Be enthusiastic, flexible and understanding, especially following the pandemic! We keep our customer support teams staffed for 24/7 service, so if a question or concern ever arises, travelers in any time zone can get help right away. Our cancellation policy currently provides a full refund for the entire tour price if you cancel at least 15 days before the start date of the tour. For a small additional cost, you can purchase our “any reason” cancellation coverage that provides a full refund, up to the moment of the tour — and a credit back to the traveler if it isn’t used.
As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Melhus, CEO and Founder of ToursByLocals.
With 35+ years of experience in web development and marketing, travel has always been a constant for Paul Melhus, CEO and Founder of ToursByLocals — a tour marketplace that specializes in curated, authentic experiences for luxury travelers to transcend the mundane and discover the true essence of a destination and its culture through the eyes of a local. After being inspired by a chance encounter with locals at the Great Wall of China in 2006, Paul and CTO Dave Vincent developed the concept for ToursByLocals. In 2008, ToursByLocals officially launched to address a previously unmet market need: to create a simple, reliable system to connect travelers with independent local guides around the world. Paul’s strategic vision has led ToursByLocals to establish offices in 4 continents, serve over 1.5 million enthusiastic travelers, and currently provides meaningful work opportunities to 4,700+ local guides around the world.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The idea for ToursByLocals came about during a 2006 trip to the Great Wall of China when my partner (and CTO, Dave) and I were given an impromptu tour of a lesser-known area of the Wall by two local farmers which ended up being the highlight of our trip. The women who gave us the tour were intrigued that we wanted to get to know the “real deal,” less touristy areas around the Wall. They did not ask us for any money for the tour, but at the end they laid out a variety of tchotchkes for us to purchase in return for their guide services. While we didn’t necessarily need any of these items, we of course purchased them as compensation for their time and insight. We then wondered, “Isn’t there a better way for both us as travelers and the farmers as tour guides to ensure that all parties get the experience they desire and are compensated fairly?” Inspired by that experience, we created the platform for ToursByLocals and now have guides offering private tours in 190 countries and counting.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Some of my favorite travel experiences have taken place in Argentina — a country I had never traveled to before we launched ToursByLocals. We made our visit in November of 2012 (November being the best time of year to go) with an intent to see the sights and of course meet with our guides there. One guide in particular impressed me — Luciano Bullorsky. As a guide, his reviews were impressive, but after meeting him in person we could clearly see he had the potential to take a more significant business role at ToursByLocals, outside of guiding. We had a great time getting to know both Argentina and Luciano on that first trip. Over the course of the next 5 or 6 years, Luciano and our team would take turns flying between Buenos Aires and Vancouver as he took on increasing responsibilities with the company — first as a guide manager for South America and then as Director of Business Development. Eventually, this former guide became President of ToursByLocals! He continues to be based in Buenos Aires, and also continues to be our guide when we travel down there. Dave and I love the “can do” attitudes Argentinians have about work and life, and it makes up a big part of the culture at ToursByLocals.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Not a lot of people know that in addition to being the company’s founder and CEO, I was also our very first tour guide, and I’ve personally taken over 50 groups of travelers on tours of Vancouver! It’s been a great way for me to learn about the sorts of challenges a guide faces in order to deliver a truly exceptional tour. I really had to work for those 5- star reviews!
I’ve certainly learned to not assume anything about your travelers. For example, one couple who was inquiring about my Grouse Mountain tour asked if I would go up the Grouse Grind with the woman while the man took the gondola up. Vancouverites know that the Grouse Grind is exactly that — a grind. But being a respectable 55-minute Grinder, and considering that all of my previous travelers were in their 60’s, I was sure I’d be up to the task.
So, imagine my surprise when the man and his daughter showed up instead of a husband and wife. And the daughter was a fit 20-something and into distance running. Thankfully she was quite lovely and waited patiently while I labored up the trail behind her.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I couldn’t agree more. Yes, I’m forever grateful to my partner and co-founder Dave Vincent who shared this vision with me and helped realize it from the ground up, and continues to ask questions that make us better every day.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
Aside from ToursByLocals’ innovative core offerings like full customization, fully private tours, a direct line to local guides, a thorough vetting and recruiting process, and more — ToursByLocals most recently launched virtual tours for the first time in April 2020, born out of the pandemic. While recovery continues at different stages across the world, we’re seeing a continued desire for these virtual experiences as travelers face pandemic fatigue and many international borders remain restricted.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
Our virtual tours address the pain point of travelers facing vastly different and constantly changing restrictions around the world. People have varying degrees of comfort in traveling right now, so offering live virtual tours has allowed us to provide immersive travel experiences for those who would prefer to continue staying close to home at this time. It also offers the guides in those restricted regions access to more customers while recovery in their destination continues. And when we eventually enter a world without pandemic travel restrictions, virtual tours will continue to allow those with limited mobility or other barriers to travel to still access special experiences from home.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
Yes. There has been a notable increase in the need for sustainable and regenerative travel experiences. Our regenerative business model inherently promotes sustainability, in that we are committed to partnering with professional, local experts. This means that when travelers book a ToursByLocals experience they are directly supporting individuals who live and work in the local community in which they visit. I also have other easy sustainable travel tips that I love to share whenever possible, just a few of which include:
- Purchase items that were made locally — Shopping is a travel experience itself. By buying local products, local food, souvenirs and handcrafted items we are contributing to the development of the local economy.
- Engage with the locals — Take your time to engage with a local, learn from them, share different backgrounds and respect their culture. Spending time with a local guide is a fantastic way to make these cultural connections.
