Paul Melhus and Dave Vincent are the founders of ToursByLocal, A company offering private and unique travel tours hosted by local guides
In 2006, gay Vancouverite Paul Melhus and his longtime boyfriend Dave Vincent, who ran a website for travel bloggers at the time, found themselves in Beijing and wanted to experience one of the country’s biggest attractions, the Great Wall of China. Unlike Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, which occupy a single footprint on the map, the 13,171 mile long wall boasts dozens of entry points where one can access and tour a segment, which range from tourist-friendly and well maintained to crumbling, steep, and only to be climbed by experienced hikers, so they had a decision to make.
“Most people go to a section called Badaling, which is the Disney version of the Wall,” Melhus recollects.“It’s all fixed up and pretty and there are hordes of people, and it’s totally not of interest to us to be packed with other tourists. So we arranged for someone to drive us to a section called Simatai about two hours outside Beijing.”
Once they arrived at the comparatively uncommercial, less trodden Simatai, they were approached by a pair of Chinese women farmers who offered an impromptu guided tour, which in fact proved an illuminating and deeply local experience, imparting knowledge about both the Wall and these women’s lives. Wondering what was in the experience for the women, Melhus had his answer once it wrapped up and they unpacked a panoply of cards, books, and tchotchkes to sell. “The obligation was we got this free thing so now we have to buy something,” Melhus shares.
This experience, and other guided tours that left much to be desired over the years, sparked a conversation between Melhus and Vincent about how their Simatai Great Wall visit could have been improved, for both themselves and the two women that served as private tour guides. That included paying for the latter’s time upfront and removing the cheesy, compulsive retail goods push at the end, and making those prices all-inclusive and fair.
Two years later, ToursByLocals (www.toursbylocals.com) was born and has since grown into a network of almost 4,600 guides in 193 countries (and that’s out of the world’s total of 195 countries), who offer around 30,000 personally curated, local, and unique experiences in their respective destinations, many with specific fields of expertise and themed offerings, including LGBTQ.
These private tour itineraries and TBL guides can be searched via their website by city or country, and further narrowed down by keywords. A tiny sampling include a half- day LGBTQ history walking tour of Dublin, Ireland; queer nightlife in Lima, Peru; gay life in Medieval and Renaissance era Florence, Italy; plus gay tours of Zagreb, Croatia, and of course the site of the Stonewall riot and birthplace of the modern gay civil rights movement, New York City’s West Village.
“All of the content is developed by the local guides themselves,” Melhus explains. “They tell the story they’re competent and passion- ate about telling. Sometimes they ask us what might sell, but we want them to be authentically themselves: the B-side tours that get under the skin of the place, and indeed the best guides always have something in their back pocket that’s an ‘a-ha’ moment or unexpected thing nobody will get when you follow the flag on a group tour.”
A n entrepreneur hailing from a professional background in tech and new media, Melhus earned a small business MBA at Montreal’s McGill University (with international studies as a minor). This is also where he first met Vincent 37 years ago, who was studying electrical engineering and later moved into the music program. The longtime couple finally tied the knot legally in 2020. “We waited a long time,” Melhus admits, “and it was a pandemic wedding. We wanted to do something normal during 2020, so that was about as close as it got.”
The couple’s foray into the consumer tourism space with ToursByLocals was a second or third act reinvention for both. Melhus was already into his mid-50s when he became founder and CEO (he also served as its first official tour guide, offering Vancouver and St. Petersburg itineraries), while Vincent is its chief technical officer.
As Melhus tells it, the timing of their launch proved unfortunate and fortunate at the same time: TBL’s website went live in October of 2008, just as Lehman Brothers crashed the global economy.
“It was a bit stressful!” Melhus admits. “We put all our savings into this new venture and then the world was spiraling down. But as it turned out, that was an incredibly fortuitous time to start this business, because we focused mainly on getting guides to join. Everyone was worried about what the future would bring so the people who wanted to be guides on our platform didn’t have other work to do, and even if they didn’t believe it would lead to anything, they were only investing a few hours of time to put up their profile and develop some tour content.”
Come 2010, TBL had amassed a solid base of guides with their respective itineraries, the world’s economy had begun to heal, and people returned to leisure travel. “It’s been a real successful growth story,” Melhus says. “We actually had record sales on Feb 16, 2020!”
