What you will Learn
- Why local connections are the best way to experience a place and a culture.
- How to find the contacts in your network you didn’t know you had.
- How to leverage technology to enhance your cultural experience.
All the apps and books in the world cannot replace having someone who knows the country you are going to visit – or even better, someone who can meet you there.
Fortunately, there are many ways to get a local contact in or from the country you are going to visit. Some tactics are old school and timeless while others use the internet, either through online communities or apps.
We’ll cover seven strategies to make new contacts – and why they work. Try them out and find which one works best for you. In all cases, the earlier to start, the better.
The lowest hanging fruit when searching for local contacts are your friends and acquaintances – people you know directly and have some affinity with. You will probably have thought about these people already, especially the ones that live in the same city as you do.
However, don’t forget about friends and acquaintances that have moved away or that you met on previous trips. If they are out of sight, they may be out of mind. Some of these friends may have relocated into a new country or city and may now be living in the country you are planning to visit. How convenient!
More than once I realized, only too late, that I had an excellent local contact. It was only when I had already spent a few days Istanbul that I remembered to communicate with a Turkish friend I met at a conference in India and who lives in Miami, Florida. It turned that he was in the same city as he had returned to see his family, but he was leaving that very evening. Had I reached out ahead of time, we could have met up.
As you can see from my experience, reaching out to these contacts is something you want to do ahead of time so that you can both plan to meet.
There is nothing better than hanging out with a friend in a new town as you catch up and they show you the in and outs – both the known tourist places (the ones that are worth it) and the places where locals go and where you can have an authentic experience.
Still in Istanbul, knowing I enjoyed the occasional Shisha, another friend took me to a café as he was taking me on a walking tour of the city. As we entered the premises, it quickly became apparent that this establishment was a spot where only locals went – and the truly savvy. I could see regulars come in, sit down and their shisha (with their own name written on it) would arrive minutes later without them having to ask. No-one spoke any foreign languages, and you paid for what you consumed based on an honor system on the way out. The service was good, but not the proactive, polished approach you are used in North America. There was something familiar yet warm about it. The tea and the Shisha I sampled both were delicious. The place, which had a courtyard, looked like it’s been around for hundreds of years – and it probably was!
Even when you are not with your local contacts – as you might be exploring the city, while they are at work – you can always message them and ask direction or advice. After our Shisha break, my friend went back to work. When I finished visiting the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, a few hours later, I was hungry and up for some culinary exploration. I sent a text message and based on where I was, he was able to suggest me the best food choices and even recommend what to order. It took him mere seconds, but I would have had to peruse several dozen trip advisor comments to still fall short of his recommendation.
When you deal with a friend, there is a certain level of trust and willingness to spend time and to help freely – you don’t keep tabs and are happy to help. Moreover, if you have some affinity, whether you are friends or just acquaintances, it’s because you have a similar mindset and interests, so the chances are that you will enjoy similar things. Any recommendation from them will have been narrowed down based on shared interests out of nearly infinite possibilities. On the other hand, something a stranger on trip advisor hated might be right down your alley.
Even if the friendship is a weak link – someone you are not very close with or have not seen often or recently – it’s enough for them to see you as a trusted person with all the perks that status comes with. We are not talking about sharing banking information, but rather just a base trust level which says “I know this person”.
Being associated with your friend, you will also benefit from the status and respect he commands within his society or community. This connection can mean less hassle from touts on the streets and better prices at a store.
Indirect Personal Network
You cannot overestimate the power of a warm introduction. Many of the greatest connections both personal and professional are made this way, and you can leverage this for your travel plans.
Tapping into your indirect network gives you a much wider coverage. On average, everyone knows about 50 persons well and can keep in mind around 150. Although with social networks like LinkedIn or Facebook you can have thousands of friends, unless you had enough in person interactions to build a particular bond with the individual, they still count as essentally strangers. If you had a lot of online interactions with a virtual friend, without ever meeting, you may also feel a strong bond, but this takes a lot longer than if you meet someone in person
You will not have the same strong connection with introductions as you have with your own friends and direct connections – not at first anyway – but they will consider you to be a lot closer to a friend than a stranger. In some cultures, hospitality rules command that a friend of a friend is to be treated just as well as a friend. In others, even a stranger will get such treatment.