- Protect natural areas and wildlife — Traveling to areas with rich biodiversity and unique landscapes can contribute to the protection of these incredible natural ecosystems by financing conservation and reforestation projects, advancing green technologies, raising awareness about endangered species and increasing community support.
- Choose less popular destinations or smart cities — Over tourism can harm the natural and cultural heritage of very popular destinations. It can also have a negative impact on the quality of life of local residents. Consider lesser-known places, where you will find fewer travelers around, and you can have a significant impact on the local economy. If you want to visit popular cities, consider doing so off-season; it’s a better experience for you and the people who live there.
Additionally, we have noticed that travelers are booking nearly double the amount of niche, topic-focused tours (i.e.: excursions in the outdoors/nature, historical journeys, day trips to a less-known neighboring areas, etc. instead of the typical “best-of-the-city” approach) in 2022 as compared to 2019, especially outdoors and culinary-focused experiences. Digging deeper, in comparing sales made in the first four weeks of Jan 2022 with those made in the first four weeks of Jan 2021, we found:
- Sales of tours centered specifically around History, Culture, Art and Architecture are up an incredible 630% from the same time period in 2021, while general tour sales are up 425%.
- Sales of the History/Culture/Art/Architecture-focused tours make up 16% of tours sold in 2022, compared to just 11% of tours sold in the first month of 2021.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
My perfect vacation is in February, or whenever ‘February’ is in the place I’m visiting. I want a truly off-the-beaten-path experience that’s not in guidebooks or widely known to other travelers visiting the destination. I want to see the hidden gems, the backcountry hikes, or go to the “hole-in-the-wall” sandwich shop that only the locals know about, but is the best sandwich you’ve ever had. It’s usually something that will push myself and my fellow travelers a little outside our comfort zones and expand our minds in ways we hadn’t anticipated. Knowing this is the goal for many travelers and adventurers, it’s the kind of experience that ToursByLocals seeks to provide, no matter the destination around the world.
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
ToursByLocals offers numerous wellness-focused experiences. We actually wrote a whole blog post about it in December which you can read here! From a rejuvenating soak in Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon or a yoga experience in India, to a thermal spa day in the Andes Mountains or a meditative hike in a National Park, we offer different types of wellness experiences (i.e. both mind- and body-driven) for every traveler looking to make 2022 their best yet.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Create true and meaningful connection. For example, we’ve had numerous travelers tell us that they ended up becoming friends with their ToursByLocals guide and even stay in touch for years after their tour. Many people will also often go back to the same tour guide when re-visiting a destination.
- Create a highly personalized experience. We knew from the beginning that having every tour be completely customizable (even spontaneously) was of the utmost importance in ToursByLocals’ continued success. For example, one traveler once requested to turn a half-day tour into a three-day excursion with their guide as they were traveling solo and were so grateful for the companionship and expertise of the guide.
- Be enthusiastic, flexible and understanding, especially following the pandemic! We keep our customer support teams staffed for 24/7 service, so if a question or concern ever arises, travelers in any time zone can get help right away. Our cancellation policy currently provides a full refund for the entire tour price if you cancel at least 15 days before the start date of the tour. For a small additional cost, you can purchase our “any reason” cancellation coverage that provides a full refund, up to the moment of the tour — and a credit back to the traveler if it isn’t used.
- With varying travel restrictions and comfort levels around the world, be sure to create experiences that can be had both in-person or virtually. Launching our live virtual tours has allowed us to provide truly immersive travel experiences for both those who want to sit comfortably in their recliners and those who prefer the (admittedly less comfortable) airplane seat.
- Lastly, always keep inclusivity in mind. For example, many of our tours are designed and led by Black guides and rooted in Black history. We offer various tours in Alabama with local guide Jake W. who was a participant and organizer in the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches as well as other civil rights mass meetings and protests. We also have many that promote pride for the LGBTQIA+ community and are led by guides that are members of the LGBTQIA+ community themselves. For example, this fun tour to notable gay bars in Lima, Peru with local guide Aaron who is a proud member of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When we started ToursByLocals, our goal was to empower local entrepreneurs to participate meaningfully in the tourism economy. We recognized many local tour guides had valuable insight and knowledge to share, but didn’t have access to the right platform to do it. Over a decade later, ToursByLocals provides work opportunities for more than 4,500 individual tour guides who help travelers discover new cities, towns and regions, employing their own creativity to do so. We truly believe that making meaningful human connections while traveling opens minds and leads to a better understanding of people who are different from ourselves — something the world today needs more than ever.
Whether a tour unlocks a door to a historic palace, ancient temple, or artisan’s workshop, ToursByLocals adds a memorably rich layer of immersion that broadens horizons for travelers of all kinds, while also bettering the lives of the guides sharing their cities with you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
That’s a great question! I’m always getting ideas for different passion projects. I actually recently had a co-worker tell me that she thinks “I have this idea…” is my catchphrase and should be written on my tombstone — ha.
I’m in the process of starting an organization called “A Beach For Everyone” that’s designed to make Vancouver’s beaches and parks more welcoming spaces for people from all walks of life — families, locals, tourists, kids, the elderly. There’s been a trend lately to turn the city’s beaches into loud party places, and it’s been keeping a lot of people — those who love them as quiet retreats from city life — away. I’d like to help make the beaches feel inviting again, as places for people to experience the sun, the sand and natural sounds. We need to protect those spaces.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find us at ToursByLocals.com and on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter at @ToursByLocals.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!