Have you ever gone on a trip overseas where you felt extra sure that you did your research and knew exactly what you were doing, only to realize that the information online was either out of date or vague enough to leave you in an awful, uncomfortable, or even scary position? Yeah, me neither. I'm perfect. ;-)
Obviously I'm kidding. When I heard of AskVlad, I immediately remembered my slightly horrifying experience being stranded in Costa Rica at night and having locals beg my friend and I to just book a nearby homestay and figure it out in the morning. We REFUSED to accept the mishap and ended up spending about 100 US dollars on a "taxi" to get to our destination.
I wonder what would've happened if I had a "Vlad"? Naturally, an interview about the intriguing company (and name) is necessary, so read on and learn about AskVlad, the new travel service connecting explorers with local insight.
1. Tell me about your company, "AskVlad". What exactly do you offer travelers?
Ben: Our company is AskVlad and we connect travelers to locals in the destinations they are traveling to. We allow you to be in contact with a local while you're planning your trip as well as while you are actually on your trip.
2. Who is part of the AskVlad team?
Ben: Ben Colabella. I am currently a grad student at NYU studying for my masters in accounting. I'm the co-founder of AskVlad along with Josiah.
Josiah: Josiah Parkas. I am on active duty in the United States Air Force and have lived abroad for several years.
3. How did you guys team up to create AskVlad?
Josiah: Ben and I actually went to high school together so we've known each other for a long time. I was staying at my parent’s house while visiting some friends and family when Ben told me he was planning a Euro trip for his college graduation. I had just come back from being stationed in Germany for two years, but I couldn’t say no to a Euro trip with the guys, you know? During the Euro trip is when we came up with the idea.
4. Take me through that process of actually creating the idea.
There are a lot of travel services out there but nothing exactly like AskVlad.
Ben: It was towards the end of our two-week trip in Europe and we had just finished this amazing hike in Norway called "Trolltunga". If you haven't done it, Trolltunga is a 23km round-trip hike to a rock that juts out into an overhang off the side of a mountain, resembling a Troll's Tongue.
Anyway, we were NOT prepared. An hour or two into the hike our feet were completely soaked and numb. We did not realize there would be that much snow. Twelve hours later and a few near death experiences, we were back at our Airbnb huddled around the fireplace warming up.
Everything I had looked up about the hike said the amount of snow would vary significantly depending what type of weather Norway was having at the time. I figured we would be fine.
'How nice would it have been to have talked to a local and gone into that hike prepared,' I thought to myself.
Josiah: Ben comes up to where we were sitting around the fire and says "Okay... we saved money looking for the cheapest flights using Skyscanner, we saved money on accommodations booking Airbnbs, and we saved money getting around by using Uber; how else could we have saved money or what problems did we run into on this trip?”
We agreed that we had wasted money on touristy food, ran into a lot of situations where we were trying to ask locals questions but weren't in contact with the right ones, and went into too many situations completely unprepared (Trolltunga was the icing on the cake). A few more hours of talking around the fireplace and AskVlad was born.
Ben: We quickly realized how beneficial it would have been not only for our finances, but for the total experience of the trip, to have had been in contact with a local from as far back as during our planning phase of the trip.
5. That makes total sense and is a huge hurdle for many travelers. But I have to ask: who the heck is Vlad?
Ben: During our trip, I booked an Airbnb in Prague with a host whose name was Vladimir. As any other 22-year-old Americans traveling to Prague for the first time would have done, we immediately turned Vladimir into a fictitious legend. We couldn't wait to meet him.
Whenever a problem arose, we would joke, "I bet Vlad would know how to do that" or "It's a damn shame good old Vlad isn't here to help us out.”
When we actually got to our Airbnb in Prague, Vlad was on vacation so we never actually got to meet him - probably for the better. This solidified the legend of Vlad… and he wasn’t even a Superhost on Airbnb (he should be).
Josiah: When we came up with the idea we HAD to include Vlad. After all, the man knows all.
Ben: We have still, unfortunately, never met Vlad.
Josiah: At this point I don't want to meet Vlad because it would be nearly impossible for him to live up to expectations.
6. This is hilarious. So wait, is AskVlad is going to plan trips for travelers?
Josiah: No. We will not plan a trip for you, we will not set up activities for you, and we will not set you up to meet up with strangers.
We believe that people want to have the best experiences of their life with their loved ones. AskVlad allows every traveler to have the local experience without having to actually know someone personally where they are traveling.
When you’re planning a trip, a lot of stress is involved in preparing; Vlad alleviates that stress by knowing the area you are going to even better than Google.
7. What sets AskVlad apart from the various other travel services/apps out there like travel agents, Trip Advisor, etc?
Ben: After doing some market research we can see that our competition is doing some things that are similar, but not exactly what we are doing. So for example, Trip Advisor allows you to ask questions to a forum and wait for an answer… when you order a Vlad with us, you have constant contact with Vlad from your smartphone and/or your computer.