You can either ask your friends to see if they know someone that meets your needs or you can sometimes search (depending on the privacy settings) and identify potential contacts in their social networks. This works especially well with linked in, where you can look into the network and request an introduction based on the country you will be visiting as well common professional interests.
A warm introduction and the pride of being able to showcase their country to a visitor provides enough motivation for most people to go out of their way to try to help you get the best experience during your visit.
You will want to do this ahead of time so that you can request introductions, make contact with the new person and get a chance to talk to them and get your questions answered. Having the common friend will jump start the trust level between you, but it’s useful to establish the foundations for a direction relationship by meeting this new contact in person. The stronger the bond, the more likely they will go the extra mile to help you.
Travel or International minded social network
Although Facebook is dominating the social networking scene, there are niche networks that cater to specific demographics and lifestyles. In the travel or international space, Couch Surfing & Internations are well-known examples.
The membership of these networks self-selects based on the theme. In travel communities, you’ll find people who are more likely to be willing to share information and help a traveler on because they remember a time when they needed the same type of aid were grateful that someone who obliged. These culture of these communities encourage this reciprocity style.
Usually, there are frequently asked questions and you can post your own on the messages board. There are active community ambassadors who organize regular social events and this is the best way to meet people in a new place. These gatherings are usually held in an interesting public venue where you get to interact with several people without pressure. You can identify which individuals you have the most affinity with and a conversation can lead to a friendship.
A group setting is also a great way to get a good sample of points of view. Instead of asking one person their opinion, it can be a discussion where the different perspectives are debated. This becomes very interesting in a mixed group where you have locals and visitors from several countries. You could hear not only opinions but also the reasoning behind them.
To find which social network works best for you, give them a try. Signup, read some of the message boards and see if you can attend local events in your hometown. There, you’ll be local, and you may be helping visitors with advice and questions. You’ll get questions about your city that never crossed your mind and see how outsiders see your home. You can see who shows up, their age range, lifestyle, and mentality. You’ll see if you have a lot in common or not, and finally, if you like the vibe. Hanging out with a group that is wildly different than your usual crowd is not necessarily a bad thing – different points of view make for great conversation.
Below are some of my favorites
Created for young travelers on a budget who are willing to crash on someone’s couch, it developed into a network where you can find a place to stay for free for a few days. It’s typically a younger crowd although but there are some exceptions. Given the peer review system and the basic human tendency to be grateful for a favor makes this a very safe option. You can search for a host based on criterions like gender and age range and exchange messages before you make your choice. The community organizes regular events. I always look up the place where I am going to see if there is something going on. Given the transient nature of the membership, people are very welcoming and inclusive with new arrivals to events – as opposed to being cliquey.
You don’t need to host before you can stay with someone or attend events although when my living arrangement permits it, I host a few times per year. I made at least one great friend this way. A fellow entrepreneur looked up my profile and saw we both ran startups and had similar interests before requesting to stay with me. 5 years later we are still in touch and talk regularly – and meet for a pint or a smokey scotch when we are in the same town.
This network was founded by expats for expats – professionals who are temporarily relocated by their company for a short or long stint. The site has resources about the logistics of relocating and well as forums for Q&A. They are established in several cities and usually have one large monthly social gathering – it’s usually a classy affair. The demographic is professional, educated and a little older. They also have interest groups that organize their own events at varying intervals.
When I was passing through Istanbul on a 5-day layover on my way home, I was lucky enough that both the monthly party as well as an African gathering was taking place during my stay. It was lovely to hear the perspectives of individuals coming from various countries, varying lengths of stays and diverse professional backgrounds. It gave a multifaceted insight into living in this city that straddles two continents.
Meet-up is a platform where you’ll find interest groups that organize events. It’s not as popular or well known in every country but it’s worth considering. The advantage here is that you get to connect with people on a common interest even if you have lived and grown upon a different part of the world. Say you like hiking. You can go on a hike in a new country with a group of avid hikers who share your love of the sport, yet come from different countries and backgrounds. One of the best insight into a new culture is how others see and approach a topic that you are yourself familiar with. You’ll be able to appreciate the regional variations and nuances in the mentality and perspective.
