An Interview with Traveling Spoon co-founder, Aashi Vel
Traveling Spoon offers travelers the opportunity to experience traditional, homemade cooking by locals in their own homes in towns located in Thailand, India, and China. Founders Steph Lawrence and Aashi Vel met at the Haas Business School where they bonded over their love for local food and travel. Together, they combined their experiences traveling through Asia as inspiration for a joint venture that began in 2011. Now, these women are gearing-up to change the world for adventure-loving foodies forever.
Earlier this month, we got the chance to catch-up with Aashi and learned about Traveling Spoon’s mission, how it all got started, and what they’re cooking-up for 2014 and beyond.
Multilingual Connections (MC): How did Traveling Spoon come to be?
Aashi Vel (AV): Steph and I met in business school and we are both extremely passionate about authentic food and travel. We both had similar experiences that brought us to the idea of Traveling Spoon. I was traveling in Mexico and on my way to a restaurant passed by a local Mexican woman’s house and she was making tortillas. It looked amazing and I wished I could eat with her in her house! Steph was living in China and similarly felt it was difficult to find an authentic travel experience. Steph and I believed we could bring meaning to travel experiences for different groups of people. Sharing a meal with someone is such a wonderful way to share, learn and break barriers between cultures. When you are in someone’s home in a different country and see how they live and eat, you isolate yourself less. It makes the world a smaller place. People don’t want to be tourists anymore – they want to be travelers, seeking insider perspectives into the daily lives of the people and places they visit.
MC: How do you find your hosts abroad? Describe the process of continuing to expand Traveling Spoon to new markets
AV: Every one of our hosts has been personally vetted. Hosts can now sign-up online on our website and we conduct a Skype interview. We also have Traveling Spoon “ambassadors” who are food and adventure lovers like us on the ground in our hosts’ countries. We have a stringent vetting checklist we give to our ambassadors. They go to potential host homes and in exchange for a free meal fill out the vetting document. Our promise is that every one of our hosts is vetted and the experience is of a high quality. We require that our hosts speak and have access to the Internet in case a last-minute change in travel plans occurs or something comes up. Most of our hosts are women. Traveling spoon gives them a chance to make money doing what they love and show-off their cooking skills. Especially in Vietnam, our hosts love the opportunity to practice their English skills.
MC: How do language barriers provide a challenge in your service? What are some of the triumphs in language learning you have encountered with Traveling Spoon or in your own travels?
AV: We don’t expect our hosts to speak perfect English but right now it is a requirement that our hosts speak some level of English that allows them to engage in meaningful conversation. Sometimes moms and daughters will host together – while the mom might not have the best English language skills she gets to show her cooking techniques and her daughter translates. It works out great!
MC: What is some of the best feedback you have heard so far from your travelers? That said, what sorts of travelers are utilizing your service most?
AV: Initially we thought it would be backpackers but what we’ve found is that a lot of our travelers are “professionals”, typically ages 28-40, looking for authentic, cultural experiences. We also have a lot of 55 and over travelers looking for exclusive, unique experiences on their travels. The reviews we get from our travelers just make it so worth it. The best feedback we’ve heard is when people say Traveling Spoon was the highlight of their trip, or the best meal they had on their trip, when they were able to try homemade recipes passed down from generations. We also love hearing that some of our travelers are interested in hosting our hosts in the same way if they ever come to the States; we love seeing the relationships that are created.
MC: What are your goals for Traveling Spoon?
AV: Our vision is that Traveling Spoon will change the future of travel. We aim to provide meaningful travel and become the destination for authentic food experiences. In the short term, we’re putting money towards technology development. We’ve spent no money on marketing so far and have received most of our bookings through word-of-mouth. Our travelers have such a great time that they love to share their experiences with friends and family. Both Steph and I have lived in Asia and the western world and we know what the western world is looking for in a traveling experience and the tremendous experiences Asia has to offer. We are hoping to achieve global expansion in the next three years. First up, new hosts in China, Japan, and Indonesia.