As for what Google and Airbnb are doing to move into the planning phase of a trip, we are unique in the fact that you don’t just interact with a user-interface (Google’s new travel app) or have to abide by something that a local is already planning (Airbnb’s new beta).
If you want to go to a bar that all the locals go to, Google isn’t going to tell you the most authentic ones, they’re going to tell you what people from all over the world have rated the best. Vlad is going to give you the answers you are looking for, instantly.
8. If you are not planning the trips for them, what are travelers asking their "Vlads"?
Josiah: Honestly, it depends on the travel style of the traveler. The questions our locals get vary greatly. That is why we ask each of our travelers to tell us a little about their travel style and the things they want to do while on their trip before we connect them with a Vlad. We find them a specific local from our database according to a short form they fill out when ordering a Vlad, based on what they want to do during their trip.
Ben: Some common themes we see are people interested in eating at the best local restaurants, going to the least crowded hidden beaches, shopping where they won't get ripped off for being a tourist, finding local clubs/bars that are safe and not creepy, local cafes, etc.
9. And how quickly do they get in touch? What is the wait time like?
We work on a first come, first serve basis and the average time of connecting a traveler with one of our Vlads is about 48 hours. However, when we get very busy, it could take up to 72 hours.
10. Okay this is making more sense now. So if I was on AskVlad, could I connect with a Vlad in any city in the world?
Josiah: Yes, we can connect you with a local anywhere in the world. That’s one thing that makes us unique. If your location isn’t already listed on another travel site, you’re out of luck. With us, if you’re traveling to a very obscure area and we don’t currently have a Vlad there, we have methods of finding you one very quickly.
11. How do you have Vlads all over the world who are willing to answer these questions for travelers?
Ben: Between our personal connections and connections we’ve made while traveling extensively, we’ve been able to fill a majority of major cities. If you happen to be traveling somewhere that doesn’t currently have a Vlad, like we said, we have a few different methods of finding one for you very quickly.
12. This sounds kind of top secret... How safe is it to talk to a Vlad? Do travelers have to worry about any creepy people stalking them on a trip?
Josiah: No, not at all.
When a user is ready to talk to Vlad, we set them up with an anonymous profile and instruct them not to share the exact location they are staying or share any pictures of themselves.
The same goes for Vlad. If they cross the line and ask personal questions that make our travelers feel uncomfortable, we’re going to find another Vlad for that location.
When you talk to Vlad, you’re actually just typing. There’s no video or voice chat. It’s either you’re texting from an anonymous profile on your phone or instant messaging from an anonymous profile on your computer. Your Vlad will also have an anonymous profile.
13. How many travelers have you currently served?
Josiah: We’re still very new, but we have tested extensively and made sure our process worked before we started reaching out for press. To date we have served just over 200 people that we know under a controlled test environment. Now we’re ready to let it rip and service people by the tens of thousands.
Ben: ... hundreds of thousands.
14. How much does this service cost?
Ben: Right now you can get a Vlad for 24 hours for $19.99, 3 days for $49.99, 7 days for $99.99 and 30 days for $349.99. We actually pay Vlad a majority of that price to ensure the best possible service and more goes out to employees that we have stationed around the world.
If you compare it to hiring a travel agent, you’re going to be saving tons of money strictly on the cost differences, never mind the ways Vlad’s advice can save you money. On top of that, the average traveler is likely spending thousands of dollars on their trip in the first place, $19.99 is a small fee to pay with the likelihood of saving way more than $19.99.
Josiah: We have found that a lot of people tend to travel in groups and split a Vlad between the group. This way they can all ask the questions that they are anxiously waiting to find the answer to for a very cheap price.
Jumping off a private cliff into the ocean that a local told you about, you will remember that for the rest of your life. Do you think an experience like that is worth $19.99? We do, and so do a lot of other people.
15. What do you think is AskVlad's biggest challenge moving forward?
Josiah: Our biggest challenge right now is getting in front of the right audience and quite frankly, we don’t have the budget to have a targeted marketing campaign that will take this idea to the moon. Until we get that budget, slow and steady will win the race. We’re the best at what we do and we know that.
It's with the help of people with a voice like yourself, that we are getting the word out there that you can now be in direct contact with a local before and during your trip. Travelers know the benefit of this, they just don't know the service exists yet.
Ben: Our other big challenge is convincing the travelers out there who don't care to live like a local, that AskVlad can be extremely beneficial for them too. If not for the experience benefits, AskVlad can save you plenty of money, reduce stress, and provide safety/reassurance.
The parents who have used AskVlad absolutely love it because the locals they talk to are able to give them child friendly recommendations for activities, lodging, restaurants and areas to avoid.
16. What is AskVlad's ultimate goal?
Ben: We really just want to help as many people as possible create amazing experiences. We have all heard the saying "locals know best". Josiah and I passionately believe in that. We have had the best travel experiences when we get “in” with the locals and we want everyone to be able to have as genuine, adventurous, and memorable travel experiences as we have.
This interview was sponsored by AskVlad.