Lina Gedvilaite and Jacinta Lim like to talk about the time they went to Bali and met a driver named Ketut. They knew what they wanted to see – the truly local. Ketut’s response was to take them to meet local craftsmen in Bali’s remote villages. They were impressed by the guide’s knowledge and friendliness, but found that Ketut simply wasn’t getting the kind of work he deserved. He would stand at the airport, trying to cajole tourists into trusting him. Sometimes this meant he would secure an airport transfer but often it meant that he simply drove his empty car back home.
It was a pattern they encountered more than once – local guides struggled with the challenges of going online. Few could operate a website or process online payments. As inveterate travellers themselves, Lina and Jacinta also knew how important meeting the right guide could be. So they founded Seek Sophie, and it brought them to Sri Lanka. This week, we caught up with Lina for a Q&A.
- Lina, before you founded Seek Sophie you had a career in finance. What convinced you that you needed the change, and what gave you the courage to try?
What I enjoyed most about my career in finance was working alongside smart people to find solutions to interesting problems. What I found lacking was the ability to make and see first-hand positive impact on communities that needed it most. Coming from Lithuania, a country that was once an emerging market, and having seen how access to capital, technology and outside markets can propel a country forward, I’ve always wanted to be a part of a propelling force for that kind of development.
- Why Seek Sophie? How did the company evolve and what kinds of services do you offer?
I have always enjoyed travelling off the beaten path, often taking long detours and lengthy train journeys just to see a small temple in the middle of the desert. I’ve found that these adventurous trips not only provide for the most extraordinary views and introductions to new cultures, but also serve as the best mode of self-discovery.
Along with my co-founder, Jacinta Lim, we recognized that there is a lot of value in these types of trips, but that they were really difficult to plan and book in advance. This is mostly due to the fact that the guides and instructors that provide services for such trips are still mostly offline. So we set out to solve this problem by finding local partner guides and giving them online presence by marketing their products on our platform as well as providing customers with a secure payment method. Now you can find over 300 activity options across 4 countries on the Seek Sophie platform. And more are coming this year.
- You work in multiple countries but could you talk specifically about setting up shop in Sri Lanka? What have been the joys and challenges of working here?
We arrived to Sri Lanka last summer and travelled the country North to South in about a month’s time. It was a challenge covering so much territory and finding enough time to meet all the partners we had set out to. We had some train, car and bus journeys down bumpy roads. However, it was well worth the exhaustion as it has been a pleasure working with Sri Lankan guides and drivers. All of our partners are extremely professional and customer oriented. Our customers have given us great feedback. Our current challenge is to find more operators who would be interested to work with us. We are always looking for great guides and drivers to become a part of the Seek Sophie team!
- Could you talk about how you connect local guides and drivers with travellers? Why can these connections be hard to forge? And how do you make sure both sides are happy?
Anyone visiting our platform can choose the best guide to match their profile based on price, personality, atmosphere and accommodation when that is a part of the activity. Our unique offering is that we list several guides per activity category in an easy to compare manner so that customers can choose one that fits them best. Going forward we are looking into ways on how we can do an even better job of matching our travellers with the right destination, activity and guide based on their preference. And we are continuously asking our travellers for feedback so that we can improve our service and help our partners to do better as well.
- We’re seeing more women travelling solo – is that a demographic that interests you? What kind of concerns do you see women travellers having and how do you help them get out on the road?
Yes, absolutely. You cannot ignore this demographic as it is becoming a significant force ranging from the West all the way to China. Both Jacinta and myself being solo female travellers, we are acutely aware of the safety concerns so it comes naturally whenever vetting new activities or partners that we take into consideration the concerns of women on the road by asking the right questions and observing any unusual behaviour. We often hear women ask whether a country is safe to travel solo. Although it is very difficult to qualify an entire country, we aim to provide great quality guides with good records so that they feel safe and at ease while they are interacting with our partners. We also try to give all our travellers as much information as possible regarding recommended hotels, restaurants and neighbourhoods so that they come prepared with quality information for their entire trip.
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on Feb 3, 2019. By Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Lina Gedvilaite.