Francesco Catemario di Quadri, left, and Lokals cofounder Alexander Mitzman
The Lokal Perspective
What makes a perfect holiday? This is, of course, subjective, but for many seasoned travelers it’s the people who make a place particularly special.
Francesco Catemario di Quadri ’11 knows this; indeed, it is the core of his business, Lokals, an app that connects travelers to locals through interests they have in common. The concept allows for authentic immersion into a local culture via its people, and allows travelers an insider’s perspective on their favorite activities. “We want to connect you with someone who can take you around a city or a country for a few days and help you get to know a place with your preferences as the focus. We connect people to people. This is the spirit of Lokals,” says Francesco.
“There are lots of platforms trying to steer the travel and tourism industries towards ‘living like a local’ via a combination of accommodation and experiences, but that presents a lack of understanding of what people actually want: authentic and intimate experiences, and this requires meeting, interacting, and rubbing shoulders with local people, sharing and learning from them, not attempting to become them,” he says. "Memories of travel you hold dear enough to cause nostalgia are likely made up of instances of interactions with people. If people make places, who better to interact with than with local people?" Personal, intimate, unique. And, let’s be honest: enviable, and Instagrammable.
So was the catalyst for this a disappointing holiday? “Actually, quite the opposite,” Francesco says. “In 2016 I was in Portugal for a few months during the summer. Some friends came to visit, so I showed them around Lisbon, took them to my favorite places, really a bit of everything. And they left and told their friends, who then also came, and I did the same thing. And they told their cousins, and they came. I ended up spending more than two months showing people around the country. And I realised I could get paid for this, and that anybody could put their local knowledge and time up for sale. Because the best trips I’ve had are those where I’ve experienced things with people from there.”
Developing the algorithm was a tricky part of the process. “When you’re selling your time as a local person, you have to consider multiple factors. Everyone has the freedom to price themselves at a particular daily rate. We don’t dictate any of that. And of course the rate will be different if you give a client a morning tour and spend the afternoon on a yacht than someone who takes people to vineyards or walks them around a city.” The app includes a pricing simulator to help the lokals estimate a competitive rate, and allows users to search by group size, budget, language, and activities. “When you match with someone, there’s an element of preconceived ice-breaking; you are connecting with someone who likes the same things you do, and they are offering their time to you as a service to focus on what you want to explore.” A rating system will ensure lokals are on their game, and the company will do background checks on all new lokals when and if possible. Lokals has also invested heavily to ensure that the app is privacy and data-compliant in nearly every country in the world.
Francesco is a typical TASIS kid: half-Italian, half-Portuguese, born in Switzerland, speaks five languages. He left TASIS after five years and finished his education at Singapore American School, then went on to attend the prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. After architecture placements in Singapore, Lisbon, and Paris, he returned to Lugano for a year-long stint at an architecture firm before taking a job with Arquitectonica in Miami, where he spent two years designing cutting-edge residential and business premises.
It was in Miami where he met his Lokals cofounder, Alexander Mitzman. “We’d only known one another a few months, but we were out one night and talked about traveling and living in different places, and he said if he came to Portugal he’d love to have me show him around, and if I went to New York he could do the same. One thing led to another, and we decided to do it together.”
Francesco quit his job and moved to Lisbon in November 2019 and started focusing on Lokals. And, like most with an entrepreneurial spirit, that’s not all he’s got up his sleeve. “I’m not an architectural designer at an office anymore, but I founded another startup that’s doing magnetic modular furniture that requires no tools, screws or instructions to assemble or flat-pack it,” he says. “I’m also working on a series of books with architects around the world.” But for now, the focus is on Lokals, and how to make a big splash in a post-Covid travel space.
“People like to use the word ‘disruption’,” Francesco says. “There is an element of disruption because this is a platform that connects people to people. But there’s also an element of inclusion, because existing travel and tourism businesses can sign up through our business portal and use their staff as lokals. We don’t want to fight existing companies; we want to work with them.”
Even before the recent global lockdowns, Lokals was thinking of other ways to share experiences. “There are many ways to travel without leaving your house. For example, you could learn to cook Portuguese food with a chef from Lisbon, or do a Zoom wine pairing with a Napa Valley winemaker, or learn how to small-talk in French with a lokal from Lyon. These are possibilities that we are exploring—'travelling' remotely.”
Francesco credits his TASIS experience with his diplomacy skills. “The biggest influence for me was the diversity at TASIS,” he recalls. “I learned that you can’t always please everybody, and you have to communicate with people differently. You get used to how others think. This exposure to multiculturalism, all in one place, is incredible.” Francesco remains in touch with many of his classmates, and is a regular at their Saturday night Zoom cocktail parties.
When global lockdown lifts and we’re once again able to explore the world, Lokals will be there. They launched in Portugal at the end of the summer, followed by Greece and Florida, then moving to other European capitals. “People have precious little time off, and they want their holiday to be as authentic as possible,” he says. “I believe this is the future and the rebranding that global travel and the tourism industry needs.”