In today age of Swipe left, you can swap the effort of building relations for simply finding someone on a platform and pay them to guide you around. It’s easier and faster, but you lose some of the warm human touch associated with giving freely instead of getting paid. You look at a description and pay for a service, instead of getting to know someone.
When you pick a shortcut, there are always drawbacks. When you pay someone for a service, it will never be the same as developing a relationship and creating a bond as peers, instead of a client and service provider relationship.
Some of the apps are for finding a guide while others are for curated information – locals sharing their favorites haunts, tips or walking tour suggestions. There are a lot of app developers and they each have their own, unique approach. Try them all out and see what speaks to you.
Club, associations with national chapters
Using the power networks, you can meet a total stranger and jumpstart the trust and relationship by belonging to the same group. Most colleges and universities have alumni groups, and some have chapters around the world. Many clubs also have either chapters or relationships with sister associations. All these can help you get a special status where, on some level, you are considered “one of us”. Some of these organizations have special programs and events for visitors where they can get you a discount on housing and tours.
If you are not a member of a club that has a chapter in the country you are going to visit, you can always look at associations based on either your interest or profession. If you are an Architect, you could look up the order of architects or their association. Chambers of commerce are also great if you are a business person or a professional – even if you are not planning to do business in the country, meeting locals with the same profession provide a strong common ground and growth your professional network.
Hostel or Hotel Lobby
If you are staying at a Hostel or even a hotel, it’s easy to chat up other guests. This works especially well in youth hostels. You’ll likely meet other foreigners, some of whom may have been around for a while, and they can share their experiences and provide some recommendations. They may even invite you to tag along as meet up with their new local friends.
Although the people you’ll meet this way may also be foreigners, chances are they will be from a country other than yours. Exploring the country you are in with someone else who is from a different background can be doubly interesting. Meet a potential travel partner lets you explore some places together while enjoying the benefits of solo travel on other days. You’ll see how they react to the situations that present themselves and you can learn about their country and how it compares – contrast and similarities – with the one you are in now. Getting to know each other and sharing these adventures will provide a good bonding opportunities. You may become friends and if you visit their country, you’ll already have a local contact.
The first step before approaching someone is to look to see who looks interesting. Who gives you a feeling that makes you want to talk to them, trust your gut feeling here. It’s very easy to break the ice in this circumstance by simply asking a question, and questions you will have plenty. With the availability of smartphones ask questions where you are seeking an opinion and not something you could look up on your smartphone. People are always thrilled to share their opinion as it makes them feel valued – and everyone has an opinion. Ask how long they have been there and what’s their favorite attraction so far. Ask them if they’ve found a great local restaurant or food spot. You can even ask what their plans are for today, and if it seems interesting, ask if you can join them.
If you have to follow up with work and you need a few hours during your week to follow up with work (Or even if you don’t), it’s worthwhile yo look at up the local co-working spaces. Many organize social activities where outsides are welcome. And most offer a free day pass to try out their facilities.
You’ll get a great place to do your work with other people around – instead of being by yourself in your hotel room – and will invariably get a chance to meet new people. People may have headphones to focus, but when they get up or take breaks, they are usually open to chatting. The host staff can also make some introductions to other members who may share your interest or work in a similar field. Lunch is often a communal activity where you can chat with everyone and quiz them for tips. You might get invited to a party.
Even if you are only traveling for a week or two, in these co-working space you can meet digital nomads you may have been in the same country for months. They can share their experience, from an outsider perspective (just like you), however they had more time to figure things out. You can learn an lot from their experience.
Regardless of tech advances, travel remains a human experience. Irrespective of the quality of pictures and VR experience, there is nothing like standing in a square, feeling the wind on the face, hearing the bustle, smell the mixed scent of jasmine and grilled chicken and meeting a friendly stranger who greets you with a beautiful smile and gives you a warm hug.
The internet has made it easy to find existing or new contacts locally, regardless of your personality type. Some strategies use online communities or apps, while others use good old human touch.
Having this human connection is priceless, so spend a little time to find what works best for you include it part of your planning and preparation.
Let us know your stories about how a local contact helps or tips on how to find some.