In a Nutshell: For travelers who want to enjoy a more authentic experience, ToursByLocals is an online platform that offers a more genuine look at cities in more than 150 countries. The platform connects adventurers with knowledgeable local guides who take pride in their home cities and convey that to visitors. ToursByLocals also offers easy-to-use tools that help clients build a relationship with the right guide and arrange a personalized, private travel experience. The result is a deeper immersion into a destination — and the people who make it special.
In Summer 2006, Canadian software developers Paul Melhus and Dave Vincent took a holiday trip to China. Crunched for time on the day of their flight home, they decided a quick trip to the Great Wall would be the perfect way to complete their journey. But the last thing they wanted to do was to follow a crowd. Instead, they desired an encounter more in keeping with the wall’s auspicious history and culture.
They found a driver to take them to a relatively out-of-the-way spot near the wall. They’d have no guide, but they’d be on their own, and that was better than the alternative. Good fortune seemingly struck when they arrived, as two local women were happy to show them around and explain some of the nuances of the wall’s history to them. It turned into a great visit.
Until it was time to leave. The women awkwardly presented Paul and Dave with a selection of souvenirs they felt obligated to buy. Nothing had been prearranged, but it was obvious that this was a source of income for the two women. Paul and Dave knew there had to be a better way to bring people with local knowledge together with travelers who were looking for authentic cultural experiences.
That trip to China inspired them to create ToursByLocals, a platform that connects travelers with experienced local guides in more than 150 countries. And while the company may work over the web, the service is ultimately about people, according to Sara Cooke, the Director of Communications at ToursByLocals.
“We’re a very human business,” Sara said. “We make it easy for people to meet fantastic local guides and book personal tour experiences with them, anywhere in the world. Since we began a year or so after Paul and Dave returned from that trip to China, we’ve connected more than 1 million travelers with our local guides. And we feel we’re just getting started.”
The service is similar to the serendipity Paul and Dave felt when they found a local guide to escort them around the Great Wall of China. The tours give travelers a more intimate view of their destinations — but without the souvenirs.
Rigorously Selected Guides Offer Customized Private Tours
Personable, knowledgeable guides go through a rigorous selection and training process to earn an opportunity with ToursByLocals. Nearly 3,500 guides in more than 150 countries currently operate on the site. Tours range from jaunts around destination cities on every continent — except Antarctica — to daylong and multiday adventures that cater to interests such as food and wine, hiking and walking, museums and culture, nature and wildlife, among others.
Intuitive filtering tools on the website help travelers filter tours and guides according to their itineraries, interests, activity levels, and tour duration. Child-appropriate and wheelchair-accessible experiences are available, as are private shore excursions for cruise travelers — complete with a return-to-ship-on-time guarantee — looking for more than a shuttle ride to a tourist district.
“It’s simply a matter of choosing the adventure that’s right for you,” Sara said. “All of our guides have detailed profiles and verified reviews from previous travelers. And they all offer suggested tours — just read through the itineraries to find something that’s perfect.”
When the available suggested tours don’t quite fit, travelers can work directly with a guide to building a custom experience. Users can start a conversation by sending a message on the guide’s profile page. Guides then work directly with travelers to create an itinerary and send them a link to book it.
And ToursByLocals guides are always available for conversation. Sara said that one of her favorite aspects of the platform is that travelers can get to feel comfortable and friendly with their guide before they even start their trip. “By the time you’re in Paris, or wherever you’re visiting, and it’s time to meet your guide, you feel like you’ve already established a relationship and that you’re meeting up with a friend,” she said.
And no matter what type of tour the traveler books on ToursByLocals, it will be private. In contrast to group tours where no one seemingly has a chance to ask questions or converse with the guide, ToursByLocals offers a much more conversational, relaxed experience.
“You’re not just standing there listening to a lecture,” Sara said.
Transforming Tourism Into Travel with a Deeper Meaning
The result is a deeper travel experience that goes beyond packaged tours, travel apps, and random wanderings to better understand a place and its people. Even residents of destination cities like New York will hire a ToursByLocals guide to show their visiting friends and family around — and sometimes even join in on the tours themselves.
“It’s a great way to learn something new about the place where you live,” Sara said.
Whatever the circumstances, having access to a person who is invested in and immersed in a community can pay off for travelers who are looking for something special. “Americans traveling to Europe might not speak the language, and they want better access to the local culture and history,” Sara said. “And in Asian destinations, not only do you not speak the language, but you can’t read street signs or follow directions on the subway. Like a friend, our guides are there for you not just to inform you but also help you learn how to do things on your own.”
As residents of the areas where they offer tours, guides often have valuable insights that can give rise to priceless experiences. For example, because the girlfriend of one ToursByLocals client was a huge fan of the movie “The Sound of Music,” the client booked a trip to Salzburg, Austria, home of the Von Trapp family. He intended to propose to his girlfriend there.
“Their guide, whose name is Trudie, created a custom ‘Sound of Music’ tour for them, and they visited all the highlights,” Sara said. “The girlfriend, of course, was thrilled. Our client proposed in a usually inaccessible gazebo that was used in the movie. And the whole time, Trudie was there in the background.”
For the couple, the tour was more than just a travel experience; it was a moment they’ll remember the rest of their lives.
“And by the way, she said yes,” Sara said.
Travelers Contribute to Local Economies While Gaining Authentic Connections
The goal at ToursByLocals is to help travelers — like Paul and Dave during their visit to China — transcend the mundane and find a sense of authenticity in a destination. Many clients also hire guides to help them connect with their ancestry or family origins. Walking the paths that family predecessors walked centuries ago can be a profound experience. And ToursByLocals guides are familiar with the nooks and crannies of cities that make those experiences possible.
“Our guides often do behind-the-scenes research and find your ancestors’ gravestones, or their church records, or the house where your great-great-grandfather lived. Those sorts of engagements can be quite meaningful, especially considering the effort that went into traveling to find them,” Sara said.
“It’s a win-win. Your payment goes directly to the local economy, to a local guide. We take a small commission out of every booking to run the platform, but the vast majority of the price you pay goes to the person delivering the tour.” — Sara Cooke, the Director of Communications at ToursByLocals
Travelers in search of authenticity may also be concerned about where their money goes, and ToursByLocals has that covered as well. Clients can rest assured knowing that the compensation goes to an independent local contractor, not an outside firm.
“It’s a win-win. Your payment goes directly to the local economy, to a local guide,” Sara said. “We take a small commission out of every booking to run the platform, but the vast majority of the price you pay goes to the person delivering the tour.”
And that person — a local resident instilled with the pride of home — knows all the best local restaurants and entertainment spots to visit. And that means even more money spent locally.
“It’s just a great way to travel,” Sara said.
As tourism becomes more commodified and homogenized, travelers seek out authenticity. ToursByLocals has brought that aspect to travel since Paul and Dave’s awkward China experience inspired them to build a better way. And because the service is always adding new destinations, frequent visitors to the ToursByLocals website can expect plenty of new possibilities for their next journey.