This new travel company will pair you with an expert local guide to plan the trip of your dreams
For some people, planning is the most exciting part of a vacation. For others, it's the absolute worst.
But whether you own a guidebook on every destination where you've ever been (or dream of going) or leave it all up to chance, sometimes it's just easier to have an expert help you plan those particularly important trips.
Now, a new company called Elsewhere (owned by TPG's sister brand, Lonely Planet) wants to do exactly that for customers by pairing travelers directly with highly knowledgeable local experts in destinations around the world.
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Founded by travel industry veterans Alexis Bowen, who worked in tour sales and operations for companies like Geographic Expeditions and France's Voyageurs du Monde, and Craig Zapatka, who led cycling tours of France, Portugal and Spain for Butterfield & Robinson, Elsewhere was born in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, the two were working together managing tours and experiences for Evaneos, a Paris-based company creating custom trips for travelers. That's when they realized how badly their network of guides and on-the-ground partners in near and far-flung destinations were struggling.
"These messages were coming in and we were saying to ourselves, 'It's so sad,'" Bowen explained to TPG. "Everything is completely shut down and we have more support financially than our partners in Nepal, for example, who are just [dependent on] these tourist dollars."
So, the two decided to try to do something to help.
Hearing from those partners the pair had built relationships with in previous jobs over the years — the "hidden heroes behind all of the best tour companies," as Bowen called them — led the duo to pull their resources and tour industry experience together to launch a new platform that would cut out the large tour companies that profit off local knowledge and "put the focus on the experts" instead.
How Elsewhere works
The way Elsewhere works is simple: Would-be travelers head to the website and answer a short questionnaire to describe what a dream trip to select destinations would look like. At this time, Elsewhere has 28 local experts in 45 destinations around the world, including Peru, Iceland, Nepal, Ghana, Brazil, Botswana and many places in between.
The company matches the traveler with a local expert in the selected destination who then speaks directly to the traveler to craft a bespoke itinerary, from accommodations to tours, restaurant reservations and excursions. The experts also share those extra-special places you usually have to "know someone who knows someone" to learn about.
But unlike that friend of a friend, these experts are owners of licensed and insured tour agencies (even if they're the only employee) that have been vetted by Elsewhere, much like how other, larger tour operators work.
These experts, Bowen said, spend between eight and 10 hours planning and customizing individual itineraries, which can vary widely in price depending on the scope of the trip. To help compensate for that time, Elsewhere will eventually require a $200 deposit for its planning service that can be applied to the cost of the trip if it's booked. (The exact date this will take effect has yet to be announced.)
"We came from this philosophy that trips should be built and sold directly from the destination itself," Bowen said. She said these experts, who are the same ones building and planning trips for some of the world's largest tour companies like Abercrombie & Kent and National Geographic Expeditions, have the knowledge and understanding because they're "true locals."
In Iceland, for example, Elsewhere’s expert, Gunnar, has organized snorkeling experiences in the Silfra rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. And when a newly married couple wanted to retrace the roots of the bride’s grandparents in Portugal, local expert Tiago stepped in and showed them the area himself, including a visit to the church where the grandparents had been married.
The experts are also available before and during the trip, and will check in every day of the trip to make sure travelers' plans are going smoothly. They can make changes to the itinerary as necessary because, as Bowen said, "people want enough plan that they're not stressed out, but they also don't [want to] feel locked into something."
So, if you find yourself exhausted in a neighborhood and just need a recommendation for somewhere to sit for lunch, send your planner a text.
"It's like having a friend on call," Bowen said.
But even like the best of friends, Elsewhere's experts do have limits. You might have already wondered how one person could offer up so much time to plan a single trip while also being available to travelers currently on one. In fact, the company's website claims that it takes an average of 40 hours of research to plan a week-long DIY trip.
Due to the highly personalized nature of the trips, experts can plan about 40 trips a month, Bowen said. She said that travel "goes in cycles" and that there are typically two major seasons for the industry: one heavy on booking and travel planning and the second being the "operations season" with "lots of trips on the ground."
When an expert reaches his or her capacity limit, that destination is closed off for bookings. The pause usually only lasts for a few days, Bowen explained, and potential travelers can sign up for a waitlist to be notified once it reopens.
A new way to experience Elsewhere
Elsewhere may only be a year old, but the travel company already has a new trick in its playbook: group adventures. These new itineraries will be planned out by Elsewhere's experts and led by full-time guides, packing a ton of action into one trip that travelers can experience together.
