The lightbulb moment for Jim McGovern came after setting up two Ontario teenagers with a Whistler local.
“They had the best day of skiing ever,” McGovern remembers.“The local elevated their experience. It’s something most of us want when we’re somewhere new, but there was no platform for meeting up with a local.”
For Guita Yazdani, it was a similar gap between experiences. One week she was camping on a private piece of land where she had lots of space, privacy and quiet, and a few weeks later camping at a cramped, crowded and noisy provincial park campground.
“There was none of the connection to nature that we had at the private campground,” she says.“It was a totally different experience—and that’s if you can find a campsite.You have to book months in advance. People are reselling reservations like concert tickets.”
Both cases led to new businesses: McGovern started Yervana, a platform that connects “explorers” with locals willing to guide them on outdoor adventures for a small fee; while Yazdani’s Campertunity matches landowners with space for a tent or RV with campers.
Both represent the collision of trends. On the one side are people increasingly looking for personal and authentic experiences. On the other is the sharing economy, defined by businesses like AirBnB and Uber, that use the Internet to bridge the gap between under-utilized assets (in this case, local knowledge and land) and demand (travellers looking for something different). In between is time.
“We often spend more time on the Internet looking for what we want to do than actually doing it,” observes McGovern.
Yervana and Campertunity, both based in Vancouver, British Columbia, make it easy to find unique ways of enjoying nature with a local twist. It sounds like everyone wins, but with any disruption to the status quo comes unintended consequences.
Yervana’s platform launched in June 2018. One half of the site are “locals,” people with inside knowledge on the mountain bike trails in Squamish or the best places to take nature photos around Banff. Prices range from $20 to $200-plus and most trips are in the Sea to Sky region north of Vancouver or the Bow Valley west of Calgary, though McGovern is looking to expand in BC and Alberta and into Ontario. Locals apply to have their trips listed on the site. Yervana provides insurance if locals don’t have their own.
More than a marketplace, Yervana is a matchmaker, says McGovern. Rather than signing up for a trip and not knowing anything about the guide who will be leading it, Yervana encourages communicating with the locals beforehand.
“The goal is to build community, not a business,” McGovern says. “The path to purchase is to make a social connection before you buy.”
Even though many of the locals are not experienced guides, McGovern says search- and-rescue organizations are supportive of the service. Two-thirds of backcountry incidents involve solo, ill-prepared or ignorant users—all preventable by hiring a local.
So far, he’s shied away from more technical activities like backcountry skiing and ice-climbing, preventing a conflict with the ACMG, the national mountain guiding overseer. He also approached bureaucrats in both provinces to ensure the company’s insurance and regulations fit with park standards.
However, he is stirring up one potential hive of trouble—localism. In the ever busier backcountry, exposing areas to heavier use is rarely popular. McGovern hasn’t heard anything negative and he isn’t worried. “If I show you a secret stash at Whistler the chances of you being able to find it again are pretty slim,” he says.
For its part, some stakeholders are welcoming Campertunity. Anyone with space on their property for a tent or RV can sign onto the site. Like AirBnB they list their amenities—there is no minimum—and describe the setting. The camping opportunities range from 200-acre ranches to small acreages with electricity, $6 per night to $50+.
Some are offering extras like a visit with farm animals, meditation classes or horseback riding. Campers browse through the listings, which are mainly in BC and Alberta, though Yazdani says they want to expand nationwide.
“There’s such huge demand we don’t think we’re taking any business away from campgrounds,” she says.“We’re just providing another option.”
“In a time when RV shipments in North America are at an all-time high and the number of campgrounds is not growing, anything that increases supply is welcome,” says Shane Devenish, president of the Canadian RV Association. But he says that with a caveat. No one is opening new campgrounds because taxation and regulations are making it almost impossible. He wants Campertunity landowners to at least pay equivalent taxes as campgrounds.
Regardless of what regulators do, Yazdani and McGovern believe the business model is only growing.
“My prediction is the sharing economy is going to be bigger than the Internet,” says McGovern. “It’s going to have a bigger impact on how we interact with each other.”
Yervana and Campertunity, like everything else in the sharing economy, rely on ratings of users and suppliers. In the future, figures McGovern, how you behave in a vacation suite or with a tour guide is going to matter. A lot.
“A credit rating is going to be passé,” he says. “In the future you’re going to have a reputation score.”
And it’s going to follow you around the Internet and right into the backcountry.