Gyde and Seek is a travel platform that doesn’t believe in travel as usual. I confirmed this in Mexico this summer after becoming addicted to the socially conscious private tour company that operates in over 20 cities internationally. If you haven’t tried it, you really should.
Paco is a former professional bullfighter and former Olympic chess grandmaster who is right at home in the Mexico City Ballet. national the stage as he leads the visitors wrestling. In colonial Puebla, Maria knows the best hidden spots for baroque dishes such as chiles en nogada, but her true passion is Arabic tacos. Then there’s Salvador, who will elucidate the Toltec ruins of Tula or the Aztec glyphs of Tepotzotlan, but can also go deep into Chicago blues.
The company was co-founded by Vanessa Guibert Heitner, a veteran travel planner, and her friend Andrea Guthrie, a business strategist who grew up living around the world with her diplomat parents. Their idea was to connect discerning travelers directly with charismatic, highly educated guides in each country, but without large group experiences or exorbitant prices. Gone are the middlemen and layers of onion-like tour operators that add costs, complexity and potential for disaster. Instead, you search for the elements of a tour you’re looking for — culinary history, street art, nightlife, Jewish culture, etc. – and Gyde and Seek’s algorithm will match you with a guide. You then coordinate directly with that person, and the guide, who sets her or his price, gets the lion’s share of the fee. It’s like Airbnb for people to show you the world.
After a very positive first Gyde and Seek experience in June, I booked two more Gydes for August. Mexico City is the company’s most popular destination and the platform really catered to my particular needs: one trip was a family graduation party for my son. Next was an extended family tour of the ancient pyramids at Teotihuacan, located 30 miles outside of Mexico City. The third was a full-day food tour in Puebla with three hungry teenage boys. In each case, the guides went beyond the usual “here we have a cathedral founded in 1548 built of limestone” trips. All three guides were super engaging, knowledgeable and also just plain fun to be around, which is important. Maria, for example, showed us where and exactly how to eat those street tacos that she adores, and also showed us the best coffee, chocolate, apple and apples. The rough teenage crowd had a blast, and here’s the thing: you’re on vacation, after all. You don’t want to be stuck in heaven with a wet washcloth all day. Someone like Maria elevates the whole journey.
Guibert Heitner and Guthrie sat down with me recently to talk about their company’s ethos, the challenges of pandemic travel, and their hopes for the future.
What was the travel problem you set out to solve with Gyde and Seek?
Vanessa Guibert Heitner: I had been in the industry for a very long time in a more traditional type of high-end operation. We were always looking for ways to represent a destination in ways that weren’t reductive or exploitative and that didn’t exoticize the culture. So in the case of Argentina, where Andrea and I met and where we worked, we wanted to find a way to run tours that went beyond tango and steak. This meant finding people with unusual perspectives on everything from human rights and economics to fine art and folk art; creative artisans of all kinds, historians, scientists, sociologists – intelligent experts. I am a former university professor, so educating our guides was very important from the start.
Andrea Guthrie: We also wanted to offer a service without costing as much as famous tour companies such as Abercrombie & Kent. This meant designing a technology platform to address all the small pain points that exist with most travel operators. So we knew we wanted to eliminate all the extra steps and multiple parties involved in a typical tour experience. The old model where you would call a travel agent, and they would contact a local Patagonia office, and that office would contact a guide, and each person gets a small cut of the profit, so the costs add up.
Vanessa Guibert Heitner: This not only increases costs for consumers. It greatly reduces the reward for the guides. It’s of no value, and it takes away those subtle opportunities to let a tour guide do his thing if, say, someone comes to Rio and just really wants to see postmodern, kinetic art.
We’ve had people connect the day before a trip to say, ‘I’m coming to Mexico City and I want to photograph the churches at night.’ The guide replied and said, ‘I am also an architectural photographer. I’ll take you to see six churches tomorrow night.’ If you were to work with an agency, there’s no way you could get something organized that quickly.
You have about 400 guides. How do you choose them?
Vanessa Guibert Heitner: We traveled to most destinations ourselves to meet each person, or sent people from our staff to meet them. We have a strict criteria and reject over 80 percent of people who want to be on the platform.
What does it take to be a guide and researcher?
Andrea Guthrie: Experience, academic degrees, expertise – this comes first.
Vanessa Guibert Heitner: There is a threshold at the beginning. Can they back up what they are promising? If they are a sommelier, an art history guide, or a Jewish historian, do they have the credentials and the knowledge base? We interview them and spend time with them in person so we can smell them.
Do you smell them?
Vanessa Guibert Heitner: You smell them. No one likes tour guides who smell bad. You want their English to be good. You want a personality. You want enthusiasm, excitement, friendship. You want people who won’t take three days to get back to you.
Andrea Guthrie: You want someone who will listen – not just to your questions, but to your concerns, even read between the lines and understand what makes a guest happy and comfortable. Being considerate – that’s the number one thing I want.
These are not easy times for travel companies. how are you doing
Vanessa Guibert Heitner: It has been very difficult. We have been hit hard by the pandemic. We experienced a year’s worth of cancellations just a few weeks into 2020. Planes stopped flying. There was a cognitive dissonance for us – we were like, how is this possible?
We have ten new destinations ready to launch, including Peru, Croatia, Finland. Guides are ready, profiles are written. But we can’t market them because we’re waiting to see how the recovery goes, what’s going on with the Covid rates, the economy and everything.
Andrea Guthrie: We are focused on winning. We had a Swedish family take their kids out of school and travel with Guide and Seek for a year. Four children, 14 and under. We structured their experience and it became a real learning journey for the family. Regardless of how things go, we’re incredibly proud of what we’ve built and the kinds of experiences our customers have.
Vanessa Guibert Heitner: Many people dream of traveling, but many times, the experience can be disappointing. You get 60 percent of what you want if you’re lucky. For us, the target is 100 percent extraordinary. A tour should never feel canned. A destination should never feel like a cliché. Sixty percent is just not good enough.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.