SideTour is a platform that helps people host and discover unique experiences.
In researching our latest trend report, Travel: Changing Course, we caught up with Vipin Goyal of SideTour, a platform that helps people host and discover unique experiences (e.g., a walking tour of the Greenwich Village beatnik renaissance with a music historian and writer). Founded in 2011, SideTour is part of the emerging peer-to-peer experience category along with startups such as Vayable and Gidsy. The company is based in New York and also operates in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Philadelphia. Before founding SideTour, Goyal was VP of business development at online video company Joost and director of strategy and business development at MTV Networks International. In 2009, he and his wife left their jobs to travel the world, and the idea for SideTour was born out of that trip. Goyal talked to us about why peer-to-peer companies are increasingly appealing to today’s consumers and how traditional travel brands can benefit from this trend as well, creating more “lean-forward” experiences to drive loyalty.
What is SideTour’s 30-second elevator pitch?
SideTour is a platform that helps people host and discover unique experiences, whether it’s sledding down the U.S. luge track with a former Olympic medalist, learning the art of graffiti with an aerosol artist in Queens or dining with an investment banker-turned-monk in an East Village monastery. Our mission is to help people experience the amazing world and the remarkable people that surround all of us.
What do you see as the macro trends driving today’s peer-to-peer marketplace?
One obvious shift on the supply side is the trend around freelancing. In today’s market, more and more people are moving from traditional full-time jobs to freelancing based on their expertise and interests. SideTour builds on this trend by offering a platform for professionals and other individuals to monetize their expertise. In the same way that platforms such as Etsy enable artisans to build a digital storefront and market their goods, SideTour enables experts, whether they’re chefs or monks or musicians or Olympians, to share their abilities and make money while doing so.
Second, there’s been a huge increase in interest in knowing who’s making the stuff we’re buying. That’s what you see with Etsy, Kickstarter and many other peer-to-peer marketplaces. It’s driven by an interest in supporting local community, local artisans, and it’s focused on collaboration, mutual benefit, all of that. It’s a shift from the past few decades, which has been more about mass-market efficiency and low cost, towards smaller-batch and artisanal products. People want to know who’s creating the products they’re consuming and the stories behind them.
There’s a third trend, which is around traveling like a local. This trend has been there for a while, at least 10 years, but it’s accelerated quite a bit in the last five years. Airbnb, for instance, talks about how it’s an experience. It’s not just your accommodations—you’re doing it to travel like a local.
That’s what SideTour is playing on entirely. It’s born of desire for a connection across cultures, across classes. People have become much more interested in the idea, “How can I get an experience that’s more authentic rather than just prepackaged?” People are asking, “How do I really get to know a place and the people behind that place?”
This sounds like it’s tapping into more Old World behaviors or a countertrend to everything being packaged, pretty, polished-looking, as you were saying?
Yes. I feel like there’s a 20-year period, through much of the ’80s and ’90s, when life came in a more packaged form, everything from food to your vacation. There was an emphasis on what’s the easiest or most efficient. But people are willing to work harder to find those gems today. We’re definitely in a cycle of people looking for something more unique, more authentic, smaller batch, something they can memorialize and talk about. Now there’s actually a mechanism to do it at scale, and you can do it efficiently. A lot of the arguments for the prepackaged efficiency of the ’80s and ’90s disappear.
Are there any other travel trends relevant here?
There’s a shift from a “watch and tell” mindset to a “make and do” mindset. It’s part of the whole Maker revolution. It’s very participatory. Even Airbnb starts to feel like that—even though it’s just a place where you’re staying, it starts to feel like you’re more involved in the place. With our experiences on SideTour, that’s an underlying theme: You’re rolling up your sleeves. You’re getting your hands dirty. This is not for people who want to lean back. It’s a lean-forward experience. That’s a big trend in general and for sure affecting travel in a big way.
So many things are digital today, so I think people are longing to lean in, as you’re saying, get their hands dirty.
Travel is actually a forcing mechanism to look up from your screen and engage in the real world. We live so much of our lives with technology and on the Internet. I think you will see the pendulum swing back in a big way, because there are all these other repercussions for people related to sanity and happiness. They’re always on and over-stimulated. One way people solve this is travel, getting away and shutting down their phones for a week and recharging. People will look for more and more ways to do that, but not just for one week a year, because you need that on a more consistent basis.
I think the pendulum will swing back [from digital immersion]. So that you’re not constantly looking at a screen. You don’t jump every time your phone buzzes. People will look for more ways to be fully present and engaged in the real world. That’s something I see happening.
How is the peer-to-peer economy reshaping the way society approaches taking a vacation?
