A Conversation with Michal Alter, Founder of visit.org.
Michal Alter and visit.org, won CVC’s East Coast Demo Night early this summer. This month we’re catching up with her about the impact visit.org is having on communities all over the world, the exciting things they’re building and her journey from computer science in Israel, to founder in New York City.
Let’s jump right in! Give us a quick overview of visit.org’s mission statement and how you, as a company, are working toward it.
Visit.org is an online platform for booking half-day or multi-day culturally immersive tours and activities that are hosted by local communities. Travelers add an authentic experience to their existing trip itinerary, and revenue is invested back into the local community.
As the global demand for products, experiences, and services with a purpose increases, our mission is to make it easy for millions of ‘do-good’ organizations — community-based projects, cooperatives, associations, nonprofits, social businesses -,to become active participants in the global economy. We do that by bringing this fragmented supplier market onto a centralized online platform where consumers can discover impactful organizations, book experiences with them, and purchase sustainable products from them. Thanks to their trust-relationships with the local community, these organizations have a unique ability to answer this growing demand for “conscious consumerism”. We help them leverage these underutilized assets in order to generate sustainable revenue and support for their cause.
Right now we focus on an immersive travel product, making it easy for travelers to book authentic experiences that do not include any type of volunteer or service work. In fact we flip the volunteer-tourism paradigm. Experiences on visit.org are immediately bookable and are led by members of the local community who share their own skills, history, culture, and expertise with the visitors through walking tours, workshops and other experiential activities. For example, you can book a few days in a biodiversity research institute in the Amazon forest and tour revenue will further scientific research, a day with a coffee-farming cooperative in Guatemala, or a three-hour traditional cooking class and meal at the house of women immigrants in NYC.
We make sure our unique providers receive 100% of their asking price so that they can invest it back into programs that benefit the local community, and we take a booking fee from our users, not from our partner organizations.
Great, thank you! Now that we know what visit.org is, let’s go back and talk about what initially drew you to Columbia, all the way from Israel?
Back in Israel, I started a career in computer science. It was there that I saw how much technology had the potential to impact the world. Later on, I started volunteering once a week with refugees from east Africa at a local nonprofit in Tel Aviv and learned that sometimes the people with the least voice have the most to share. I began to wonder, how could I bring about awareness for these people who have such unique knowledge, culture, history, and personal stories? At that moment, I realized the massive scale of improvement that technology could bring to the ‘do-good’ sector. I also understood that if I really wanted to make a change in the sector, I needed a management perspective.
So seven years ago, I moved to New York to work towards a master’s degree in Public Administration (MPA) at Columbia. I took every opportunity I had in those 2 years, whether it was capstone projects or internships, consulting projects or independent study, to get to know both local impact organizations here such as New York Cares and Solar One, and larger international organizations such as the UN and Women’s World Banking (WWB). After receiving a mind-opening education in a global hub of innovation and culture, I eventually found the perfect setting for my future startup.
Will you elaborate on specifically where along your journey, you were inspired to found visit.org?
I have traveled extensively in Latin America and Southeast Asia after my military service in Israel. During those prolonged trips my most memorable experiences were related to local communities and cultures and the relationships I managed to build.
While working as a software engineer in Tel Aviv, I began volunteering with Mesila Aid and Information Centre for Migrant Workers and Refugees in Tel Aviv. Eventually I left my high tech job to direct refugee affairs at Mesila.
Working in that setting, I saw that small nonprofits have a lot of assets — things like a unique understanding of local culture and communities and history — and I thought they could do a better job sharing and leveraging these great assets with the general public and not just a small group of volunteers and donors.
After giving birth to my first child, my refugee friends and friends from Tel Aviv had the opportunity to meet for the first time when they came to my home with baby gifts. It was very powerful. It made me think back to those relationships I built on my solo travels before. Most people have very limited vacation time and no way to access this kind of interaction. So all these angles of my life — technology, volunteering, traveling — came together in visit.org.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I always wanted to use my skills and energy to affect the world positively through business practices, but didn’t necessarily see entrepreneurship as the only way to achieve that. It was the international travel experiences and the access I had to different local cultures in Tel Aviv through my work with nonprofits that left a very big impact on how I viewed the world. Then, once I realized how technology could connect these two disparate worlds of travel and local communities together, and how this could answer real, growing demands on both sides, I truly wanted to bring this innovative product to the world.
