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Russell Howze has been enthralled with the street art of San Francisco for decades. He can instantly recognize the work of the city’s most prominent graffiti artists, and knows which Mission District alleys house the most memorable pieces. Howze, a stencil artist himself, maintains a website dedicated to street art, and has written a book on the subject.
As a general rule, graffiti doesn’t pay; Howze is driven by his love of the art form, not by profits. But with the help of a new startup called Vayable, he’s beginning to turn his passion into a career as a tour guide, helping travelers discover the hidden artworks on city buildings and sidewalks. “It’s starting to pay a lot of the bills,” he says. As his reputation grows, he hopes he may be able to turn his street art curator side gig into a full-time job.
Vayable is an online platform that helps travelers find new experiences led by local guides. “The company was born out of my own experiences as a traveler,” says founder and CEO, Jamie Wong. “I love going off the beaten path when I travel, and friends started asking me to create experiences for them to replicate my trips. I built the company to expand beyond my own experiences, and help everyone find that sense of cross-cultural exploration.”
Vayable launched with 70 guides in April 2011, and customers began booking experiences within the first hour of going live. Since then, the company’s been growing at a rate of 30 percent each week.
In San Francisco, Howze’s three-hour street art tour of the Mission District is a top seller; other popular experiences in the region include a sommelier-guided tour of Northern California wineries; a fishing excursion in the San Francisco Bay; and a guided biking tour through the city.
The concept marks a sea change from the traditional tourism industry, which is dominated by large companies that stick to tried-and-true tourist attractions. Vayable is dedicated to giving its users choices in how they want to experience an area, encouraging them to follow their own passions in planning a trip.
Though some guides had been offering professional tours independently prior to working with Vayable, many are new to the field. “Many of our guides are everyday people with access to special knowledge, or a community or space. We’re giving anybody the tools to build and curate an experience out of their interests or passions,” says Wong.
Vayable allows guides to set the prices for their tours, collecting a 15% commission on confirmed bookings. “Many of the guides are supplementing their income in really significant ways,” says Wong. “They love the flexibility. They can have a day job and then follow their passion when they’re not at work and supplement their income through Vayable, to help them pay the bills or afford a trip.”
The company is now offering experiences in over 600 cities on six continents, and growing every day. “With technology, there’s a whole new way to connect,” says Wong. “We’re using these online connections to power offline interactions, and to help travelers and locals alike find meaningful ways to connect with new communities.”