It’s already reshaped the way people think about where to stay. When you look at Airbnb, they’ve unlocked a lot of new potential, whether it’s enabling people to go to places they wouldn’t have otherwise or places they might not have been able to afford. I think the experience economy will have a similar impact. It will dramatically change the way people spend their leisure time, not just on vacation but also in their own cities.
If you think about travel or vacation, you’ve got three big legs of that stool: your flights or your transportation to get somewhere, your accommodations, and then your activities and experiences. On the transportation side, you’ve got some of these things happening with the Ubers and Lyfts of the world. When it comes to accommodations, that’s already reached the point where people think differently about where to stay. My last family trip, we went up to the Poconos. The starting point was Airbnb and HomeAway. And it wasn’t me who did the research, it was my brother-in-law, who’s a doctor—it’s definitely crossed the chasm into the mainstream.
The third bucket is activities and experiences. I think the peer economy will have a similar impact. We’re not there yet in the experience economy, but it will also reshape the way people think about what they’re going to do and how they spend their time when they’re on vacation.
If you can do all these cool things that aren’t cookie-cutter, why wouldn’t you do that instead of following in the footsteps of everybody else?
There are a lot of people who think, “I’m going to New York, I’m an art lover, I’m going to visit the Met or the MoMA.” Yes, you can just go there. You can walk in yourself, you can hire a docent to take you through it. Or you could go to SideTour and have a New York artist who has spent the last 30 years exploring the Met walk you through the museum from his perspective, through his aesthetic lens. It just changes the nature of the experience.
There will always be people who just want to go there and say, “I saw it.” That’s fine. But there’s a larger and larger community looking for those experiences that aren’t just cookie-cutter.
Which generation tends to be most attracted to the peer-to-peer marketplace?
It’s more of a psychographic. People who are curious, adventurous, open, free-spirited. That often translates to a slightly younger demographic, maybe ages 25 to 45, because many people naturally become less adventurous and curious as they get older. That said, we’ve had a ton of people in their 50s and 60s take SideTour experiences as well. Like I said, it’s more of a psychographic.
It’s also still the early days of a new market. If you took Airbnb as an example, when it first started, there are many people who would say, “Are you crazy? I would never do that myself, nor would I ever host something like that. That’s an insane idea.” We’ve crossed that chasm. Now people have heard about it and also have enough stories of friends who have done it that they would say, “You know, I might try that.”
It’s the same thing with the world of experiences. As it gains momentum, the number of people attracted to it will expand. Sure, there will always be people who just won’t find this stuff interesting, maybe ever. But again, it’s more of a mentality than it is a demographic.
The market needs to gain some trust and credibility before you get a lot of people in it.
Reputation systems are a big part of this. They’re a big part of making these types of marketplaces work. When you have a lot of choices, and customers don’t know or recognize the names of your hosts, how do they decide? How does the platform help them with those choices and decisions? A big piece is reputation, feedback, reviews, endorsements—all these things help people navigate and gain trust.
Do consumers expect P2P services to be more affordable? Or simply more unique?
I don’t think customers think about services in terms of whether they’re “peer-to-peer” or not. That’s an industry term. Customers think about the nature of the experience and the quality of the experience. Whether it’s P2P or not.
You have to be able to compete on quality or there’s no incentive to use your service. Customers use SideTour because they’re looking for something interesting and more unique. The fact that sometimes it may also be more affordable is often just a byproduct of the fact that we’ve eliminated the middleman. You’re eating dinner at the home of a chef—there’s no high real estate cost, there’s not a large serving staff, no major branding and marketing expenses. It’s just you, the chef and the food. All of a sudden the experience becomes not only more personal and exciting but often more affordable.
People are coming for the interesting, the unique, the unusual. But that’s not always the primary motivation either. Take Airbnb. Yes, you can find some unusual stuff, but there’s a ton of mainstream stuff. Sometimes it’s affordable, sometimes it’s not. It really depends on what you’re looking for. What it does provide you with is choice. It provides you with a lot of interesting choice that goes way beyond what the traditional markets have provided.
How are consumers rethinking their relationship to their favorite travel brands because of the rise of the peer-to-peer economy?
First of all, peer-to-peer companies like Airbnb are becoming some of consumers’ favorite travel brands. Other, more traditional brands are also figuring out ways to incorporate these elements into their own products. We’re talking to a bunch of partners that want to bring our experiences to their customers because they know their customers will find our experiences compelling.
As we talked about earlier, there’s also this desire to understand the source and the process of the stuff you’re buying, whether they’re products or services or experiences. It goes back to that Maker mentality and supporting local communities, understanding who’s making this, who created it, what’s the source, what was the process. That’s an important piece. Frankly, traditional travel brands don’t need a peer-to-peer network to bring that mentality to what they do.
