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Pittsburgh startup ViaHero personalizes travel

| Saturday, April 29, 2017, 2:36 p.m.
Traveler Sara Eklund took this photo of Havana on a trip planned by ViaHero.
Courtesy of Sara Eklund
Traveler Sara Eklund took this photo of Havana on a trip planned by ViaHero.

Lynne Bangsund and her daughter Krista wanted to go to Cuba, but they didn't want to go with the standard guided tour.

“We both speak a little Spanish, and we didn't really want to go with 30 other people,” Bangsund said.

So when they found travel site ViaHero during an online search, they decided to give it a try. They got a personalized itinerary prepared by a bona fide Cuban guide for a fraction of the cost of a travel agent, Lynne said.

“It was amazing; we had the entire trip planned,” she said.

Not only did they get to see sights they wouldn't otherwise have known about, Bangsund said the pair felt like they had an edge over other travelers.

As they made their way around Havana, they encountered other tourists at restaurants. “They would be waiting, but we had all our reservations planned ahead of time.”

When it launches in Japan in May, East Liberty-based travel startup ViaHero will add a third island country to its small but growing portfolio.

An AlphaLab alumni company, ViaHero creates customized travel guides that allow travelers to experience their destination like a local. Rather than compensating the hotel or airline trying to sell the most expensive trip, ViaHero relies on the person providing the expert advice (the “heroes,” if you will) to create the best possible travel experience.

“People really value the local insight they wouldn't have access to otherwise,” said ViaHero CEO Greg Buzulencia. “You'd have to go through thousands of reviews on a site like TripAdvisor to get this depth of information.”

ViaHero has started small, launching in Cuba and Iceland as its first markets.

The company uses a blend of Airbnb hosts, freelance tour guides and local travel writers, many of whom come with their own audiences, to help plan the trips for customers.

With Cuba a relatively new destination for American travelers and Iceland becoming a more popular destination because of low-cost airfares, ViaHero has found a niche within the very crowded online travel space.

Buzulencia says the typical customer for ViaHero is an experienced international traveler who might have visited a place with a tour guide in the past but wants a more authentic and independent experience.

How it works

On the ViaHero website, travelers choose what aspects of a trip are most important to them in a few categories: food (bakeries, street food, markets, etc.), culture (history, museums, art) and activities (outdoors, beaches, nightlife).

Enter the number of days you'll be visiting and choose a “hero,” and you'll get an estimate for how much your trip will cost.

An itinerary for a visit to Cuba focused on bakeries, beaches and history, as planned by a local would be roughly $15 per day.

Travelers pay separately for their airfare and lodging, but the ViaHero itinerary offers flight times and recommendations for where to stay. It also has details such as whether you'll need reservations at recommended restaurants, how much a taxi will cost and where to catch one, and details that only a local or frequent visitor would know.

Buzulencia says the company didn't plan to target islands but have found it easier, as a startup, to be able to focus on areas that are somewhat isolated geographically.

“For most people traveling to Japan or to Cuba, that's usually their sole destination,” he noted. “It's not like going to Europe, where people will want to plan visits to four different countries in one trip.”

But as the company grows, Buzulencia says he has his eye on future destinations, Chile, Colombia, New Zealand, Croatia and South Korea among them.

“Now that we have a process down, we definitely want to try to diversify a little and be able to give our customers more variety.”

Lynne Bangsund never got to meet Lianet, the Havana resident who planned her trip to Cuba, in person, but says every night during their trip, she and her daughter would toast to their “hero.” And she says there's always the next trip.

“Because now, it's like we have a friend in Cuba to show us around.”

Kim Lyons is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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