In creating TBL, Melhus ensured that it would not only be an LGBTQ-inclusive and friendly company, but it wouldn’t tolerate bigotry of any kind. Guides are extensively vetted during the application process via security checks to make sure they aren’t on Interpol lists for criminal activities, and interviewed personally to help weed out homophobes, racists, sexists, and sketchy characters.
If clients have any kind of an unpleasant experience with a guide that makes them feel uncomfortable, that feedback is reviewed with utmost seriousness. In fact, any post- tour review with a less than a five star rating is followed up on by TBL leadership.
“The world is pretty much open to LGBTQ travelers from our experience. Even in those countries where anti-gay bias on the part of the government has been in the news. Ordinary people everywhere are pretty relaxed about this issue. We have guides in over 190 different countries who will welcome every individual with warmth and respect; bigotry in any form isn’t tolerated on our platform.”
Melhus says that although many TBL guides are LGBTQ-identified and certainly welcome LGBTQ travelers, they don’t always explicitly communicate this in their online profiles. In some cases, this is due to current political climates in their countries and regions, with Russia as a prime example. “We used to have really interesting gay tours in St. Petersburg, but they’ve all gone offline and I think that speaks about the political situation in Russia,” Melhus laments. “It wouldn’t be safe to promote that for a guide. The guides are still there, and they can publish and unpublish the tours, but that makes me feel quite sad. Conversely, there’s been a real uptick in tours related to social justice lately, like in Montgomery, Alabama, which is not a big destination for TBL.”
When it comes to compensation, TBL ensures their guides are paid fairly by encouraging them to set an upscale traveler-minded living wage for their services, which Melhus’ past experiences as a consumer-traveler made clear isn’t always (or usually) the case with other companies and guides.
“One of our strong messages is, since they set the price, and you don’t tip your doctor, build everything into the price so you’re properly compensated,” he says. “That’s one of the things that makes me proudest about TBL. Especially in the developing world, where people participate in tourism on the margins and get exploited. We allow them to present themselves in a professional way and we take care of a lot of the stuff that would be hard for them to manage, like the credit card processing, communication, and structure a traveler wants. I remember in Bali our guide was offering six hours with a van and driver for $45. We told them, ‘you can’t do that, raise it to at least $120 and everyone will be a lot happier.’ They insisted that wouldn’t work, but they did, and our customers are happier because they don’t think, what’s wrong with this, why’s it so cheap. They made more money, we made more, and it was a much more edifying situation.”
Another element that Melhus feels is important for guides to consider is giving their destinations a context that delves beyond the pretty surface (e.g. when visiting plantations in the South, “we want them to talk about the reality for people who made all of that possible; you have to go to the slave quarters and talk about that”). Melhus also notes that although TBL guides choose their themes and create itineraries in advance, tours can be customized to a client’s requests, and there have been a few unusual, specific, and very local-centric ones so far.
“A client wanted to go to Sao Paulo, Brazil and tour of all the trans and drag bars,” Melhus recalls. “We monitor the mes- sages to make sure no inapporpriate stuff is going through, and he said, ‘I’m not gay but I like having sex with men,’ so he hired our guide to take him. But [requests are] mostly the stuff you wouldn’t be too surprised about in the big cities. Good grief, you hardly need a tour guide to find gay Berlin!”
Regarding the future of ToursByLocals and its destinations, Melhus says they strive to offer private tours everywhere people can travel, including remote and far-flung countries, territories, and islands. “If you go to Google and search the name of the place plus ‘tour,’ if the number of searches is over 50 per month that’s a place we want to be. We have a whole department called ‘tour experience,’ and they’re out recruiting guides in smaller locations, but the main source of tour guides is referrals from existing ones, and we’ve sent some guides on road trips from city to city to pass out cards and do interviews. If you’ve got a story to tell, consider ToursByLocals as a platform. So even though we know we won’t sell a lot of tours in those places, the fact we have them will support the Barcelonas and Parises of the world as well. If you want to go to the Faroe Islands, we’re there.”
Melhus admits that some of his own personal bucket list destinations happen to be on the smaller, remote side as well.
“For some reason I’m drawn to the extremes of the planet,” he admits. “I really want to go to Svalbard, which is a three-hour flight north of Oslo. In 2019 I went from Vancouver to Tuktoyaktuk, which is basically get- ting in a car and driving for 8 days and you end up at the Arctic ocean and go for a swim. We don’t have a guide there and I’m very unhappy about that! Those are two of my bucket list places, and to spend more time in Greenland and the northern part of Canada.”
Would-be guides in Tuktoyaktuk, now you know where to sign up!
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