travel local trend probably isn't a content or tour company at all, however, but an accommodation seller. Airbnb's peer-to-peer marketplace enables travellers to book a spare room or empty property in 190 countries. Growth has been phenomenal. Of the 30 million guests that have stayed with Airbnb since 2008, 20 million travelled in 2014, the company says. Overnight stays in Paris, for example, have grown by 117% year-on-year.

"Airbnb encourages people to stay with local people, in local neighbourhoods," says James McClure, Airbnb general manager for the UK and Ireland. "In London, for example, over 70% of listings are outside of the main hotel districts. This already means that they're buying local, experiencing local and seeing cities from totally different perspectives." Airbnb's own Neighbourhoods guides cover over 20 cities, and are stuffed with street-level photography.

Technology, again, is at the heart of the experience. Not just the social proof that comes with a peer-to-peer service, but a payments platform that supports 60 currencies, a machine learning algorithm to spot anomalies and detect fraud, and another algorithm that attempts to list the most relevant properties prominently when you search. The aim is for travellers to get closer to a genuine local experience of a destination.

"I believe it's possible — and desirable — to see a destination through local eyes," says Sally Davey. "The beaten track is increasingly expensive and inauthentic. And often we just see a place as it's been packaged, without empathy for how tourism impacts locally. Getting that perspective can be very important."

Published in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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