Are you sick of just going to tourist places? Worried about a selfie stick hitting your face while taking a picture? Do you wonder where locals hide in the destinations you visit? Then you have to check out what Very Local Trip has to offer.
Very Local Trip is the second start-up I interviewed in Thailand. I met Maxime (CEO and founder) in a cafeteria in the expat area in Bangkok. I wanted to visit Very Local Trip offices but that is wherever Maxime and his computer are, so that cafeteria fulfilled the requirements.
This startup incorporated in Singapore, aims at reinventing the way we travel through immersive and exclusive experiences with local people. It has a social purpose too, but we’ll look into that later.
Now we know the basics… Let’s get started!
Who is the person behind Very Local Trip?
His name is Maxime Besnier. He was born in France 38 years ago. His background is in the biology and pharmaceutical industry but he left everything behind in 2010 to move to Thailand.
“I was fed-up with the atmosphere in France, people complain too much there! I wanted to challenge myself, try something new, take some risks and experience a new life abroad.”
When he arrived in Thailand, he was working for 2 years as a Global Liaison & Regulatory Affairs Manager for a mosquito net manufacturer for malaria prevention.
In 2012 he got into freelancing as a consultant for public-private partnerships for organisations in the Global Malaria Community.
After two years in Thailand… he got the idea!
How do you come up with the idea of Very Local Trip?
“Being an expat in Bangkok, every once in a while I had family or friends, which came over and asked me what they can do in the city.
They always emphasized that they wanted to do locals things in Bangkok and asked me to recommend them places where they wouldn’t feel like tourists, more like travellers or locals.”
He started thinking about the concept.
“I thought: how can I create a business model that solves the problem of tourists that don’t want to feel like a tourist? I came up with the solution, local friends. These are local people that show you the places where locals go.”
It sounded to me that this is what a tour guide does. I asked Maxime about the differences between a local friend and a tour guide.
“It’s a whole different concept. You will have an experience (I don’t like to call it tour) peer to peer with someone that generally has another occupation. They do it for fun more than making money, that’s why you’ll have a local friend and not a tour guide and at this point the experience is completely different.”
It was 2014 and Maxime already had the idea. After that, it was time to execute.
From the idea to a reality
“The first thing I did was to join an acceleration program in Bangkok. It was for very early stage ideas and they provided training and mentoring.
I was introduced to the start-up ecosystem in Thailand. I found it very exciting and dynamic. It has been growing a lot for the past 5 years.
I have also been involved in La French Tech Thailand, a global initiative promoted by the French Government to promote French communities in start-up ecosystems around the world.”
But he wasn’t alone building Very Local Trip, at least in the beginning.
“In the middle of 2014 I got one of my best friends on board and my friend recruited another friend as a software developer.
We registered Very Local Trip as a Singaporean company in September 2014 and we managed to get some funding from a Venture Capital in Singapore, around 6.725€. We spent more than half of this money on bringing and accommodating my friend and his friend to Bangkok during the first 3 months of the program.”
Once the team was together, they started developing the online platform.
“The initial idea was to build something like an Airbnb for tourism. A huge platform that could be used from all over the world. Here I saw the problem of trust… we didn’t have the resources to check and assure the quality of “local friends” all over the world.”
5 months later, Maxime’s partners left.
“After some time working together, we realised that we didn’t have the same priorities and entrepreneurial mind-set. They quit the project in February 2015 and I re-launched the platform from scratch in April 2015.
This time I started the platform focusing on my vision. I wanted to start small at first to assure the quality of the experiences and local friends. This was fundamental for me.
I didn’t have a clue on how to code. It took me around 2 months to program the whole platform with Wix.”
Without partners and funding, he had to think about generating cash flow as soon as possible.
“I was very lucky at this stage. I had the chance to start working B2B (business to business) with one big travel agency in France. They were very interested in the concept.
I realised that the travel industry is looking thoroughly at start-ups for fresh ideas. The typical tourist is changing. More and more people want to find different experiences apart from the mainstreams activities and destinations, and some are willing to pay the price for a unique, customised and very local experience. I saw a big opportunity here.”
