“We are seeing a real appetite for virtual tourism”: Interview with Culture Trip’s CEO Kris

Despite the travel industry taking a hit from the pandemic, London-based company Culture Trip is still holding its own.

With a global mindset, this startup has a triangle approach bringing together travel, media and entertainment. The website already has thousands of curated experiences and places to stay that can be booked on site and in-app, but it goes further than that – also delivering inspirational content that encourages curious travellers to go beyond their cultural boundaries and experience what is unique, special and meaningful about a location. 

It’s this ‘inspirational exploration’ aspect that makes Culture Trip (2011) unique. Focused on this, founder and CEO Dr Kris Naudts, who trained as a medical doctor and psychiatrist, has now grown the website to 80,000+ pieces of inspirational storytelling content and a team spread across  London, Tel Aviv, Shanghai and New York. 

We caught up with Kris to talk about why people need inspirational content now more than ever, the growth of ‘virtual’ or ‘cloud’ tourism, what ‘glocal’ (global and local) travel is, why Culture Trip has always had a strong work from home policy, and his tips for early-stage startups on creating impactful content with a low budget.

Thank you for joining us Kris! To set the scene, we have read that you trained as a medical doctor and psychiatrist before starting Culture Trip. Many entrepreneurs build up their first career before starting their side-hustle and finally launching their own business. How do you think this previous experience prepared you for starting Culture Trip (if at all?)

I have always considered myself an entrepreneur who happened to train as a doctor and a psychiatrist, rather than the other way around. 

The discipline, rigour and comfort with the unknown, that were necessary to building my career in medicine and psychiatry have also been assets as a founder, where tenacity is key – and the unexpected is the norm. 

For me the question has always been around where I could have most impact – and this increasingly felt for me to be less about individual consultations and more about building something creative and important that would have reach far beyond what I could have as a physician working with individuals, or than would be possible in the near term via neuroscience research and papers.

In a nutshell, what makes Culture Trip unique?

Culture Trip helps you experience what’s special, unique and meaningful about a place, its people and its culture – and we do that in a way that is very different from traditional travel or media companies. 

Where some of our peers allow people to book a trip or experience or be inspired, or to plan an itinerary, Culture Trip uniquely allows you to do all of this on a single platform. We not only inspire our users with the stories we tell and the trusted recommendations that we share, we also enable them to book experiences, places to stay and trips. 

Our in-house creators and community of local contributors all over the world tell these stories in myriad and highly differentiated ways, be that through articles, videos, photography, illustration or animation – often with a uniquely local slant and insight. Everything we do is dedicated to inspiring people to go beyond their cultural boundaries and connect with the world around them.

Culture Trip’s content comprises more than 80,000 articles, videos, photos, illustrations and animations, so you’ve certainly got a hold on the majority of content formats out there! Have you seen any changes over the years as to which people engage with more?

How people engage with content changes all the time and with the channels they use. We want to make sure that we deliver engaging content formats across a variety of relevant channels in order to connect with our audience. We have witnessed the rise of shorter form written content, and video has become more important to tell stories – we ourselves had over 2 billion views of our videos to date. Major social channels are evolving daily – from insta-stories to tik tok, and it is important to understand where your audience is engaged and spending their time. 

COVID-19 and the subsequent travel restrictions of course currently have changed people’s preferences. What we have seen across our user data is an increased interest in inspirational content, demonstrating an instinctual shift in how people spend their free time, when they perhaps have more of it and crave travel content – even if it’s a virtual journey right now. With travel plans on hold, we invite our users to experience special and unique places from home with our wonderful “Stay Home, Stay Curious” campaign which they really have embraced.

Do you have any predictions for the next big ways for us to consume content?

Formats like AR and VR are still rather niche – they are expensive and time consuming to produce, but as soon as the industry learns how to scale them together with kit becoming cheaper it might get more into the mainstream. We already see museums or indeed the medical sector using these technologies more extensively. Travel will be next. That said, the mainstream will only happen if the level of entry into consuming such content will become much lower and less clunky and/or socially acceptable.     

Looking to the future, there would be demand for exceptionally produced and technically advanced storytelling formats like AR or VR as well as a nostalgic return to more traditional formats, requiring active rather than simply passive participation. In any and all cases, meeting the fundamental user need to consume good storytelling is key, in whichever format. That said, this is probably a golden age for illustration and animation, something I feel we are exceptionally strong at at Culture Trip, and which form a key part of the visual aesthetic of the brand and consumer experience.

For young startups working on their content creation, who perhaps have limited resources, do you have any top tips on how to begin or prioritise?

