New Zealand’s booming tourism industry and the country’s fast adoption of technology make an ideal testbed and launch-pad for a fledgling local messaging platform called HerePin – at least as the well-travelled folks behind it tell it. A Kiwi and American collaboration, the HerePin platform helps connect travellers with others nearby, to meet, share information and help make the most of their adventure – something that, ironically, has become more difficult in a large part due to the tendency of social media users to interact with people back where they came from.
HerePin’s directors are aware of the irony of using technology itself to overcome a problem that has become widespread due social media’s distracting and alienating nature. The likes of Facebook and Instagram have created a very real problem for travellers and for tourism businesses alike. When travellers seek social interaction, they are often defaulting to their “comfort zone,” their established international networks of friends and followers for social interaction. And in doing so, they’re missing out on experiences in the places and cultures immediately around them.
By enabling users to post questions and exchange short messages, HerePin aims to make travel spontaneous and people-oriented. Developed by Mark Bardi, Greg Elisara and Michelle Copeland, the initial concept for HerePin was conceived while Bardi was on a solo, 500-day tech-free odyssey around the world. On his travels, he saw that hostel lounges were no longer the social places they once were. Rather than chatting with their fellow adventurers, they were glued to their phones, Snap-chatting, liking Facebook posts, and whittling away time by scrolling through Instagram feeds.
“I could see the very technology designed to connect us was starting to alienate and disconnect us from our surroundings,” he says. “Not only that, but we’re researching recommendations on TripAdvisor made by faceless profiles like Planegeek92 and FloridaSue instead of talking to fellow travellers and locals around us.”
HerePin allows for the exchange of bite-sized information in real-time, and a messaging platform to ask questions within a location-based community. “TripAdvisor won’t tell you that a guy in the same hostel has a car and is going to the beach tomorrow,” says Bardis. “And friends at home can’t tell you which local backpacker bar is doing the cheapest beers at happy hour tonight.”
Tour operators and hostel owners also say they are finding it a challenge to help guests appreciate the amazing people and places around them. Making sure customers have positive experiences, making friends and having fun finding off-the-beaten track things to do is vital to creating unforgettable experiences that generate valuable word-of-mouth marketing, Brian Westwood, chair of the Backpacker and Youth Adventure Travel Association and marketing manager for YHA, says. “For the tourism industry, guests isolating themselves from the world and each other is very real and is becoming one of the hardest challenges to overcome. Many guests come to New Zealand and use the YHA hostelling network because they want to make new friends and enjoy a social holiday, [and] many are solo travellers. The problem is that in most environments, everyone else is tuned into their digital world and out of the real one. Making new friends is hard at the best of times. Breaking into someone else’s digital isolation to try and start up a friendly conversation is near impossible.”
Bardi says the goal is to establish HerePin in the local travel market, and then expand into Australia and Southeast Asia within six months. And they’re well on their way, having already raised more than $250,000 from angel investors in the Land of the Long White Cloud and the US.
Given its reputation as an adventure tourism destination that lures travellers from around the world – yet is also very well-connected digitally – Bardi says getting started in Aotearoa just makes sense. “Tourism is New Zealand’s strongest industry, with year-round travellers, and it’s one of the best markets in the world to test new technology products,” he says. “Kiwis are renowned for being fast-adopters, well connected via mobile devices, and passionate about supporting each other’s startups.”