Planning the perfect trip can be both exhilarating and nerve wracking, intuitive and overwhelming—you’re finally taking the time off to visit a new place, so you want to do it right. But with travel becoming increasingly more popular, hidden gems are rare, and the cultural experience you’re seeking may leave you wishing you never left home. This is what happened to Journy’s founder, Susan Ho, and ultimately inspired the boutique, travel concierge service that ensures you travel as a “traveler, not a tourist.”
After tirelessly working at a tech start up since 2012, Ho’s CEO insisted she take a vacation in the next three months or she’d be fired. So, she took care of the necessities by booking a flight and hotel, and ended up in Buenos Aires, yet was unprepared for the trip she envisioned. “I ended up spending over three to four hours everyday, in my hotel, Googling to figure out what I was going to do that day; what the major sites were, what restaurants I was going to go to,” says Ho. “Yet, I still ended up in a restaurant surrounded by American tourists and, not one, but three different nightclubs surrounded by 16-year-old boys.” This led Ho to realize that something was broken in the modern travel agency—and since the gap needed to be filled, she was going to be the one to do it.
In 2015, Ho started Journy with co-founder Leiti Hsu to provide travelers with a personalized itinerary, concierge communication and restaurant reservations that go beyond the standard approach of an antiquated travel agency–for $25 a day. I sat down to talk with this travel trendsetter about Journy’s early stages, the impact travel has had on her life and the role food plays in planning her trips, and as a cultural factor that she thinks travel is evolutionizing into.
Can you talk me through the period between your much needed trip to Buenos Aires and realizing the motivation to create Journy?
I felt like, why is it that I am an internet savvy person and I took the time to research and plan, yet I couldn’t find the things that I was looking for? Something’s broken. When you look at the space, most of what millennials know as travel agents, say, ‘I don’t know what travel agents do, other than book expensive airfare for my parents.’ And then you have this old notion of a travel agent now gone very far up market, where there’s these high end, concierge travel planning services that will charge a base planning fee of $1000–and that’s just to talk to you.
Us being millennials and growing up in this current phase of technology, where everyone has access to a private driver through Uber, you can get on your phone and have Handy come clean your house–all of these luxury type services that are now being made accessible by technology–why doesn’t that apply to travel planning?
What were the first steps you took to get Journy off the ground?
At first, I just said, I don’t even know if people want custom travel itineraries built for them by experts. I don’t know if this is even going to be a viable business. Is it possible for us to spit out a perfect itinerary for someone that they are going to love? So, I built the first 70 itineraries manually, brought on my co-founder, Leiti, who is the ultimate culinary connector; while most travel agencies will build connections with hotels and tour operators, we build relationships with chefs and it’s why we’re able to get somebody into Pujol last minute, the restaurant in Mexico City that was featured on Netflix’s Chef Table series. It’s why, if you’re trying to get a reservation at a restaurant like Meadowood or French Laundry, we’re probably you’re best bet.
When somebody said, ‘Hey I’m going to Tuscany,’ I was like, ‘Leiti, you know some Tuscan winemakers, let’s start building a database of their recommendations and tagging them for what type of traveler they’re good for and that’s how Journy started—we built this huge database of recommendations from top chefs, from winemakers, from local experts who live in these places. We basically take that process that people are trying to navigate themselves and we do it every single day, with every single place, with over 50 destinations around the world.
What are three things that separate you from the typical travel agency?
1. Our tech platform. When we first started building itineraries, each itinerary took about 10-15 hours of time. We’ve since built tools and technology to shave the time it takes to build an initial itinerary down to about an hour.
2. Because we’ve built these tools, agents aren’t spending their time building PDFs, which is what travel agents are doing, so that there’s less back and forth [with their traveling client]. For us, it really is 100 percent personalized. The things our travelers will say to us so often is, ‘Wow, my concierge, Melissa did such a good job. Thank you so much, Dave.’ They’ll name the individual concierges that helped them because it really is that back and forth personal relationship. We can spend more time with each individual traveler.
3. We have all these relationships with food people all over the world. I think more and more you’re seeing people traveling for food; that food is the reason somebody is going somewhere to explore a culture (and it’s such a wonderful lens to explore a culture through). We understand that, so our recommendations are coming through chefs, and through that, our access is also something that’s our focus.
And, I think the 4th aspect of it too is that for convenience we have a mobile app–we’re communicating with our customers in a modern way. You can text our concierge, you can chat our concierge, you can email our concierge and we’ll see all of that through one channel. So, we communicate with our travelers however they want to communicate with us.
How did you go about building that platform?
It was literally figuring out, first and foremost, the things that I was doing manually and saying: What is a tech solution for this? I know for sure that people need a link to the Google Maps directions, I know for sure that people need to plan a 20 minute walk from this place to this place…So, the first thing was having a connection to Google Places API and streaming that information together so we can automatically deliver that to the customer. It was a gradual process and a really thoughtful process where we wanted to make sure what we were building was both useful to our concierges and useful information to our travelers.
