South Portland startup uses technology to connect tourists, guides, off the beaten path
NaviTour is a new Maine venture that launched last month with an online platform that streamlines the connection between independent tour guides and visitors who flock to the state.
The South Portland company says its goal is twofold: to broaden visitor experiences from congested tourist areas to rural communities and with individual guides, and to expand diversity among the people who run and lead tours.
“With diversity and inclusion at the heart of our focus, we empower all experience creators to build their own brand, own their content and grow their businesses,” said CEO Shay Bellas, whose partnerships include Four Directions Development Corp. and its Wabanaki Cultural Tourism Initiative. , Maine Oyster Trails and Maine Island Trail Association.
Bellas is a serial entrepreneur. In 2000, she founded Maine Freeze, Maine’s first women’s professional soccer team, and co-founded 19 Oaks Strategic Sales and Marketing in 2009.
A trip to Europe inspired NaviTour.
“While touring, I found myself wanting the same technology I had grown accustomed to through apps like Uber, Airbnb, and social media,” she wrote. She also wanted to know more about local guides.
“I dug into how much (or how much) they were paid, the missing populations of BIPOC and LGTBQ+ guides, and the challenges they faced in not having the same opportunities as the big tour operators,” a- she declared.
Co-founders Shay and Alexis Bellas visited Easport last month for the city’s art walk in a bid to recruit guides for NaviTour.
The co-founders are Bellas’ daughter Alexis, a marketer who worked for 19 Oaks and is now NaviTour’s app developer, and Pam Hurley-Moser, who founded Hurley Travel and sold it there. a few years ago.
Mainebiz asked how the startup went. Here is an edited transcript.
Mainebiz: How did you go from sales and marketing at 19 Oaks to a tourism app?
Shay Bella: At 19 Oaks, I worked with clients as an interim sales and/or marketing manager and implemented systems, etc. in their business using their own staff instead of my staff. My family and I have also been able to travel a lot. On the customer side, we found ourselves wanting more technology. On the guide side, we found that these were people who worked for tour operators and were often paid very little or nothing at all and had to live on tips.
We took a closer look and realized that individual guides should excel in everything from sales and marketing to reservations and operations. At the time, we couldn’t find any platform where you could search for individual local guides on an app.
Eventually, we found competitors in major urban areas like New York, Paris, and Rome. But when I looked for platforms serving these guides in more rural communities, for people interested in local experiences, there were none.
MB: What do you hope to convey to consumers and guides through the platform?
SB: I want to show that Maine is more than lighthouses and lobsters. We have some, but there is so much more. The other element is our inclusiveness. From the beginning, we have worked hard to connect with underserved populations in travel and tourism.
MB: Don’t the guides already appeal to chambers of commerce and other marketers?
SB: Let’s say you’re a tour guide. You will need to have a website and social media, pay for reservation technology such as a website reservation system, and pay for room memberships. You would want print advertisements and marketing materials. There are so many areas you need to cover.
The guides do, that’s for sure. But it is very expensive and time consuming for them. We can take on this work and publicize it because we are already in all these places.
MB: How did the launch go?
SB: We did a pre-seed fundraising round, raising $250,000 with friends and family and MTI [Maine Technology Institute] Funding. We started with the development of a native application, that is to say an application that you can only download on your phone. For various reasons, we put this on ice and launched with a web app for phone and computer. We are adding to it as we go along and see ourselves sticking to this platform at least for the first year or two until we outgrow it because NaviTour is growing so quickly.
We’re in a funding round, looking to raise $800,000 to nail our model here before scaling it up in New England. We are approved for the Maine Startup Capital Tax Credit.
MB: How much traffic do you currently have?
SB: We are now at 93 announcements and 66 guides. We have 55 people booking with us and 11 businesses or non-profit organizations have booked guides. We’ve found that companies want their employees to get together, but not just to sit at a picnic table. It’s more, ‘Let’s go rock climbing.’
MB: How did you recruit guides?
SB: We build relationships and have conversations with guides interested in participating. They are adding experiences every day and we are adding more guides every day.
MB: Do you already have data on the financial benefits for the guides or for you?
SB: Not yet. We are just beginning our marketing. We are working with Steve Lyons, head of the Maine Office of Tourism, in terms of collecting data and how to do that with particular tours and experiences. We hope to prove that we can increase the number of tourist experiences across the state through the app. We hope to prove that we can increase the number of first-time visitors to Maine.
We hope to prove that of the visitors who come, we can get them out of the congested tourist areas to other parts of the state that are equally awesome. We hope to prove that Maine is a four season destination. And we want to see a more diverse population of people come to Maine.
There’s a sign on my desk [with a quote by inclusion strategist Joe Gerstandt] which I read a billion times a day – “If you don’t intentionally, deliberately and proactively include, then you unintentionally exclude.” That’s what it’s all about for us. We have to try to find ways to connect.