Anyone who has ever gone off the beaten path in a foreign country knows the value of getting shown around by a local. It’s why climbers in the Himalayas rely on Sherpas and why travelers everywhere grill cab drivers.
Greg Buzulencia was one such avid traveler. Planning a trip to Mongolia in 2015, he connected with a local named Canat who proved invaluable, offering personal recommendations, arranging lodging and transportation, and answering questions.
Already a successful entrepreneur, Buzulencia saw a business opportunity: providing adventurous international travelers a meaningful and memorable experience by matching them one-on-one with carefully vetted locals.
ViaHero was launched in Pittsburgh in 2016. The focus was on Cuba after President Obama eased travel restrictions.
“For a startup to succeed, we think making a splash in a single market is much more powerful than having a smaller offering in a lot of places,” says Ben Preston, co-founder and Head of Growth. “There was pent up demand for travel to Cuba, confusion about how to go there, and a lot of misinformation. It was the perfect opportunity to launch ViaHero.”
Increasingly people want unique, local experiences… Our users have been able drive classic cars in Cuba and see the Northern Lights at hidden spots in Iceland.Ben Preston
Despite the current uncertainty, the company remains bullish on Cuba.
“We have actually seen an increase in business since the recent travel policy changes for Cuba,” says Preston, noting that they have had over 100 bookings for Cuba in July alone. “Most people don’t know that they still can travel independently to Cuba. Once they find ViaHero and realize that we can help them do exactly that, they are excited to use our service… We project planning hundreds of trips a month to Cuba and adding a premium service by the end of the year.”
At the same time, ViaHero has expanded its global destinations to include Iceland and Japan, and is exploring adding locations in Southeast Asia and South America.
“Iceland and Japan are further tests for us to see where we should expand next,” explains Preston. “Adding more locations always involves recruiting the best local experts and scaling our marketing efforts to make sure customers can find us, usually online via Google or Pinterest.”
ViaHero’s goal is to grow into a global marketplace for trip planning and local advice.
“Independent travelers lack the time and local knowledge to plan an international trip, especially one that is off the beaten path,” says Preston. “Increasingly people want unique, local experiences… It’s easier, cheaper and faster to have a local arrange everything you need than [hiring] a travel agent from afar or trying to figure it out yourself. Our users have been able drive classic cars in Cuba and see the Northern Lights at hidden spots in Iceland.”
ELISE VIDER is news editor of Keystone Edge.