Join me today for an interview and chat with CEO and Founder, Paul Melhus of ToursByLocals. Paul is fantastic and shares so much in this interview. Get your pen and paper ready because, if you love planning your trips and tours as much as you love traveling this blog is for you! From the inspiration behind the vision to the fruition of a company with almost 5000 local guides in 200 countries around the globe.
In this ever-changing travel world, ToursByLocals gives the traveler an opportunity for an authentic experience by seeing the destination through the eyes of their local tour guides.
Meet Paul, Tour Guide #1
Within 5 days of graduating from college Paul had his first start-up. He began as a software developer and marketer for Didatech Software (now called Ingenuity Works.) As an entrepreneur and avid traveler he combined with his software development skills with helping travelers and locals connect. ToursByLocals is worldwide and its almost 2000 guides are located in 190 countries. With offices in Vancouver, Buenos Aires, Glasgow and Kuala Lumper this international company focuses on connecting travelers with local guides around the world.
Here’s the Interview
Question: What was the inspiration for ToursByLocals?
Paul: It started in 2006 with the idea. It was based on a trip we had made to China and we were in Beijing and it was our last day. We still hadn’t been to the Great Wall. There’s numerous places where you can get on the Great Wall and the most common is Badaling. There are throngs of people that pack the place and its kind of the Disney version of The Great Wall, it’s been renovated and fixed up.
We had no interest in seeing that tour, so we decided to get a guy to drive us out of Beijing about two hours to a place called Simitai, which is more authentic version. We were out walking to get onto the wall and we passed this group of about 20 Chinese ladies and two were asking where we were from. Their English was pretty good and they started to give us a tour. The tour wasn’t that great but we did learn something. We learned that they were farmers and they did this on the side.
After the tour, they brought out some books that they we bought one. They were about $15. They gave us a lot more value than $15 but on our flight we talked about it being a good experience but it could have been so much better. A better tour experience for ourselves as well as them. That was basically the idea. How could we professionalize this into a platform for those two women to present themselves to travelers like us?
Question: When did the website launch?
Paul: The first version of the website launched in October of 2008. Actually, one month after Lehman Brothers crashed the world. You know we were listening to the media and they made it seem like the decline of Western Civilization and it was scary times but in hindsight it turned out great. Mostly because with ToursByLocals platform you need a lot of travelers and lots of content and we were building our network of guides. The Great Recession created this opportunity for us to reach out to guides because they were not working, because people were not traveling and so we could recruit and vet guides during this time. We did pivot. We very quickly launched some live virtual tours. They were kind of still following the model of ToursByLocals, which is private tours so it’s just you and your family.
Question: Creative COVID pivot, tell us about that!
Paul: Yea, during COVID we discovered nursing homes and schools really enjoyed the online tours. We would have a tour guide LIVE from the streets of Lisbon or Dubrovnik where all these places would normally have plenty of tourists but were basically empty. Now they book this experience like every second week kind of a thing for residents getting older in age but really enjoying visiting the destination in REAL time.
Online tours I believe have a life after COVID. Being available in the seniors home where traveling is impossible or a high school who is studying the Second World War and we had a guide who was at Omaha Beach and showed what it was like from the German side and then the Allied side. It was powerful, much more powerful than a YouTube video or something and could be done within an hour and a half type thing. There’s much more of an opportunity for education or if you’re stuck at home.
Question: What kind of traveler books a tour with ToursByLocals?
Paul: We see the kind of traveler who loves the planning part of the travel experience. They think it is a fun thing to do, to book their hotel, airfare and tours.
Question: Tell us about the tours that are available?
Paul: We do have a lot of first time visitors to Paris but we also offer alternatives for say visiting an art museum. For instance if you would like a tour of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, we have art historians that would take you around and all of our guides are quite capable of customizing their tours.
As a matter of fact, this story really resonated with me, we had a couple who adopted girls from Ethiopia and one of our guides was able to help them reconnect with their extended family. They went to the village were the four girls were born and they were able to see their family that they hadn’t seen before you know in 12 or 13 years, it was pretty impactful. Something that would be really hard to organize on their own but when you have that local person on the ground taking care of all of that, it was wonderful and they made that happen.
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So you want to be a guide?
Paul: One of the things people often ask about is how we recruit and the vetting process for a guide. We have whole team that is called Tour Experience. It’s their mission to recruit the guides, we have a lot of referrals, we do targeted advertising in places where we need guides. We only take the number of guides we can provide meaningful work for. There are a lot of great guides out there but if we don’t think we can provide enough business for them we won’t take them on yet, until the market has been more developed. We want to be mutually important to each other.
They are independent contractors. Then everybody goes through a database Refinitiv World Check database, then there is the interview process and then onboard and that is getting everything up on the platform. Sometimes we’ll do gentle editing. But one of the things that’s super important to us, is we don’t want to take away the voice of the guide. It’s gotta be authentic. The most important thing is people are booking you. They’re not booking whomever happens to be available.
5 star SERVICE!
Paul: Another thing that we do is publish every rating. One of the key metrics for us is how many tours get reviewed. If you’re a guide who doesn’t get at least 40% reviewed, by the way most of the reviews have to be five star. If you aren’t getting a five star it might mean that you are just o.k. and we’re not about o.k., we’re about AWESOME. Our thesis is most travelers are really easy going. Where you differentiate yourself from the common herd is with those difficult travelers.
Question: What is your current cancellation policy?
Paul: People are demanding a flexible cancellation policy. So we’ve adjusted that and we don’t have a plan to make it more restrictive than it is. So right now, we have the policy if you can’t make it you can cancel up to 15 days before the tour. Then we have this thing called, “Cancel for any reason.” This is a little bit more money but allows you to cancel right up to the moment. You know there’s always bad weather or your ship couldn’t dock at the port things like that.
Thank you so much Paul for such a great interview. Be sure to check out their website for tour information and more. I look forward to our next chat too! For more information check out my podcast or the vlog for this interview!