Frenchman Maxime Besnier operates a tour company unlike any we’ve heard of. His company, Very Local Trip, offers customized, one-on-one tours — not new, we know. But they have a few features that set them apart from the rest.
Instead of having a team of full-time tour guides, he provides part-time employment for people with specialized skills sets that give them a specific knowledge about their cities: artists, chefs, writers, performers, and more. He calls them “very local friends” instead of guides, since he compares the experience of doing one of his local experiences as more like hanging out with a friend.
Clients can ask for an itinerary based on what they want to see in a city and how much time they have, or there can be no itinerary at all, instead letting the guide reveal their version on their city, their favorite spots, and letting the day of sightseeing pass more organically.
Even if a client chooses an agenda, if things change during the day — it’s too hot, they are too tired, or even if it’s too boring — the plans can be changed at a moment’s notice.
Besnier has even had clients say they just want a local to take them shoe shopping, or to the coolest stores in the city, and that’s totally not a problem.
With a head office in Singapore and over 100 freelancer “friends” working for him around the world, Besnier started his company through an accelerator at the end of 2014. He got the idea after fielding a seemingly never-ending stream of requests from friends-of-friends for hotel, food, and entertainment recommendations. After growing tired of hitting send on a Google doc of his recos and fave places, he created Very Local Trip.
He bases his day trips around being informal and informative. When hiring “friends,” he looks for people that are knowledgeable about their city, have flexible time, are friendly, and can be responsive and intuitive to clients’ wants and feelings. He knows the work isn’t for everyone.
Besnier found his earliest local “friends” through his own personal network, but quickly realized it wasn’t easy to find people that met his criteria of knowledge, passion, desire to share, and flexibility. He now reaches out far further to find people, asking most people he knows if they know someone who might be good at the work.
He explains to Coco Travel that agendas aren’t set in stone — that his “friends” check in with their guests during the outings, asking about how they like the flow of the day, and adjust accordingly. He tells the “friends” that, if they see the client is tired, they should slow down, or if they seem bored, then they should change tacks. “There is no need to rush, I always tell my local friends that there’s no need to hurry to check items off a list.”
Currently in his employ are freelance journalists, bloggers, locals and expats. In Besnier’s opinion, since they don’t work for him (or lead trips) everyday, they are more passionate when they do. He explained that traditional guides do the same tour everyday, but his teams of local friends do something different each time, depending on what the client wants. They might see historical sites or spend an afternoon having a beer, chatting, and people watching.
He’s not knocking traditional tour guides, some of whom he thinks are wonderful, but just offers a different approach. And it’s one people are appreciating. In under four years, he has expanded to 16 countries.
His newest outpost is Shanghai. Though most of his offerings are around Asia and the Middle East, he does have “friends” in Italy and hopes to expand further into Europe and the Americas.
In some countries, the operation is not large, just three or four “friends” that work once in awhile. But they might be fashion designers or lawyers, as two of his guides are in Cairo.
To him, it just makes sense and he couldn’t believe his model was not already being followed when he launched the company. “For me, it’s just the way I’d want to travel.”
In Thailand, Very Local Trip operates in the tourist destinations of Koh Samui, Chiang Mai, and Bangkok but also in some communities in Sakon Nakhon and Buriram that are doing traditional crafts and social entrepreneurship projects.
Very Local Trip does an indigo tour in Sakon Nakhon, with “friends” that he calls his “indigo girls,” women who can lead trips to teach about the traditional indigo dying industry and let clients try it out with families that have been doing it for generations. “It’s more emotional, meaningful travel,” he said.
It sounds enticing. In my own experience of travel, I know that, in five years’ time, I might not remember if I visited ten temples, but might well remember a conversation I had with someone who lived in the place I visited, who told me some interesting anecdote or provided some insight on life in a new city.
And Besnier practices what he preaches. Even after living in Bangkok for eight years, he still tries to explore the city and see a new place every weekend. “I just walk and discover something different because there are so many new things — from pop-up markets to trendy places in the city — it never stops. That’s what I love about Bangkok,” he said.
Personalized local experiences for one person for one day start at about THB6,000 per person, or THB10,000 for two. This includes a “friend” to accompany you, local transportation, drinks and snacks. To find out more, visit Very Local Trip’s website.
Images courtesy of Very Local Trip.