The tour company is so discerning that it can even smell its guides

Gyde and Seek is a travel platform that doesn’t believe in travel as usual. I proved this in Mexico this summer after becoming dependent on a customized, socially conscious private travel company that operates in over 20 cities worldwide. If you haven’t tried it yet, you really should.

Paco is a former professional bullfighter and former Olympic chess prodigy who feels right at home at the Mexico City Ballet national the scene to which he leads the visitors struggle. In colonial Puebla, Maria knows the best hidden spots for baroque dining chiles en nogada, but her true passion arabic tacos Then there’s El Salvador, who will clarify the Toltec ruins of Tula or the Aztec glyphs of Tepozotlan, but can also delve into the Chicago blues.

The company was founded by Vanessa Hibert Heitner, a seasoned 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 the large group experience or obnoxious price hikes. Gone are the middlemen and onion-like layers of tour operators that add cost, complexity and potentially cause accidents. Instead, you search for the elements of the tour you want — culinary history, street art, nightlife, Jewish culture, etc. — and Hyde and Sick’s algorithm matches you with a guide. Then you agree directly with that person, and the guide, who sets the prices himself, gets the lion’s share of the fee. It’s like Airbnb for people to show you the world.

After a very positive first Gyde and Seek experience in June, I have booked two more Gydes for August. Mexico City is the most popular location for the company and the platform really suited my needs: one trip was a family graduation celebration for my son. Next was an extended family tour of the ancient pyramids at Teotihuacan, located 30 miles from Mexico City. The third was a full-day food tour of Puebla with three hungry teenage boys. In each case, the guides went beyond the usual “here we have a cathedral, founded in 1548, built of limestone” tours. All three guides were extremely engaging, deeply knowledgeable, and just plain cool to talk to, which is important. Maria, for example, showed us exactly where and how to eat those street tacos that she adores, and pointed us to the best coffee, chocolate, mole and molet. A tough crowd of teenagers enjoyed themselves, and that’s the point: you’re on vacation after all. You don’t want to sit in paradise with a wet rag all day. Someone like Mary elevates the entire journey.

Hibert Geitner and Guthrie recently sat down with me via video chat to talk about their company’s ethos, the challenges of travel during the pandemic, and their hopes for the future.

What travel problem did you decide to solve with Hyde and Sik?

Vanessa Hibert Heitner: I worked in the industry for a very long time in a more traditional high-end business. We were always looking for ways to present the direction in a way that wasn’t reductionist or exploitative and didn’t exoticize the culture. So, in the case of Argentina, where Andrea and I met and worked, we wanted to find a way to do tours that went beyond tango and steak. This meant finding people with unusual views on everything from human rights and economics to fine and popular art; artisans of all kinds, historians, scientists, sociologists — intelligent experts. I am a former university professor, so training our guides was very important from the beginning.

Andrea Guthrie: We also wanted to provide services that did not cost as much as well-known travel companies such as Abercrombie & Kent. This meant developing a technological platform to solve all the problems that exist in most travel operators. So, we knew we wanted to eliminate all the extra steps and multiple parties involved in a typical tour. The old model where you call a travel agent and they contact the local office in Patagonia and that office contacts the guide and each person gets a small cut of the profit, so the costs go up.

Vanessa Hibert Heitner: This not only raises costs for consumers. This significantly reduces the wages of guides. There’s no value, and it takes away those subtle opportunities to let the guide do his thing if, say, someone comes to Rio and just wants to see postmodern, kinetic art.

We’ve had people come in the day before the trip to say, “I’m going to Mexico City and I want to photograph the churches at night.” The guide answered and said, “I am also an architectural photographer. Tomorrow evening I will take you to see six churches.” If you were working with an agency, you wouldn’t be able to arrange something so quickly.

You have about 400 guides. How do you choose them?

Vanessa Hibert Heitner: We traveled to most of the locations ourselves to meet each person or sent people from our staff to meet them. We have strict criteria and reject more than 80 percent of people who want to be on the platform.

What does it take to become a guide and seeker?

Andrea Guthrie: Experience, scientific degrees, knowledge are the first things.

Vanessa Hibert Heitner: There is a threshold at the beginning. Can they back up what they promise? Whether they are a sommelier or an art history guide or a Jewish historian, do they have the credentials and the knowledge base? We interview them and spend time with them in person so we can, you know, smell them.

Can you smell them?

Vanessa Hibert Heitner: Smell them. No one likes tour guides who smell bad. You want their English to be good. You need a personality. You want enthusiasm, excitement, friendliness. You want people who won’t take three days to reach out to you.

Andrea Guthrie: You need someone who will listen to not only your questions, but your concerns, and even read between the lines and find out what makes a guest happy and comfortable. Being attentive is the main thing I want.

These are difficult times for travel companies. How are you?

Vanessa Hibert Heitner: It was very difficult. The pandemic has hit us hard. Just a few weeks into 2020, we canceled flights for the year. Airplanes stopped flying. We had cognitive dissonance—how is this possible?

We have ten new destinations ready to launch including Peru, Croatia, Finland. The manuals are ready, the profiles are written. But we can’t launch them because we’re waiting to see how the recovery goes, what’s going on with the level of Covid, the economy, etc.

Andrea Guthrie: We are focused on winning. We had a Swedish family who took their children out of school and traveled with Guide and Seek for a year. Four children aged 14 and over. We structured their experience and it became a real learning journey for the family. Despite the developments, we are incredibly proud of what we have created and the experience our customers have.

Vanessa Hibert Heitner: Many people dream of traveling, but often the experience can be disappointing. You get 60 percent of what you want if you’re lucky. For us, the goal is 100 percent exclusive. A tour should never feel canned. A destination should never sound like a cliché. Sixty percent is not enough.

This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.

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