Getting in touch with your surroundings is an important part of any trip abroad. While some travelers might opt for the all-inclusive resort, a growing number of adventurous consumers are looking to add something special to their trips.
Keteka, new venture offering authentic tours to locations across the Peace Corps’ network in Latin America is looking to appeal to that market segment. The company offers travelers the chance to get in touch with local communities, and explore lesser seen parts of the locations they’ve come to.
We had the chance to interview one of their co-founders, Jack Fischl, who along with Kyle Wiggins set up the venture by providing local tour operators the chance to showcase their communities to a growing number of customers. Jack shed light on the team’s motivation for the venture, the future of the travel industry, and what’s next for Keteka.
What led you and Kyle to start the project? Furthermore, what made South and Central America ideal locations?
Kyle and I both served as Peace Corps Volunteers in Panama and both worked (separately) on community-level tourism projects. We both found that travelers who made it out to our communities loved the experiences, but community members didn’t have a consistent, reliable way to market themselves. It turned out a lot of other Peace Corps Volunteers had the same issue, so we created Keteka as a resource that allowed Volunteers to load information about community tourism projects. After a flood of submissions from around the world, and more research into the space, we realized there was a huge opportunity to connect travelers with authentic, off-the-beaten-path, local experiences. It’s hard to find experiences like this online, and even harder to book them in advance. The rest of the online travel booking process (i.e. flights, hotels, etc.) is easily searchable and bookable – tours and activities, and particularly tours and activities outside of big cities, are not. We are looking to change that.
We began by testing the concept in Panama, where we naturally have the most connections to local tourism projects. Once we had some traction, it made sense for us to expand out from Latin America. Being accepted into Start-Up Chile made the decision that much easier, and gave us a solid base of operations in LatAm.
How was the experience of growing a venture like this across so many countries? How involved do you try to be in each local community?
We were quite involved with bringing on new communities in the beginning and have since been trying to automate and smooth out the onboarding process as much as possible. The more we can streamline that, the better we can scale and include more communities around the world. The ideal situation is to provide a steady, but not overwhelming stream of travelers to each community, such that tourism is something they can rely on for income, without harming the local environment or culture.
Some communities naturally need more attention than others, and we have some protocols in place to help them adjust to participating in the modern economy (e.g. receiving payments from overseas, communicating tour availability). When a community needs extra attention, either a founder calls, or we send a member of the team to speak with them in person. It is important to us that we are conducting business on terms that work for them.
In terms of the tours available, how broad is the scope of activities travelers can engage in?
There is a huge range of options on Keteka, in terms of price, trip length, and location. For example, we have day tours available just outside of major hubs like Santiago, and multi-day trips to the middle of nowhere, like our trip deep into the Amazon jungle in Ecuador.
What do traditional tours lack which you feel Keteka can make up for?
The market has been speaking clearly for the last few years: travelers want to do tours in smaller groups, with local guides, and they want to see something authentic. Common sense supports the data: when you come back from a trip, are you more likely to tell your friends about the Hop On, Hop Off bus tour in the capital, or the tour in the indigenous village where you learned how to turn raw cacao into organic dark chocolate? There is plenty of demand, it’s just been difficult for travelers to connect with unconventional trips. We are hoping to change that.
As people gradually become more aware of services like yours, how do you see travel changing?
It is going to get easier and easier to find and book authentic experiences online. I think a typical trip will involve a thorough mix of seeing a country’s main attractions and getting off-the-beaten-path, instead of just checking off destinations from the guidebook.
Traditional tour-booking behavior still dominates (i.e. research in a guide book, make the booking from your hotel or hostel once you’re in-country), but as more services like ours become ubiquitous, trustworthy, and easy to use, there will be a near-total shift to booking tours and activities online. Every other part of the travel experience is booked online (except dining, though that is also possible in developed areas), so I don’t think it’s a particularly crazy hypothesis.
What do you make of the reception so far, both from travelers, and operators?
Every traveler has enjoyed their experiences so far. Many have written rave reviews. Our only complaints have been related to logistical issues (as opposed to issues with the experiences themselves) and our only refund was a trip canceled due to altitude sickness.
For operators, it’s a no-lose proposition, with a high upside: when they list their tours with us, they either get more customers, or nothing changes. For several of our operators, we’ve become consistent providers of customers, which means steady business from people that may not have otherwise found out about them.
We realize that as we get bigger, we are destined to have unsatisfied customers and operators. We’ve been blessed with customers and operators who are clearly early adopters of new concepts and eager to connect with authentic experiences in a responsible manner.
The website notes that Keteka is aiming to eventually be active in all 60 countries where Peace Corps serves. Any idea of where your next expansion might be?
Our goal is to be in every country in Latin America by the end of 2015. If all goes well, we will expand into Southeast Asia in early 2016 and go from there.
Anything else our readers should know about Keteka? (Side note: Feel free to leave anything else you might want to make public here. This could be news, or even just the best way to get in touch).
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