Meet Greg Buzulencia, the CEO and founder of ViaHero.
Greg has always had a passion for travel, and loves planning unique, off the beaten path experiences for his friends and family. In April 2016 Greg launched ViaHero so he could turn his passion for travel into a business. ViaHero enables every-day travelers to connect with trip “Heroes,” who provide itineraries full of insight, experiences, and tips that only a local would know. And while ViaHero currently specializes in planning unique trips to Cuba, they are quickly expanding to include other exotic destinations soon. (Iceland, anyone?)
In my interview with Greg, we discuss the changing climate of the travel industry and the unique challenges of building a peer-to-peer service-based marketplace from the ground-up. We also talk about the importance of user-experience design when you are a start-up and your brand is the most vulnerable.
Take me back to when you first got the idea for ViaHero. What were your first ideas and what motivated you to ultimately start the company?
I have always been an avid traveller, and I definitely value being an independent traveller. I always want to travel off the beaten path and do unique things. But I always found it difficult to track down the contact of a local person and find the information I needed to have those experiences. And while I personally enjoy that research phase of travel planning most of my friends were not interested in that. They want those experiences, but they just didn’t have the time for that research. And I’ve seen it in a range of people, from friends to family. They either just weren’t traveling because that planning phase was too intimidating, or they would travel but were dependent on tour packages and scripted experiences. That wasn’t the type of travel they necessarily wanted, but that was they felt they were left with.
The solution for this in the past were travel agents. But travel agents, like they used to be, is an industry that doesn’t really exist anymore. And even if you want to use a travel agent, how do you find one? How do you find a good one? There are over 100,000 travel agents in the U.S. but it’s by and large hard to find them and evaluate their services.
So my initial ideas were to build a marketplace to help you find these travel agents. But when I started focussing on that desire to travel off the beaten path and have unique experiences, I realized that what users would really need is to be connected with a local expert. So I wanted users to still have a service they can trust and get that content, but have it from someone who has customized it to them and given them tips that only a local would know.
So when I was a kid, my parents would go to AAA and get a “triptik”. This was before Google Maps, of course. Do travel agents still provide those services or is that now a thing of the past?
Yes and no. Travel agents have largely moved towards methods that benefit them economically. So in the past they would get commissions off of flights, rental cars, and hotels… so they would make money off of putting a personalized trip together for you. But for the most part, those commissions have gone away. So they don’t benefit from making custom trip plans. To make money they need to provide a trip for you that has been pre-packaged and that they can reuse over and over.
The best travel agents still will provide those custom trips for you, but they are hard to find. And even when you do find them, they charge you directly for their expertise, which can be very expensive. Really great travel agents will charge a flat fee of $500 to plan a trip for you, and they provide really great, customized itineraries. But only the top travel agents can command that rate, and those rates are pretty expensive for a lot of people.
So there is a knowledge gap. There are the people who have lots of travel or local expertise to share, and there are the travelers who would like to access that knowledge, but no easy way to connect them.
How has ViaHero taken shape from your initial ideas to what it is now?
So when I initially decided to do this peer to peer marketplace, where users could find and hire people to plan their trip, I had to think a lot about, “what is the best way to connect these people?”
I very quickly ran into a UX concern. Travel is complicated in that there a many variables that go into travel, and I want to match people on the right dimensions. But I don’t want to overwhelm them. So when I started looking into different models of information to provide about trip planners, or Heroes as we call them, I had to really look into what’s really important for the user to see.
There is also a fair amount of education that needs to happen because this is a new business with a new model of travel. So I have to convey that to the user too. For example, AirBnB can now simply ask you what dates you want to travel and the location and then present you results, but that is because they’ve already gone through the phase of educating users on what AirBnB is and how it works. They had to do that education work in the beginning.
So how can you effectively communicate the value of ViaHero, in bit size pieces, that make it clear what we do? That is something we still iterate on and do testing on.
Besides money, what do you worry about?
So we are coming into our first round of funding, and I think the theme of what we are trying to accomplish next is to really refine the product-market fit. I think we have found that the general idea of a local plan a trip for you resonates with a lot of our customers. However, there are a lot of different things that happen throughout that process. From the discovery of ViaHero, to educating them about the product, to actually purchasing the Hero service, to the interaction between them and the Hero, to actually experiencing their trip… there are just a lot of steps in that interaction with ViaHero. I want to do a lot more research and experimentation to ensure that the user is happy and supported throughout.
So…. I have lots of concerns. But I’d say that is my top concern. People are into the idea, but how can I ensure they are happy every step of the way?
Right. And you have this interesting human-to-human interaction going on that is mediated through ViaHero. So how can you ensure that is a good, high quality interaction?
Right. And that’s really important early on. If you go back to AirBnB as an example in the early days, if people had a bad experience they would blame it on AirBnB. They would blame it on the brand. Versus now-a-days, if you have a bad experience with an Uber driver or an AirBnB host you blame it on the individual. You know that, by and large, Uber drivers are great and AirBnB hosts are great. If you had a bad experience it means you just encountered one bad egg.
“So in the early days I think it’s critical to have a tight grasp of the quality of what you are providing, because that’s the time when your brand is really vulnerable.”
And I think it requires both thinking about ensuring great quality, and then working out how to scale that. How can you create a process that ensures that quality? Once we have, we can open it up and make it more broadly available. Anyone can become a Hero and anyone can get a great trip.
How did you think about UX when you first started? And how do you think of it now?
Well, at first, I didn’t even know it was a thing, to be honest! I don’t know how or why, but I came across the UX Foundations workshop you were doing last year and I read the description and it seemed inline with what I was trying to build. After that, it quickly became a pretty critical concern. As a B-to-C internet company, I think UX is more important than even the underlying technology involved. Because what you really need is to exude trust and to make it easy for the user. Pretty much with any product change we make now the user experience is the number one concern now.