Offered to no more than 12 people at a time, with many itineraries capped at only eight guests, these group trips include women-only excursions to Nepal with a Bengal tiger safari and "dinner with an ex-Kumari (a Hindu female religious figure) to learn first-hand about her experiences," priced at $4,975; a 10-day food-focused tour of Vietnam for $3,746 per person; a luxury mobile safari searching for the Big Five across Botswana for $5,650; and a 13-day journey in Mongolia to experience nomadic life and the "raw beauty of the Gobi Desert" that costs $2,750.
On the Mongolia trip, for example, Bowen said travelers stay in gers (traditional nomadic camps) most nights and are able to have special experiences with nomadic tribes thanks in part to the local expert, Zoolo, who is able to occasionally communicate with the otherwise off-the-grid community using satellites. Someone traveling on their own to Mongolia would likely not be able to facilitate an experience like this, though it's worth noting that it's not exclusive to Elsewhere: Intrepid offers a similar trip that includes stays with a nomadic family that's longer and only $9 more expensive.
Pricing for the group adventures varies based on the length and scope of the trip, but the majority are under $5,000 per person with a handful costing less than $2,000 per person, excluding airfare. Those lower-priced trips include a six-night trip to Colombia that stops at Ciudad Perdida, an ancient archeological site older than Machu Picchu, and a nine-night trip to Turkey with a journey to Cappadocia.
Note that, like booking any tour, that final price doesn't mean everything on offer is included in the price. On the trip to Turkey, one of the listed highlights is a hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia, but travelers must pay an additional $200 for the experience. For comparison's sake, Intrepid, which also offers a more budget-friendly trip around Turkey, touts an add-on hot air balloon ride for 195 euros ($206).
Designed to give back
Elsewhere is helping to give back to the communities in which it operates by making sure the majority of the money its customers spend is pumped directly into the communities they visit. The company is taking just a 13% commission for operating costs, "the minimum that we can take to run our platform," according to Bowen. The other 87% goes to the local expert and the vendors.
That's a far cry from how most other travel dollars are spent. Around 80% of expenditures from an all-inclusive package tour goes back to airlines, hotels and international companies instead of local communities, and, on average, only about $5 of every $100 a tourist from a developed country spends on a tour in a developing country stays in that country's economy, according to estimates from the United Nations.
“Not only is it better for the traveler because they’re having a more authentic, local connection ... ” Bowen explained, “but the trip … [also] is naturally better for the destination because our suppliers think about their communities," which means decisions that prioritize fair wages and sustainability.
Elsewhere also makes the planet a focus of every trip with carbon offsets purchased through the United Nations Carbon Offset Platform (though the offsets are not based on each individual trip but rather "an aggregated calculation" of the global average); instituting strict industry guidelines on trips that encounter wildlife; and by removing 2.2 pounds of plastic from the ocean for every trip through Plastic Bank.
The company will plant 10 trees in destinations like Kenya or Brazil for every client through a partnership with the nonprofit organization Eden Reforestation Projects.
Elsewhere also takes "a stand against inequitable tourism that perpetuates poverty, such as slum or orphanage visits," according to the company's charter, and promotes women-owned businesses and projects that employ underrepresented communities.
Though Elsewhere might be more transparent about how much money it pumps back into local economies than other outfitters, it's not the only one with pledges to make a difference in the world.
Intrepid has been carbon neutral since 2010, is also a partner of Eden Reforestation Projects and has made similar commitments in terms of social and gender equality. Abercrombie & Kent's philanthropic arm, A&K Philanthropy, supports more than 40 projects around the world including clean water initiatives in Cambodia and conserving Antarctica's albatross.
And even if you don't travel with a tour operator, there are still plenty of ways to offset your trip on your own.
There are many different ways to travel, and there are just as many different ways to plan a trip. But the reality is that sometimes, it's best to ask for help.
Elsewhere provides a new option for travelers looking to get a thoughtfully curated itinerary for an individual trip or the chance to join an action-packed group experience. What sets Elsewhere apart from its competitors is that it provides direct access to well-versed travel experts who have worked behind the scenes with some of the industry's biggest names.
But that could also eventually hold the company back? How much direct access can one expert give individual travelers as travel demand continues to skyrocket? How many trips can Elsewhere's current roster of experts possibly plan and how quickly will the company add more of them?
While that remains to be seen, as travel picks back up, it's more important than ever for travelers to be conscious of how they travel, the effect it has on the places they travel and where their money actually goes. Elsewhere knows that and is joining other established travel companies in the effort to make a difference in the communities where it takes travelers and in the world at large.
An Elsewhere trip might not be for everyone, but it's exciting to see that a travel brand can be born during one of the most difficult times in the history of modern travel — and remind us all that travel can be a force for good.