An invitation to meet people
Meet Locals is an invitation to meet people, special places and events out of the ordinary, beyond the banality of the usual routes. Elena Luiza Oprea, the founder of Meet Locals, has 21 years of experience in tourism and related activities, has worked in reception, marketing and management at 4-star hotels and always encountered situations similar to this one: the tourist came to the reception, asked what he could do and the receptionist shrugged his shoulders or gave him a leaflet or a map. The tourist would leave as puzzled as he came, and the city would remain unexplored in all its glory and the efforts of local tourism and entertainment businesses.
Contrary to this experience in Romania, Elena witnessed a situation in Greece that gave her the initial idea for Meet Locals: "we were at the hotel reception and wanted to do some more activities, the receptionist logged into a platform, issued a voucher, we went with the voucher and enjoyed the experience. This way we avoided searches, maps, leaflets, phone calls, everything happened simple and fast, a solution where all parties involved save time and resources."
Funding for local expertise and business support in RO
Since that moment, 4 years ago, Elena has been thinking about how she can link experience providers, classic tour operators (travel agencies, tour operators, hotels) and end tourists. With the idea on paper, Elena entered a start-up competition, where she didn't win, but it gave her the opportunity to go to an entrepreneurship course, rethink her proposal and win a grant in another business plan competition, where she received a €100,000 grant.
"The non-reimbursable financial aid has some facilities that help us in our activity, on the other hand it has limitations, for example only certain types of expenses are eligible", Elena explains about the funds received to start this start-up as a social enterprise, which means that 90% of the profit is distributed for social purposes or the profit is carried forward for future years.
In fact, the main condition of the business plan competition was that the newly established company should be a social enterprise. Thus, 2 out of 5 employees are from vulnerable groups, and the platform indirectly supports those suppliers who do not have access to new markets, who cannot promote themselves due to lack of income or digital education.
Think of some fishermen in Delta, who can offer authentic experiences (cooking in front of tourists, boat rides), but have no access to technology, information or social media promotion budgets, and then we come up with a plus for this type of providers, lesser-known locals who need visibility, such as peasants who offer mountaintop experiences and have little communication accessible to the general public", Elena adds.
Meet Locals, integrator for international suppliers
With the first round of funding secured, Meet Locals started the development of the project, together with a company that offered the right software: "we are not the classic B2C, we need specific developments, we analysed very well the offer of development companies, so that we have functionalities that allow us to have automated integrations with resellers, the main advantage being to be able to connect with large international distributors, like Booking, Viator, Airbnb".
Meet Locals can thus complement the offerings of international providers who have neither the know-how nor the time to select authentic, local offers.
And somehow this is where Meet Locals is at stake, that factor that differentiates the app from others that offer the tourist experience: finding and supporting suppliers in the country that the general public doesn't have access to.
As a mechanism, experience providers contact the Meet Locals team or the team searches for these providers, then lists the provider's proposed offer. Resellers have access to the entire offer which they can book directly for tourists (travel agents or receptionists). The listing is free of charge, the business model is commission based: "we ask suppliers for a commission of 18-25%, and we give 10% commission to the resellers, so everyone involved in the process wins".
Meet Locals is currently active, with 170 experiences currently available, Elena tells us she hopes to reach at least 300 experiences by the end of the year and 100 partners, those resellers who can amplify the offer on the platform. She continues to look for new experiences all over the country, to sign contracts with local resellers, but also to partner with associations, tourism organizations, Elena's plan is to be as present as possible with Meet Locals in the hotel industry federation and industry associations.
The idea got green light in the start-up ecosystem
The Commons Accel Demo Day 6 experience helped her in the development process: "we interacted with investors, with investment funds, we saw what they look for in a start-up, we interacted with peers, we opened our horizons, we made connections, we learned how to pitch, how to position ourselves correctly in the market, we met a lot of mentors".
Elena says that the experience of an accelerator like Commons is very useful because it is the perfect space where you can validate your idea, you can see what is wrong with your idea, but you can also discover things you didn't think of before:"you always ask yourself questions regarding a start-up, and I was pleased to find that the idea and the project are interesting, but I must be careful with the suppliers, who must be contracted carefully, because we are responsible for the quality of services, this is the advice of an investor. I also found out that the potential is there, the market is there, but we need traction to attract investment, we need reservations", Elena tells us.
The pains of labour
At present, the initial funding does not allow them to change partners. Elena has started discussions with potential investors for the future and does not rule out listing on a crowdfunding platform either. "Now we need not only to attract capital; a successful start-up is a mix of the founder's vision, the team's motivation, the market potential and what customers want".
Elena adds that Meet Locals must go through the "pains of labour", as one mentor she spoke to so well described, and find the perseverance, patience and courage to take the platform to the next level.
"I am confident that this project can be something wow for Romanian tourism. At the beginning of my hotel career, about 20 years ago, in winter it was deserted in Mamaia. At Hotel Iaki, where I was working at the time, we pioneered and kept the hotel open all season, then slowly we noticed traffic, cars, people and in autumn and winter". The lesson we're left with at the end of
our conversation with the founder of Meet Locals is that you just have to provide options for people to enjoy their free time, and most likely they will.