Maxime changed the model from the initial idea to the final one. From one global platform thought to be for B2C (business to consumer) to a smaller platform doing B2B, focusing on quality and for high end travellers.
“Almost 80% of all our activities are now around B2B. It was a good thing to change the focus of my business. Now that I have found the niche of high-end travellers I can focus more on quality, because they are paying for it.”
I’m curious about how the partnership with the big travel agency is working so I asked Maxime about this.
“The partnership is working very well! We’re receiving bookings now for 8 months ahead.
One advantage of this B2B partnership is that they can take time to focus on clients’ requests and manage the bookings while we focus on developing mind-blowing experiences.
The past 3 months have been really good in terms of activity and we expect a turnover of around 240.000€ for 2017.
We are working with 60+ “local friends” from several countries in the region. They are those in charge of doing the experiences which are a highlight on the trip for the tourists we receive here.”
Social purpose of Very Local Trip
“Targeting high-end travellers has a big advantage too. We can focus more on the community based tourism experience. We bring people to remote parts of, for example Thailand, which has nothing to do with the mainstream places.
This is good for everyone because it’s sustainable tourism. The amount of travellers is very low but since they are high-end tourists they still leave a very reasonable amount of money that can help the development of the community.”
In Thailand, they started to work with the Thai organisation CCDKM.
“A local organisation like CCDKM is the bridge between us and the communities. They are in contact with them so they can help us with the training and we can better choose which communities are willing to get into the community based tourism (CBT) business.
We don’t want to bring tourism to places that are not willing to receive it. It has to be their choice to get into this business.”
I’m interested in the training they do with the communities. I asked Maxime what they teach them.
“The training is an essential part of our community based projects. In some cases they don’t know how to treat tourists and especially high-end tourists. We teach them how to set prices, how to present their same delicious food but in a more attractive way for foreigners and some basics with the language.
Some locals have no clue about the pricing… They want to ask $5 or $10 for a full day of personalised companionship! The value they are giving is worth much more than 5$, they have to learn to value their time and skills.
I found this a big problem in Thailand. Some ‘social businesses’ are too much ‘social’, and not enough business… This model is not sustainable at all.”
Maxime gave me some of the training material they used for their project in Buriram, in Isaan, one of the most marginalised regions in Thailand.
The guide is a 70 page PDF covering all the topics in the picture below and with many graphic illustrations to better show examples of how things should be done.
“In social projects like this one, we just take 15% of the profit. The local organisations take 15% and 70% is for the community.”
How does the future look for Very Local Trip?
“The main target now is to bring more B2C customers to the platform since we have a sustainable cash flow and keep growing the business.
We started with experiences just in Thailand but we are now in Cambodia, Vietnam, Lao, Japan and we are developing Indonesia, Myanmar and South Korea.
Some partnerships like the one we have in Thailand with CCDKM, would be very interesting in other countries. We are already in touch with other organisations.”
Any tips for other entrepreneurs?
“Don’t fear to change the focus of your business. Feel free to pivot the idea as many times as necessary so that you feel comfortable with what you are doing. If you don’t believe in what you are doing, you’ll quit after the first few obstacles.
Don’t be afraid to share your ideas with others. You have much more to gain than lose if you share with others. Many people have ideas, but there is a huge gap between ideas and execution.
And the last one and as important as the others, keep in mind that positive vibes attract positive people. That will help you to find a suitable partner.”
With these tips we finished the interview. I left the cafeteria thinking about all the impact that us, westerns, make in South East Asia.
After some time travelling and seeing the bad (and good) effects that mass tourism has in some places, I’m happy to see how other ways of tourism can help improve the wellbeing of whole communities and are actually sustainable environmentally and economically.
Thanks so much for everything Very Local Trip!
That is all for this week! Stay tuned because next week we’ll go to Malaysia! Sign up below if you don’t want to miss it 😉