For this week’s Meet & Greet, we sat down with Bangkok-based French expat Maxime Besnier, Founder & CEO of local travel platform Very Local Trip, to find out more about his business and to get his thoughts on the travel startup scene in Thailand…
Tell us what Very Local Trip is all about…
Very Local Trip is a crowdsourcing platform for alternative tourism that connects travellers seeking unique, authentic and local experiences, with ‘local friends’ looking to make extra income by providing their own customised ‘local trips’ and friendly companionship. More and more travellers are looking for authenticity during their holidays or stay in countries that they might be visiting for the first time. The best way to discover a country is to spend time with local people by going off the beaten track instead of doing it the touristic way, isn’t it? Really, our goal is to help travelers discover a destination differently, to promote local cultures and traditions, as well as to contribute positively to to the local community. To make it short, you could describe Very Local Trip as an “AirBnB for local experiences”.
Your background is mainly in healthcare. Why did you decide to switch to tourism?
I started my career in France in the Pharma/Biotech industry. I am also a young veteran of the South-East Asian malaria prevention scene, and I am still involved with several international Public and Private organisations in the global malaria community.
Well, it all started with Very Local Trip because I am passionate about travelling, multi-cultural exchanges, and as I’ve been living in Thailand for over 5 years now, a lot of people (some that I didn’t even know directly) started contacting me via Facebook and would ask me “Hey, I see you live in Bangkok and I’m coming to Thailand soon. Could you tell me something nice to visit, off the beaten track?” That made me realise, it’s simple, people don’t like to travel as ‘tourists’ but rather feel like a local. I saw a huge opportunity there! So many travelers want to connect on a personal level with someone who lives in the place they visit – either a local or an expat, as if they were meeting up with a friend, you know? I also happened to know a lot of locals and expats who know the city very well, are friendly and have some time to spare. I figured they’d love to share their passion and earn some extra money! So I began thinking about how I could connect travellers with locals via a platform. I put the idea into a project, which ended in a startup! That’s how I ended up here.
Why did you decide to base Very Local Trip in Asia?
That’s because I was already based here even before starting this project. But starting this location here in Asia is very strategic and perfect for our business, as Thailand is very central in South East Asia, and is truly a global travel hub! It’s a major travel destination with growing potential and a continuous inflow of tourists. Asia also has 11 out of the top 20 most visited cities in the world, making the Asian market very attractive for us. There are more and more people that visit Asian countries instead of the traditional favourite destinations in Europe or North America too. Prospects for 2015-2016 are the strongest for Asia Pacific with an expected growth of 5 to 6%.
Why is there such a buzz around local travel experiences at the moment? is it a flash-in-the-pan thing or is it here to stay?
This kind of travelling is definitely here to stay. It is disrupting the traditional tourism industry with conventional tour operators and such. In the future, I believe the economy will be more and more empowered by people – that is why the global sharing economy is booming, with huge players like Uber and AirBnB. The sharing economy represented $15 million in 2014 and is expected to keep growing to $335 in 2025!
And you know, people love these local travel experiences because there truly is added value. Most conventional tour guides don’t really socialise or mingle with the tourists and at the end of the tour, they have only one thing in mind: go home, grab a beer and relax. This is not the case with our “local friends”, they will take you to places and share their knowledge and expertise with freshness, authenticity and passion! Travellers can connect more with them, and usually what happens is that they naturally become friends at the end of the day. This obviously makes travelling way much more unique, personal and genuine.
Why do you think small startups have been quicker to offer local experiences than established tour operators?
Well, I think that’s because established operators are so deeply rooted in their traditional and rigid ways of doing things, that it is way more difficult for them to take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and innovate. Startups are adaptable, flexible and responsive to trends and to customers’ changing needs. It is easier for startups to be more focused on the customer and work around them. That’s why startups are faster to respond to this growing trend in local travel experiences. We hit the ground running!
I’ve been to villages in northern Vietnam where nearly every house is offering homestays and craft shops, which detracts from the authenticity of the experience. How can you make sure that local travel is sustainable and does not have such a negative impact?
That is a crucial point you raise. Our company takes it into account very seriously. We aim at being responsible and conscious about the impact the experiences we offer have on local communities and its environment. It is our aim to provide experiences that not only do not harm but positively impact them. That is the reason why we also work with exclusive partners and foundations that are in tight collaboration with communities, and together we are able to promote community and eco tourism via Very Local Trip. Those foundations enable to economically empower these local communities, and they regulate the inflow of tourists in order to not overwhelm the local environment. They are our connection point, our moderator, that work hands in hands with local communities. We also recently signed a partnership with Friends International, making us one of the first supporters of the childsafe network. It is a social enterprise that fights for children’s safety and rights. Very Local Trip aims at both empowering communities and sensibilising travelers to become more responsible travellers! It is about giving back too.
What have been the biggest challenges for you in getting Very Local Trip up & running?
For me, the number one challenge that I faced was to come up with a good team. I have had many ups and downs as an entrepreneur due to it. The team is the foundation of the startup, it is crucial to find members with the same passion, with the same level of commitment and involvement. Even if you have a good idea, if your team doesn’t work, if there isn’t a good energy and cohesion, it will make things way harder.
Why do you think there are so few travel startups in Thailand, compared to other Asian countries?
Well, travel startups in Thailand might be too Thai, in the sense that they have a monocultured Thai team, and they target a Thai clientele, without international vision to their activities… They might lack a network of expat and foreigners.
Which travel industry sectors do you feel are already oversubscribed, and where are the opportunities?
Again, my background is not the tourism industry so I might not be the right person to answer this, but in terms of opportunities in this industry, I can say that the Chinese clientele is under the spotlight. In 2014, Chinese tourists visiting Thailand was by far the highest nationality representing 20% of all tourists, and this number is still expected to keep increasing to a record of 6 million in 2015 according to Thailand’s Tourist Authority (TAT). There also is a rising new segment in Chinese tourists (also know as the millennial tourists) that is more focused on individual and authentic travel and adventure than the older generations. Very Local Trip will definitely tap into that!
Finally what advice would you give to aspiring travel startups?
Think outside the box, do business with care, do business with passion! Honestly, we often hear it but we don’t understand it and it is underrated: as an entrepreneur, if you wake up in the morning with an enthusiastic, excited and passionate heart to go to work, then that means you are on the right way. If there is a will there is a way. Another important advice I could give is that, one should never be afraid to share openly one’s ideas. There is much more to gain from it than to keep it for oneself by fear that somebody will steal it.
Big thanks to Maxime for taking the time to share his thoughts with us. You can find out more about Very Local Trip at www.verylocaltrip.com.