Experiences with a Local Touch
“Airbnb for Travel”: A New Kind of Travel Experience
By Eleanor Harte
Travelers looking for an experience of true culture of the country they’re visiting often fail to find it in the tourist hotspots. In those locations, they often find only other tourists and go home feeling like they hit the most popular sites but never experienced the real culture.
That’s how Sanne Meijboom felt in her travels. “When I traveled, I was always on the lookout for the best places to go,” said Meijboom. “I did a lot of research everywhere I went. And my best experiences were with locals, when I thought about it.”
In 2013 she left her full-time job as a business consultant in the Netherlands to launch I Like Local, an Airbnb style travel service that pairs visitors with local hosts for new experiences.
I Like Local offers a wide range of activities in ten countries, mostly in Southeast Asia. The most popular country as Thailand and India, and Meijboom said the most popular experiences are ones that involve food.
Over 300 Activities
Users can browse the website and choose from over 300 activities. Options range from bike tours in Vietnam to helping on an organic farm in the Philippines to trekking in Indonesia. Some of the activities are free and others come with a fee. Meijboom said that the locals set the fee, and they receive all of the money they ask for. A small service fee is added so that the company can continue to run its operations.
We try very hard to make sure the local and the traveler are both getting the best price for what they are getting and doing,” said Meijboom.
Hosts are generally middle class and they often speak English. In situations where they don’t, there is a translator for the experience. Information is available on the website before travelers sign up, and they can set certain presets in their search for the kind of experience they are looking for.
The hosts take the visitor through the experience and get them involved with daily life in the country. Generally all activities are limited to small groups, with no more than four to six people at any one time. This is so that the host can give each visitor the attention they deserve and do the culture proper justice.
“Sometimes you visit a place and the guide is standing there talking but what’s missing is the deeper connection,” said Meijboom. “I Like Local fixes that.”
The company is based on the idea of the sharing economy, which lets people offer things (in this case, experiences) to earn money, and visitors can make their holiday better while putting money directly in the pockets of the local people.
“Many people are trying to add more to their holidays,” said Meijboom. “This is a great way to do that.”
One thing that I Like Local makes sure to do is verify its hosts. They want to ensure that the potential hosts are actually locals, not foreigners who recently moved to the country who want to offer their own take on it.
They do this through Skype calls or site visits, depending on the location. They seek to make sure that hosts see their job the same way I Like Local sees it: a great way to show locals what it’s really like in their home country. They make sure their hosts are hospitable and personable.
“I really think that the main reason they do this is because they want to show their culture to the visitors,” said Meijboom. “The money is part of it, but I think showing the local area is an even bigger part.”
The system behind I Like Local is one of social entrepreneurship. Each party in the exchange is benefiting the other on a micro level. Meijboom was led to this idea when she worked as a business consultant, which involved helping business improve and make money. In 2009, she took a sabbatical and spent some time traveling.
“I was missing a kind of purpose in my job. I was uncertain of what my personal impact was.”
She moved from her native Netherlands to Brazil with her husband, but it wasn’t her first international move; she had previously lived in India. She started doing more intensive research into the industry she wanted to break into. “I wanted to be philanthropic through a passion of mine,” she said. “My old job was too focused on money.”
From her home in Hong Kong in June 2013, I Like Local was officially launched.
The company has three types of locals that offer experiences. The first is a local that is reached by word of mouth or research done by the company. The second is tourist organizations or NGOs that have been established in-country for a long time. Finally, the third is sustainable local travel organizations. Together, these three types form the I Like Local offerings.
“The site is most suitable for those who organize trips themselves,” said Meijboom, who explained that I Like Local staff can answer questions about experiences, but aren’t on site with the traveler. She said that the ideal user of I Like Local is curious, open-minded and adventurous. “They are someone who likes to go off the beaten path,” she said. “The experiences are not for people seeking the security of a big resort.”
In the future, Meijboom hopes to expand the company to Africa and South America, ideally sometime in the next two years. They have no plans to expand to Europe or the United States, because they don’t think they can add value to those markets. “We want to go places where we can offer value,” said Meijboom.
She sees the company as a unique way to help travelers and locals meet each other. “We offer activities and accommodation options, which is are because most companies offer one or the other, not both.”
The company has a broad range of local experiences that Meijboom says are handpicked, both through the Skype calls they use to vet potential hosts and the experiences they think people will enjoy. “The key is that people can participate in the daily lives of locals, not just stand there and observe.”
I Like Local experiences are found on their website and should be booked a few days in advance.
Eleanor Harte is a journalist and writer based in Boston, MA. She’s fortunate to have studied abroad in Paris and to have visited Ireland, Belgium, Scotland, the Czech Republic, and a few other countries, but she has many remaining on her list! She’s always looking for the next adventure.
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