Travel is a strange thing: simultaneously one of the most freeing things a person can do—partying in Istanbul! snorkeling in Nassau!—while also one of the most tedious, with hours spent pouring over Lonely Planets and "36 Hours In" articles and soliciting suggestions from friends. A new app from Vayable aims to more thoroughly infuse your travel with a sense of improvisation, by enabling users to book spontaneous experiences offered by local guides.
Though the app is new, a desktop version of Vayable launched in April 2011 as something like an Airbnb for experiences, with individuals in destination cities offering custom-made tours. Vayable drummed up $2 million in seed funding, and eventually expanded to 850 destinations around the world, with its primary cities being New York, San Francisco, Paris, Barcelona, and Rome.
The improv-travel-focused app, says CEO Jamie Wong, comes from the feeling she had that "we all need to plan vacations, but no one has time to plan." She says with the growing demand for spontaneity (a demand probably fueled in no small part by the rise of the iPhone in general), "the app has become a priority for us."
"We truly believe this is the direction that travel is headed," she says, adding that the app caters to a generation that spent their twenties backpacking on a budget, and now want to graft some of that free spirit onto their travel, while still getting "the creature comforts they can afford. They’ve become accustomed to a certain lifestyle, but they don’t want to forego the authenticity they had back then."
The experience of using Vayable, on desktop or mobile, is quite similar to using Airbnb. Travelers log on, see tour-like experiences listed, click to request it, and begin negotiating. Traditionally, the experience providers had 48 hours to confirm or deny; the app adds functionality where experience providers can pre-approve certain times, leading to a spontaneous, "walk-in" effect.
So what are some of these experiences? You might go to Paris to book a night photography tour with Alexander, whom Wong calls a "wonderful, colorful character" who has created a "really unique way to explore the city." A professional photographer, Alexander lives on an island in the Seine. He charges $175 for a three-hour tour accommodating as many as four people.
In Queens, New York, Jeffrey, who has a popular local food blog, can give you a tour of different food vendors in the area, with an emphasis on the vendors’ personal stories. "You eat your way through everything," says Wong, and you learn about the histories of each chef, many of whom are immigrants to this country. "At the end of it, you feel like you’ve traveled around the world," says Wong. That costs $59 per person, and also lasts three hours.
Also in Paris, you might tour the Louvre with Uriel, a museum veteran who has put in time working at that museum as well as the Musée D’Orsay. For $75, you get a VIP pass at the museum (enabling you to cut the line), and you’re escorted by Uriel to the works of art that he personally thinks of as the highlights of the Louvre (while also accommodating specific requests you might have, based either on your B.A. in Art History or your fandom of The Da Vinci Code). Uriel gives you "the quintessential Parisian experience in a unique, customized way," says Wong.
Each of these "insiders," as Vayable calls them, has been manually vetted by the company—and again, each has pre-approved certain times that they’re available, making a spontaneous tour with them just a tap away.
Wong claims a high retention rate on both sides of the marketplace, saying it’s a win-win: travelers get that homemade, off-the-beaten path feel; "insiders" get not only money for the tour, but a chance to promote themselves more generally—helping to build their photography business, helping to raise the profile of their food blog, and so on. "It’s certainly a creative class who’s powering the ‘insider’ piece of the platform," says Wong.
The formula's working. Wong says bookings on the platform have grown 500% year over year, with a set of "insider" experiences now around 10,000. "It’s a two-way street," she says of using Vayable, be it as a traveler or guide. "This is a way to share experience."