A lot can be done with limited resources especially given the technology that we all carry in our pockets nowadays. Our first 4 years were certainly very bootstrapped. We worked from hotel lobbies, nose in the data every single day, and testing and learning all the time got us to 1 million monthly web visitors for the first time in 2015 and since then we have seen explosive traffic growth.

Never have we lived in more democratic (if complicated) times, with regard to content creation, and to an extent brand marketing. If ten years ago you wanted to reach a huge number of consumers you needed to have a big marketing budget; today, with social media, this has changed dramatically. We see examples of businesses –  the likes of The Body Coach (Joe Wicks) on instagram with 3.5 million followers – which I believe have been grown mainly organically by delivering awesome content for recipes and fitness, and growing his captive audience who now buy into what I suspect is a quite lucrative food and fitness empire. The same can be said for a whole host of other creators, from artists to musicians, to podcast makers – there have never been better possibilities to share content and reach an engaged audience. 

Many startups are suddenly working remotely due to the current coronavirus pandemic. With offices spread all over the world, do you have advice for managers of homeworking teams?

We have always had a fairly extensive WFH policy at Culture Trip, which means the transition has proved a little less challenging for us – and I am super proud of how the teams around the world have adapted and continued to deliver during these unprecedented times. As far as advice goes, connecting often virtually helps – and supporting and encouraging your wider team to look after their own mental health and wellbeing in unusual circumstances.

I personally believe that managing access to news and social media can reap real benefits and help with protecting some inner calm. Maintaining a routine by having a daily plan that includes sufficient physical activity is key. I also think it is important to take time for proper rest and breaks in this period, even if that is confined to our own homes, as many of us are now working harder than ever, and in more challenging conditions. 

Specifically at Culture Trip, we have an all company meeting at least once a week, we offer virtual yoga sessions several times a week, have virtual meet ups for those who just want to interact with their colleagues more casually – and we support our managers to be on the front foot in terms of daily stand ups etc. 

With less people travelling due to coronavirus, how do you think the travel industry can respond, collaborate or evolve to survive?

I believe there will be a shift in travel preferences, but at the same time, the demand for travel will remain – people will still want to travel but possibly in different ways. It will be key for the industry to understand what these preferences might look like and respond to them, at the right time and in the right way.

At Culture Trip we have recently been focusing our content around helping people identify destinations that are for example less visited, or off-season or trips that truly benefit the local communities and economy. And right now, we are seeing a real appetite for both virtual experiences and “cloud tourism” – for the latter in particular in China during the lockdown. It seems like there was a growing trend of virtual tourism that happened all over the country where people were using Google Street View to explore places they wanted to travel to, going on virtual museum tours and looking at other interactive media related to their destination of choice. Surely enough, we later saw the exact same trend in the USA and the UK and we were able to quickly produce high quality content around “cloud tourism” to meet our user needs.

We read about your sustainability hackathon. Could you tell us more about your plans to promote sustainable travel?

Sustainability is one of the biggest challenges for both the travel sector and our society today. As a travel company, we have an inherent responsibility to ensure that we are equipping our audience with the information and tools they need to travel sustainably. Recently, I rallied everyone at Culture Trip to down tools for a day for a hackathon and work in cross functional teams to come up with ideas to make us a more sustainable company. Most importantly, instead of pigeon-holing sustainability somewhere in a corner, we decided to incorporate it into our content – left, right and centre. That means that whatever destination we cover, we will try to always feature sustainable ways of travelling and doing things, be it selecting green restaurants or markers to be profiled or coming up with the best recommendations for a day trip by train. People will not stop flying necessarily, and we perhaps won’t be able to change this aspect much, but we will certainly be able to influence how people behave on their trips. 

Culture Trip has grown into a truly ‘global’ network of local creatives. Which corner of the earth are you expanding into next?

We are always trying to get deeper and more specific in our local coverage and recommendations, reacting to a trend of people wanting to explore areas closer to home more. So we will continue going glocal – global and local at the same time. 

What has been your biggest challenge and subsequent learning from growing Culture Trip?

Last year was one of the most exciting but also challenging years for us. We won more than 20 (!) awards for our work, yet scaling up so rapidly also brought inevitable growing pains, and we experienced many of them. Looking back, I am very proud of how we really stood together internally and came out of it united, strong and super focused. So, if I were to isolate my biggest learning, it is that perseverance in the face of challenge is key. Adversity and challenge will always come, but if you know where you are going and have a vision and mission, and values that you, your team and your users continue to hold important and articulate well and clearly, then you will continue on a successful path and get through. I feel privileged and humbled to have such a talented workforce and to have the opportunity to inspire millions of users to go beyond their cultural boundaries every week, and that matters today, more than ever.

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