Editor's note: This article was originally written and published in German. You can find the original interview here.
Have you heard of USE-IT? If you're a frequent travellers in and around Europe, chances are you've spotted one of their old-school paper maps in a hostel, an Airbnb or a tourist office. USE-IT is dedicated to producing city maps that include insightful tips and recommendations from locals, giving travellers the opportunity to explore a destination in a more candid manner.
We spoke to Nicolas Marichal, Editor-in-chief of USE-IT since 2004, to find out more about the project and what DMOs and tour and activity providers can learn from this approach.
On your website it is written that USE-IT stands for...
"No nonsense tourist-info for young people".
So USE-IT takes a different approach to experiencing a destination. Can you describe a bit more, what USE-IT stands for and what your goal is?
That’s a long question with a short answer: Honesty.
Young locals select and write about a hundred bars, restaurants, sights in town and put them all on one handy map. Nobody pays to be on a USE-IT map, it’s the locals who decide. A lot of the work (too much) is done on a voluntary basis, with a printing budget that usually comes from the city.
USE-IT started in 1971 and is now present in over 40 cities and regions. Have you seen a growing interest in the last few years for more authentic and real experiences? What evidence is there of this?
Tourist information has evolved very much in the past century and a half. The very first German travel guides (Baedeker, in the late 19th century) were written by a historian for a wealthy elite. During the hippie days, travel journalists took over. Guidebooks like Lonely Planet took a more no-nonsense approach for young backpackers on a low budget.
As the tourism industry grew, the influence of marketeers grew with it, so you got a load of glossy brochures all telling you about the best cities in the world. Young people don’t buy that and user-generated content started filling that gap. The typical example is TripAdvisor, where travellers inform travellers.
The last step in the evolution is to involve locals. Not historians, not journalists, not other travellers, but locals. After all, they live there! USE-IT is a part of this evolution, but we’re definitely not the only ones. Just think about Couchsurfing, Airbnb, the Greeters network and many websites and apps that invite you to eat, walk or party with locals.
Do you have some numbers or statistics about how many USE-IT maps are distributed and how many young travelers use these maps (which cities/regions are best performing, etc.)?
The number of maps differs very much between all cities, starting at around 20,000 per year for the small ones and 180,000 per year for our flagship map of Brussels.
In your opinion, how can travellers experience a city not as a tourist, but from a local's perspective?
By dropping the selfie stick. By going further from the city centre. By not going to a restaurant that says ‘local specialty’ and where the waiter is waving you in. By starting a conversation on the metro. By reading our maps.
Can you describe your target market? Who do you want to address with your maps?
We aim for the 18-25 year old travellers who are travelling alone, not in school groups or with families or business travellers. We see that a lot of thirty-somethings also appreciate our maps, which is cool, but we’ll never include expensive restaurants or five-star hotels.
Today's travellers are changing. For instance Millennials want to explore a city or region from a more local perspective. Everybody is searching for "the" greatest travel experience off the beaten tourist path. What do you think about this current movement?
Interesting question. There is something very self-contradictory in there. If you only want to eat at that quaint grandmother’s place “where no tourist has ever come before”, you just killed it from the moment you stepped in. I see this especially in Western travellers who are obsessed with this kind of authenticity, whereas you could say there is something more honest about the stereotypical Asian way of travelling: just see the sights and take a picture.
In the end, I guess these mainstream travellers are less disappointed, because it’s easier to be successful on the quest for selfies. If you’re always looking for stones to turn for the very first time, you run out of stones after a while. That being said, I would never want to travel any other way than by interacting with locals. I am working for USE-IT too, after all. You just have to accept that tourist is not necessarily a dirty word.
You are distributing the maps via hostels and tourist offices. Are there any other distribution channels, and how does this cooperation look like? What do people who want to start a map in their city have to do as first steps?
We also distribute our maps in welcome packages for exchange students, and many Couchsurfing hosts or Airbnb owners also look for our maps. That’s because they’re close to our philosophy: locals for travellers.
The initiative to start a new map always comes from local young people. That’s the nice thing: we have no strategy for where to start. If you love your city and find a printing budget, you’re in.
Everybody’s asking us why Paris isn’t in our network, but that’s just because the local volunteers haven’t found the money yet. Probably because Paris has nothing to prove anymore. So ours is this very weird network of famous cities and cities that nobody has ever heard of. We love that.
For you personally, where are the differences between standard tour offers and the ones you provide via your maps?
Can I just reply with ‘honesty’ again? Read our ‘Act Like a Local’ section on any map and you’ll smell the difference. That’s where we explain about local kissing habits, the children’s song that everybody knows, the curse words that will make even local eyebrows rise.
When we did a user survey, we asked everybody what they remembered most about our maps. Many replied with quotes like this, about the USE-IT map of Porto: “Some background info and colloquial Portuguese words that helped me put a smile on an old bartender’s face.”
We take that as a great compliment.
What do the offers you mention and recommend in your maps need to deliver? Is there a specific criteria for it, or are any offers from local activity providers or restaurants welcome?
I’ll answer that one with a fragment from our style guide.
Should you be complete? NO. This is impossible and people prefer a good selection instead of an encyclopedia. 50 spots is too little, 100 should be more than enough. But how do you decide when there are so many great places in town? How can you kill your darlings? Some questions that you should ask yourself:
- Is it unique?
- Is it a national symbol?
- Is it one of the main sights mentioned in every guide?
- Does every local know it?
- Is it cheap and central?
- Is it better than another similar thing in town?
- Is it a place that you would never notice if USE-IT hadn’t told you?
- Is it something that would never be in a tourist guide?
- Is it something that every local was talking about last year?
- Is it really new and promising to be a big hit in the coming year?
- Is it a unique spot for a special audience (vegetarians, gay girls, metal freaks...)?
If the answer to one or more of these questions is yes, then you should probably pick it.
You seem to really understand the community you're helping and the benefits of your recommended offers. What advice do you have for both sides - DMOs/DMCs (Destination Management Organizations/Companies) and for local activity and tour providers to offer experiences that are demanded by today’s travellers?
They should accept that it’s impossible to sell a destination as the best possible place in the world for everything you can possibly imagine. When you go to tourist conferences, you always see presentations about how honesty matters and how people appreciate realness and experience. But in practice, I still see too many marketeers and tourism directors who cannot accept that reality. When the map of Brussels says “Brussels is ugly and we love it”, you should embrace that as a compliment.
And also: differentiate your approach for different target markets. Everybody knows it, hardly anybody does it. I still see plenty of tourist brochures with a kind of neutral or encyclopedic offer for everybody, usually under the motto of neutrality.
But if it’s for everybody, it’s for nobody. Just make different things for different target groups, and make selections on the basis of that. It’s never going to be objective, but it’s the only thing that works. Or you can just ask USE-IT to do it for you.
What will be future challenges in the tourism industry in general and especially in city tourism that will affect you and USE-IT as well?
For the tourism industry: coming to terms with real local life. Invest in sustainable travel outside of the tourist classics. Learn that Airbnb is popular because local people actually live in those buildings. Many hostels have understood this already and actively seek local interaction, but many hotels haven’t.
For USE-IT, the major concern is continuity. We have to become stronger as a network. Our strength is our weakness too: nobody pays to be on our maps so every local project has to rely on public money. Every year, we lose maps because the city stops supporting. We have just proven the promotional and economic impact of our honest maps in an impact study, but we still have a long way to go.
For those who want to know if USE-IT is a good return on investment, see here.
Thank you very much for this interview, Nicolas!
Learn more about Millennials, their travel habits and other emerging travel trends in our 2018 trends report.