We hear a lot about responsible tourism and sustainable tourism, but we often find that in the developing world, very popular tourist destinations are often still underdeveloped despite large inflows of cash through tourism. Often times, we also see beautiful places destroyed by excessive tourism. Shouldn’t the travelers owe it to the local communities that they contribute in the development of places that offer them so much?
Well, let’s meet someone interesting. This week on OK, Intrnt we spoke to Paul Ziadé, Cofounder and Head of Philanthropic Network & Activities at U2Guide – a platform that connects travelers with the local community to create unique experiences and works closely with local NGOs to develop the local economy and society with the profits that flow in through tourism.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself, Paul?
I was born in France, raised by a French mother and a Lebanese father. I followed my father to Switzerland and then to the US for my studies. I started traveling right after that – I lived in India, Haiti, Cambodia and Kenya. After my studies, I felt like I had no real desire for money and I felt if my life had to be just about a career, it wasn’t going to be enough. All of my experiences in these countries were humanitarian and I realized after a couple of years that there were too many limitations to this model and it wasn’t pushing as far as it could. I started looking into better ways to develop countries and economies – social businesses that would develop and reinforce the economic tissue of an area and taking into account a social dimension.
I was starting to develop this in Haiti when my current business partner called me and gave me the idea for U2Guide and I felt that this was the perfect match to what I was looking to develop and I jumped in.
Could you tell us a bit about U2Guide, how it began and how it works?
It was in Cambodia that Eric and I met. Eric has been heading a local NGO in Cambodia and what they managed to do is they helped thousands of Cambodians in becoming autonomous in electricity and drinking water and they did this thanks to tourism. As a small organization you often struggle to find funds. In a country like Cambodia, though there are so many tourists spending so many dollars, nothing comes to the local community. The idea was to get the money from these tourists and inject it into this community. The project was very successful and this is where the idea of U2Guide was born when Eric thought let’s scale this up and make it work worldwide.
How it works is quite simple – basically there’s a platform where we introduce travelers to local guides. The local guides, we call them ‘insiders’. We have some professional guides too, but we also have just local insiders who are willing to share some of their knowledge, some of their passion, local habits etc. Basically, on U2Guide you can find something as typical as ‘Going around the Eiffel tower with a certified guide in Paris’ or something like ‘Have dinner with a local Cambodian at his place’. The prices go from $6 up to thousands of dollars depending on the packages.
We don’t only have travelers and guides, but we have a third component – which is a key component. This is the local Non-Profits. Online, you have travelers, guides and Non-Profits. Of course, everything’s free for the NGOs because we developed U2Guide so that it benefits them. In a nutshell, they get different funding solutions and an increased visibility through our social media, newsletters etc. We dedicate 50% of our net profits to humanitarian, cultural or environmental activities – at the end of the year NGOs can apply to our ‘yearly envelope’. We open a call for proposal and they can pitch their projects. Besides this, when people travel, they have the opportunity to enter a “Sponsorship Code” where travelers can decide to allocate a percentage of their transaction to the NGO of their choice.
Do NGOs also participate in becoming local guides?
Yes, some of them. There are different types of NGOs – some of them are emergency related and some are development oriented. For instance, there’s one that does vocational training on French pastries. They have listed an activity to sell their pastries where they invite travelers to visit their shop and taste their freshly made pastries. Some other NGOs have partnered up with local tour operators where they have negotiated to have a part of the tour given back to the organization. There are different ways for NGOs to get funding through the platform.
How did you go about building a network in the beginning?
In the beginning, there was a lot of work to find out guides online. We spent a lot of time to build the database. Then, we used the NGOs to get some people online. Every time someone travels online, they receive some money. So basically, they have a lot of incentive to promote philanthropic travel online to have more funds given back to them. When we have an international NGO signing up, they have several hundred thousand followers or donors and they send an email or a newsletter to them, helping us spread the word. For us, this represents a huge traction on our website. We are also lucky to have a very talented digital marketing expert and since he came, we’ve been tripling and quadrupling our rate of sign-ups per day. He’s been very efficient using all the digital marketing tools – especially Facebook ads.
Where are you based out of?
The founder and CEO is now based in Madrid, after 10 years in China. I’m in Lebanon, previously in Kenya. Anouk, who is more into design and the artistic aspect of the website, she’s in Madrid too. Nicolas is our digital marketing expert and is based in New York. Our web developer is based in Paris. It’s very international – it’s great but it’s challenging because we have all our meetings on Skype. It’s challenging, but it’s a beautiful experience in many regards.
Do you have plans of launching new features and offerings?
Yes! We have tons of ideas that come every day but we do not have enough time to do everything. We haven’t raised investments yet either. Though we have a mobile application to be developed, besides a lot of changes and improvements to be made on the website. We want to increase the NGO visibility, some backend office details, offer more filters in the search. We have activities in more than 50 countries now and probably around 1000 activities. We want to hire more ambassadors in different countries – people who would be focal points for us. We want to keep on working on our marketing, with all the new ideas we have. We’re about to do our first round of investments. We’re doing a Rocket Club campaign where we’re targeting 750 people for 1% share of our company. We are registering a branch in France.
So yes, the to-do list is very long!
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As part of OK, Intrnt’s efforts to connect people, we asked Paul if he would like to speak to some of our readers directly and he happily agreed! Write to us and we will get back to you and tell you how you can reach him!
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