Were you working in tech prior to Journy?
Towards the end of my career at Fab.com, I really had a hand in mapping out things that operationally were challenging and cumbersome, and figuring out what we could apply technology to, to help streamline and make more efficient. I think because of that, I had a mind to what technology can do to help streamline the pieces of work that are repeatable, that are mundane, that human creativity doesn’t want to think about, to free people up so they can think about the things that really matter.
What is the most rewarding feedback you’ve heard from customers thus far?
The most common thing we get from people is they’re shocked at how much more time they have when they are traveling because their noses aren’t in their phones. And their noses aren’t in their phones because we’ve set everything up for them–they don’t have to hunt for a cafe that has wifi to Google where they should have dinner that night.
The second part of it, is I think people are genuinely shocked at what our recommendations are. There’s a lot of travelers that we get who are super neurotic and OCD about planning their own trips themselves and don’t want to let go of that control. Then we plan out their trips and these people have been able to say, ‘Whoa, Journy planned my trip better than I would have planned myself.’It’s great to hear that and that’s what we live for.
Do people ever bring recommendations to you?
Yes. So, we’ve had people who in the planning process will give us their entire Google Docs that they have been collecting for recommendations from their friends and we’ll look through that and say this is actually good, this place is not worth your money–for example, we have one person who’s friend recommended a pizza place for them in Tokyo to go to. You might be like why the hell would you go and eat pizza in Tokyo?
It’s actually not a crazy thing to do, but we were able to say, if you’re going to eat pizza in Tokyo, there’s two places you should do it at: There’s one place where the guy won the world’s best pizza championship in Napoli for the last three years in a row, so that’s a place you should go to. And there’s another place where the guy would have won that competition but doesn’t care about that competition and uses all local ingredients to make his perfect pizza. That’s when we are able to guide people toward making the right decisions based off what we know they are really going after.
Was travel something you valued growing up?
I’ve always loved travel. I was born in China, I came to the U.S. when I was three-years-old, lived all along the West Coast, moved to Shanghai when I was 12-years-old and then every single year, twice a year, I’d be making international trips. My first year of college, I went to five different continents in one year. So, travel has always been something I loved and have been super passionate about–meeting new people, making yourself uncomfortable, and putting yourself in uncomfortable situations so you’re forced to learn about a different culture or learn about yourself, and then also, one of my biggest reasons for travel is food.
I was just in Tulum and I flew down solely to eat at Noma, Mexico. And Noma is, you know, the number one restaurant in the world—normally based in Copenhagen. They are renovating the restaurant right now to turn it into an urban farm, so they packed up their whole team of 110 people and moved down to Tulum for a seven week popup. I was like, ‘Okay, we’re going.’
And what was that experience like?
It was nuts what they were able to accomplish in the jungle in Tulum. We did a tour behind the scenes with the Noma team and saw the amount of work that went into every single dish. This dinner was pretty infamous because they were charging about $600 per person, in Mexico, and that’s unheard of. What everyone asks is, ‘Was it worth it? Would you do that again?’ Without question, the answer is, ‘Yes,’ because if you understand the amount of dedication and work that went into every aspect of the meal, you’ll understand $600 was a steal, I can’t believe they did this.
They have these coconuts that they use to serve a caviar dish in and the coconut has to be young enough to have the translucent layer that you can easily spoon out with a wooden spoon, along with the caviar. He hand saws 200 coconuts every single day to find 140 that are perfect. And that’s just one example of the amount of effort that goes into this. Just little details like that you understand that this is a team that is so incredibly passionate about what they are doing.
Do you have a role model in travel?
Definitely René Redzepi (Noma’s Executive Chef), just because have you seen his Instagram?! Watch his Instagram stories: Every single day he does a daily dispatch from Tulum where he goes through all of these local ingredients that you may or may not have seen before and talks about them, where they’re from, what they taste like, why they’re special…and he’s the kind of guy through that, who fully embraces a culture and literally sinks his teeth into it.
Where will your next adventure be taking you?
I’m going to Piedmont for White Truffle season–my belly tells me where to go!
And what’s next for Journy?
More fundraising in the fall. A lot of partnerships coming—we’re giving away a trip to Tokyo, with Conde Nast Traveler, The Skimm and Product Hunt. Another thing we have in the works, is we’re going to start curating VIP trips that are going to be at a much higher price point and essentially we are going to take all of Leiti’s access and have her be your host and guide through Tokyo. She’s going to open up the doors of all these chef’s places and have them close down the restaurant for a small group of six travelers, where they’ll cook for this group, talk about food, do demonstrations–literally experiences you cannot possibly get through anybody else. If that works out well, we’ll start planning and curating trips like that around the world: An ultimate insider, food adventure, led by her.
Photos by Erica Choi, eggcanvas for Journy