There’s also an interest in supporting sources and processes that are consistent with your personal values. Look at platforms like Kickstarter—people are willing to put money into all sorts of projects that fulfill their personal beliefs and values and what they’re excited about. It’s a different kind of relationship. If you think about a traditional travel brand, you’re often consuming a finished product, but how are these brands consistent with people’s personal values? How are they showing me a new place, and how are they investing in that place and the community that’s there? That’s a big piece.
And I can’t overemphasize the importance of the story. This is what we see with SideTour all the time. The stories of our hosts—what got them to where they are, what made them want to share what they love with other people and how they’re trying to build a business out of it. Stories of the people who are attending and how they chose that particular SideTour and how they got there and the dynamic among the group. The stories that they tell other people after that experience, especially in a world where everybody is thinking, “Is that worthy of a tweet or Facebook update?” It’s all about the stories and the experiences you have. What are the stories I want to be able to tell? That’s important for travel brands and for consumers.
What are some credible ways for established brands to participate in this P2P experience market? Can you speak to any of the partnerships SideTour is working on?
We’ve worked with established brands and companies to host experiences and share their stories with customers that they might not have connected with otherwise. We’ve done SideTour experiences with companies as big as Tesla and as small as Brooklyn Gin and Brooklyn Soda Works, as well as more artisanal producers who are trying to build a following.
What’s interesting is that when the stories are personal and compelling, people naturally spread the word. Brooklyn Gin, a small gin distillery in Brooklyn, was doing a pub crawl via SideTour through three or four of the top underground bars in Williamsburg, all about gin-based cocktails and talking about the history of gin, but not trying to sell or push their products. It was more about educating, engaging and informing. Afterwards you’ve got these 20 people who have heard this story from the founders, from the owners, and it’s really compelling. Those customers have told us, “Every time I go to a bar now, I ask for Brooklyn Gin. I just want to support these guys.” And they tell so many other people these stories.
Sometimes brands get concerned with the question of reach. What’s interesting is that a compelling, personal story travels way beyond the direct audience through word-of-mouth. It’s like crazy stories about how the customer service people at Nordstrom are so incredible that someone returned a tire to them and they accepted it even though they don’t sell tires!
More on the travel side, we’ve been working on partnering with tourism boards, hotels, publishers and airlines. All these pillars of the travel industry think about their user experience. We meet with hotels and they’re so focused on their guest experience. And they’re talking about the guest experience beyond the four walls of the room they’re staying in that night. What’s going to get them to keep coming back? What is the loyalty based on? Look at the Ace Hotel. They’re trying to create a space that is an experience. It builds a different type of loyalty that’s not based on number of points you’ve accumulated for a free stay. I want to be in this hotel because it’s an experience.
We’ve talked to a bunch of hotels that are interested in having a weekly SideTour or maybe a daily one that’s actually happening in their space. For example, in a restaurant setting, we did a pig-butchering SideTour at [New York restaurant] Corsino. It was snout to tail. It was an amazing experience for people who are into pork. The thing that was interesting is that it was happening in the middle of the restaurant, and you had all these other people peering over and wondering, “What’s going on over there?” Different than your regular trip to a restaurant, where everything generally looks the same. There’s something happening here. The restaurant loved it. And we’ve done the same experience repeatedly there because other customers keep asking about it.
There are a lot of different things traditional companies can do to enhance people’s experiences.
What’s next for the peer-to-peer travel marketplace?
The whole experience economy will become more and more mainstream. I also think the idea of travel within your own city will take root. The importance of travel, those breaks, and the opportunity to recharge your batteries is so important and becoming more and more so. We’ve always said, “Why should this be something that only happens to you once or twice a year?” Life is short. Those experiences you have when you travel are so meaningful and so important to you. They have to happen with more frequency.
People from all over the world come to New York City as a highlight in their life. We’re living here and surrounded by all these fascinating people. The problem is, it’s not easy to find these people and discover these experiences, the kinds of things that allow you to step into their shoes for an hour or two. Travel is a mentality. How do you bring that to 52 weeks of your life rather than two weeks?
Last, what’s next for SideTour?
Our aspiration is to build a global marketplace for local experiences. The other part of our business that’s not really related to travel: Our “companies” business has been growing quite a bit. A bunch of startups, media companies and bigger corporations such as American Express and Yahoo have started using SideTour for team events, community events and client entertainment. It’s happened quite organically. Foursquare took their whole marketing and communications team on a hip-hop SideTour. They said it was single-handedly one of the best things they’ve ever done as a team. So we’ve been putting a bit more resources against that business.