The transformation of tourism: special Q & A with Withlocals

Photo courtesy of Withlocals

With a vision of personalized traveling at scale rather than mass tourism, Withlocals was established in 2013 with a mission to connect people with cultures by breaking down barriers between travelers and locals worldwide. While tourists are flocking to the city centers and hotspots, locals are drawn away to avoid the crowds and enjoy their local life. This is where Withlocals comes in.

The Withlocals platform was created as a marketplace that connects travelers with local hosts all around the world. The platform offers guests a way to explore the hidden gems of a city with their private local host, while also giving the locals an opportunity to earn an income by sharing their city and passions with their guests. This local host community, as well as the guest community, is extended all over the world, in more than 100 cities, in Europe, Africa, Asia, North, and South America.

With the tourism sector amongst the most affected sectors globally since the onset of the pandemic, Withlocals was naturally hit very hard everywhere the company operates. Nevertheless, Withlocals responded fast to the pandemic, creatively pivoting and introducing new services and business models that keep tourism going virtually and physically.

Business Forward sat down with Withlocals’ senior marketing strategist, Houda Sayed, to talk about the future of tourism worldwide and in Egypt and the region, and discuss the company’s new approach when it comes to local tourism.

In what ways has the tourism industry changed and started to accommodate for the expected changes in the next few years amidst the race between COVID-19 and the vaccinations?

Tourism is one of the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, and according to McKinsey, tourism spending is not likely to return to pre-crisis levels until 2024. It might be a bit early to talk about on-ground adaptations as governments are still navigating ways to combat the pandemic’s third wave, especially in Europe. However, our plans are all set to be back with new experience designs that meet travelers’ expectations. We just have to stretch our patience a bit longer before those plans are set to action.

One essential component of our new plans for local tour experiences is personalization. Although it has always been one of the offerings that differentiate Withlocals from other market rivals, personalization post-pandemic has been redefined. We are looking at a totally new set of needs that shift travelers’ expectations towards a different direction, from exclusivity and luxury to care and wellbeing.

Our experiences are still as authentic and unique, guided by passionate locals from all over the world. This authenticity and passion used to be delivered in the form of an original experience designed exclusively to meet the traveler’s expectations. Nothing has changed; instead, we extended the customization of experiences to marry yesterday’s preferences with today’s needs. To us, the 2020 business halt was an opportunity to enhance our personalization technology. Now, we just need to wait for the travel industry to pick up again.

One of the new trends that we witnessed in the previous few months is the urge to travel the world, meet new people, and explore new cultures, even if virtually. The pandemic succeeded in changing our lives, limiting our social interactions, and depriving us of living the normal life we are accustomed to, but failed to tame our zest for life. People kept visiting our platform looking for inspiration, dreaming of the day when they can travel again. This behavior led to the development of a new product: virtual travel experiences.

How will new travel regulations create new products and services in the tourism sector?

New travel regulations which already took effect in some countries indicate a need for private services away from the crowd. Popular attractions and landmarks that were once hot destinations lost their glamour. Having said that, tourists are still interested in visiting these famous places but in a different way: private tours with a local host who knows all the ins and outs of a landmark to skip mass gatherings and long lines while still enjoying a popular attraction with peace of mind.

The new rules also imply a new wave of needs for authentic experiences: places that are not populated with mass tourism, undiscovered local spots that are as captivating as the famous attractions, if not more. [Travelers will look for] local experiences that unveil the city’s authenticity away from the crowd and as close as it can get to the citizens.

One more trend that is anticipated to grow in the upcoming years is hybrid experiences mixing real life with virtual reality. An example of this is a trip to any place in the world from the comfort of your couch. We are now at the initial stage of this future mode of tourism, providing virtual city tours, cooking classes, and workshops worldwide. These virtual activities are supported with interactive features that allow viewing different perspectives of the same location for immersive experiences that put audiences in the center of an exciting journey.

What do you expect from tourism in Egypt and the region from the industry’s changes? How do you think the Egyptian tourism sector can adapt?

Many factors are thought to be the reason behind a lower impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Middle East in comparison to other parts of the world. The relatively younger population’s demographic profiles played a role in managing COVID-19 cases in Egypt and other countries in the region. That makes Egypt a preferred tourism destination once more people in Europe and the US are vaccinated and when travel restrictions are loosened up. Thus, we are anticipating an early and quick recovery. However, to meet these expectations, the Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism of Egypt has to design and impose strict hygiene and safety regulations to provide a sense of comfort and peace of mind for travelers.

Another vital aspect to consider is how to provide private or small group tours away from the crowd. Although we are all eager to travel again, our health and safety concerns are still significant and won’t go back to normal anytime soon or at least until the whole world is vaccinated. We will still be hesitant about existing in a busy location with hundreds and thousands of people. We would feel more comfortable and enjoy our time peacefully in secluded places, places with fewer tourists yet, with more authentic stories to tell.

Houda Sayed, Senior Marketing Strategist at Withlocals

How is Withlocals pivoting its existing business model to accommodate changes in the tourism sector?

When the pandemic hit, we were fast in accepting the fact that we needed to pivot by providing solutions that cater to the problem of the moment. The problem was unprecedented and universal. The world was suffering from uncertainty, loneliness, and depression. People needed a window to breathe, a way out of reality; they needed new means to reconnect. That’s how online experiences were born – a new way to travel the world from your home.

It didn’t take long for companies to join the club. We started receiving more requests from companies to book virtual experiences for their employees to keep them connected and engaged while working remotely. Businesses’ need for virtual team activities ideas started growing day after day. That’s when we realized it was time for another significant pivot in which we launched a new product targeting companies and designed to provide virtual team activities to keep employees connected, happy, and productive. This new product is called Withlocals for Teams, and it was launched last September.

Identifying this market need to keep teams connected and synergized amidst remote working arrangements has been part of your coping strategy. How do you think organizations with teams being apart working remotely are impacted?

Vision, mission, values, and narrative are any company’s backbone. The challenge today is how to put them into practice while people are working remotely, how to integrate and align employees’ different cultures within the company? Not only that, one of the most pressing corporate practices is diversity and inclusion – a critical and integral pillar of any company culture. Many efforts were made to address it pre-COVID, but here is a real risk facing diversity and inclusion in the new work model.

Through Withlocals for Teams experiences, we offer a combination of cutting-edge technology and a rich network of passionate hosts from around the world to provide a rich diversity of experiences designed for different purposes. Working remotely has its pros, yet many companies are still navigating through new methods to cultivate their cultures. Whether they aim to maintain their team’s bond and connection, offer them ways to chill out and have fun, charging their energy and caring for their wellness, or simply keep on inspiring and motivating them, our experiences are designed to meet these different expectations.

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