Gyde and Seek is a travel platform that does not believe in travel as usual. I confirmed this in Mexico this summer after becoming addicted to the customized, socially-conscious private touring company that operates in 20-plus cities internationally. If you haven’t tried it, you really should.
Paco is a former professional bullfighter and ex-Olympic chess prodigy who’s as at home in Mexico City’s ballet folklórico scene as he is taking visitors to lucha libre. In colonial Puebla, Maria knows the best hidden spots for baroque dishes, like chiles en nogada, but her true passion is tacos árabe. Then there’s Salvador, who will elucidate Toltec ruins in Tula or the Aztec glyphs of Tepotzotlán but can go deep on Chicago blues, too.
The company was co-founded by Vanessa Guibert Heitner, a veteran travel planner, and her friend Andrea Guthrie, a business strategist who grew up living around the world with her diplomat parents. Their idea was to connect discerning travelers directly with highly educated, charismatic guides in each location but without large group experiences or obnoxious price padding. Gone are the intermediaries and onion-like layers of tour operators who add costs, complexity and potential for mishaps. Instead, you search for the elements of a tour you’re seeking — culinary history, street art, nightlife, Jewish culture, etc. — and Gyde and Seek’s algorithm will match you with a guide. You then coordinate with that person directly, and the guide, who sets her or his own pricing, gets the lion’s share of the fee. It’s like Airbnb for people who show you the world.
After a very positive first Gyde and Seek experience in June, I booked two more Gydes for August. Mexico City is the company’s most popular destination and the platform really delivered on my particular needs: one trip was a family graduation celebration for my son. The next was an extended-family tour of the ancient pyramids at Teotihuacan, located 30 miles outside of Mexico City. The third was an all-day food tour of Puebla with three hungry teenage boys. In each case, the guides went beyond the usual ‘here we have a cathredral founded in 1548 constructed out of limestone’-type tours. All three guides were super engaged, deeply knowledgeable and also just cool to hang out with, which is important. Maria, for instance, showed us where and exactly how to eat those street tacos she adores, and she pointed us to the best coffee, chocolate, molé and mollettes, too. The tough crowd of teenagers had a blast and that’s the point: You’re on vacation, after all. You don’t want want to be stuck in paradise with a wet rag all day. Someone like Maria elevates the entire trip.
Guibert Heitner and Guthrie video-chatted with me recently to talk about their company ethos, the challenges of pandemic travel and their hopes for the future.
What was the travel problem you set out to solve with Gyde and Seek?
Vanessa Guibert Heitner: I had been in the industry for a very long time in a more traditional kind of high-luxury operation. We were always looking for ways to represent a destination in ways that weren’t reductionist or exploitative and that didn’t exoticize culture. So, in the case of Argentina, where Andrea and I met and where we worked, we wanted to find way to run tours that went beyond tango and steak. That meant finding people with unusual perspectives on everything from human rights and economics to fine art and popular art; artisanal makers of all kinds, historians, scientists, sociologists—intelligent experts. I’m a former university professor, so the education of our guides was really important from the outset.
Andrea Guthrie: We also wanted to provide a service without it costing as much as the big-name tour companies, like Abercrombie & Kent. This meant designing a technology platform to address all the little pain points that exist with most travel operators. So, we knew we wanted to eliminate all the extra steps and multiple parties who involve themselves in a typical tour experience. The old model where you would call a travel agent, and they would contact a local office in Patagonia, and that office would contact a guide, and each person takes a little piece of the profit, so the costs add up.
Vanessa Guibert Heitner: Not only does this raise the costs for consumers. It massively lowers the remuneration for the guides. There’s no value, and it takes away those subtle opportunities to let a guide do their thing if, say, someone is coming to Rio and just really wants to see postmodern, kinetic art.
We’ve had people connect a day before a trip to say, ‘I’m coming to Mexico City and want to photograph churches at night.’ The guide responded and said, ‘I’m also an architectural photographer. I’ll take you to see six churches tomorrow night.’ If you were working with an agency, there’s no way you could arrange something that quickly.
You have around 400 guides. How do you select them?
Vanessa Guibert Heitner: We’ve traveled ourselves to most of the destinations to meet each person, or sent people from our staff to meet them. We have a strict criteria and reject over 80 percent of the people who want to be on the platform.
What does it take to be a Guide and Seek guide?
Andrea Guthrie: Experience, academic degrees, expertise—that’s first.
Vanessa Guibert Heitner: There’s a threshold in the beginning. Can they back up what they’re promising? Whether they’re a sommelier or an art history guide or a Jewish historian, do they have the credentials and base of knowledge? We interview them and spend time with them in person so we can, you know, smell them.
Vanessa Guibert Heitner: Smell them. Nobody likes guides who smell bad. You want their English to be good. You want a personality. You want enthusiasm, excitement, friendliness. You want people who won’t take three days to get back to you.
Andrea Guthrie: You want someone who’s going to listen—not just to your questions but to your concerns, and even read between the lines and figure out what makes a guest happy and comfortable. Being attentive—that’s the number one thing I want.
These are not easy times for travel companies. How’s it going?
Vanessa Guibert Heitner: It’s been very tough. We’ve been hit hard by the pandemic. We suffered a year’s worth of cancellations in just a few weeks in 2020. Planes stopped flying. There was a cognitive dissonance for us—we were like, how is this possible?
We have ten new destinations that are ready to launch, including Peru, Croatia, Finland. The guides are ready, the profiles are written. But we can’t launch them because we’re waiting to see how the recovery goes, what’s happening with Covid rates, the economy and all that.
Andrea Guthrie: We’re focusing on wins. We had a Swedish family who took their kids out of school and traveled with Guide and Seek for a year. Four kids, 14 and down. We structured their experience and it became a real learning journey for the family. Regardless of how things turn out, we’re incredibly proud of what we’ve built and the types of experiences our clients have.
Vanessa Guibert Heitner: So many people dream of traveling but many times, the experience can be disappointing. You get 60 percent of what you want if you’re lucky. For us, the goal is 100 percent exceptional. A tour should never feel canned. A destination should never feel like a cliché. Sixty percent just isn’t good enough.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.