What has your journey as a founder been like?
My journey has been challenging but extremely rewarding. It’s been a year since we launched the platform and we have already generated $50,000 in new earned revenue to our partner organizations around the world and onboarded 400 partners in 51 countries with 1,000 more in the pipeline. Over 800 travelers have already booked culturally immersive travel experiences through our platform.
We currently have 5 full-time employees, 10 part-time country representatives, 140 Ambassadors (storytellers and photographers), and a great team of interns all working hard to further our mission every day. Visit.org would not exist without a true community effort, determined to bring the 99% of ‘do-good’ organizations around the world that are extremely hard to find online today, onto a centralized platform where they can become active participants in the global economy by selling easily consumable travel products and in the future, other e-commerce products.
And how did you meet your Co-Founder?
We met through CoFounders Lab, an “online-dating platform” for aspiring entrepreneurs. It’s a bit like meeting your life partner on Tinder J. We met on a Skype call when Violaine was still working for the World Bank in Senegal and I was working as a consultant in NYC, already contemplating visit.org. Violaine had done international development work in many countries around the world and had been in charge for the successful launch of numerous community-based tourism projects, and had always looked for a way to do that kind of work at scale.
We had scheduled a 30 minutes Skype call and ended up talking for 3 hours. By the end of the call I asked Violaine to onboard our first local partners in Senegal and then come to NYC to start working on visit.org with me. And so she did. We have been a winning team working together full time in NYC for two years now. She is the best executor I have ever worked with and I am grateful for the opportunity to create together.
What would the ultimate achievement of visit.org, for you?
Building visit.org into a household consumer brand where users can shop easily for travel experiences and other products feeling 100% confident about the positive impact these purchases have on local communities around the world, and, importantly, feeling connected to the people and communities they purchase from, through cutting edge virtual engagement and powerful in-person visits.
Tell us what inspires you to work toward that every day.
1. To read the reviews users send to us after visiting one of our providers. It is incredible to see how 99% of our reviews say that this was by far the most memorable experience of their trip and the only one where they could really get a feeling for the local culture. We also see a 30% repeat rate (users who book another visit.org experience after their first), which is the best testimony to how powerful these human interactions are.
2. To hear from our partner ‘do-good’ organizations about the impact they manage to achieve on the ground thanks to the new earned revenue stream generated by tours they sell on visit.org. For many of our partner organizations this is the first time they can rely on generated income rather than rely solely on donations. I also love hearing they feel truly heard by the visit.org community around the world.
Is there any news you’d like to share with us, or anything left you want to tell us about visit.org?
I am excited to say that Visit.org is today the world’s largest online directory and booking platform for immersive, impactful tours & activities hosted by ‘do-good’ organizations around the world. Airbnb and Carnival Cruise both recently launched beta products in our space, indicating a clear market trend which we are happy to be among its leaders. We have a great distribution partnership going on with Expedia and we look forward to growing it stronger.
What I need CVC members’ help with:
- Please reach out if you or your company are interested in content partnership. Our growing global community of 400 partner organizations in 51 countries, 140 Ambassadors, and 10 country representatives regularly produce fresh, off-the-beaten-path content about cultures, communities, impact, and travel.
- Please reach out if you are part of a nimble, disruptive company that would potentially like to innovate its CSR/ team building programming. We offer employee groups to go on culturally immersive activities hosted by local communities in their city, generating far greater local impact through business practices rather than volunteer or donation practices.
- Please reach out if you want to join the visit.org community in any way: firstname.lastname@example.org
Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs ?
If you have a good idea and endless positive energy to make it happen, then try to come up with a plan that will allow you to stick to it for as long as you can, you will figure it out eventually. Feel free to reach out if you need help coming up with such plan!