Seek Sophie was started by Jacinta Lim and Lina Gedvilaite – friends who believe that travel can change the world for the better. Their travel platform brings small local tourism operators online, with a focus on meaningful, off-the-beaten path experiences. We talked to the dynamic pair about life in tourism post Covid.
Where are you both from?
Jacinta is from Singapore, Lina was born in Lithuania and moved to the US when she was nine. Before Seek Sophie, Jacinta was a corporate lawyer, then she joined MicroEnsure, a start-up in the UK with a social mission to help insure the world’s poor. Jacinta has travelled to over 60 countries and lived for 14 years in London before moving back to Singapore.
Lina previously worked in finance in Ukraine and London. Her experience moving to a new country as a child drives her to help others who are building up their lives from few resources, as her parents did. Lina has travelled to over 40 countries and lived in the UK, US, Ukraine and Lithuania before moving to Singapore to do an MBA.
Tell us about your friendship?
We met at INSEAD business school while we were doing our MBA almost four years ago. We had both worked in social enterprises in Nairobi, Kenya – what are the chances? We also discovered we are both avid travellers.
Why did you decide to start Seek Sophie?
We used to chat about our travel experiences, and often wondered why it was so difficult to travel to the less touristed places that we loved. Our best travel experiences have been with local guides. Like the Bedouins in Jordan who made us chicken cooked in the desert soil in caves overlooking Petra, or Guma in Uganda who took us to his mum’s house for a homecooked feast in her garden. But these amazing guides were mainly offline, and we only found them through serendipity or word of mouth. They were desperate to be found by travellers, but didn’t know how to get online. We started Seek Sophie to connect travellers to amazing local guides offering off-the-beaten-path experiences, and to help these guides grow their businesses.
What does Seek Sophie offer?
We offer travel experiences that we want to do ourselves, and that benefit the local communities and the environment. Our hashtag is #TravelThatMakesLifeBetter. Most of our travel experiences tend to be more offbeat and adventurous. In Singapore it’s going to World War II bunkers or visiting a bee farm that’s also a secret speakeasy rooftop bar. Even experiences like kayaking have a twist – like being coupled with a visit to an abandoned ammunition dump island.
The difference between us and other travel platforms is that we don’t list any experiences that we don’t personally love. We try the experiences out and only list small local businesses. Many give back to their local communities – through ocean clean-ups, planting trees, and using biofuels. For every dollar spent on Seek Sophie, we also offset a pound of carbon emissions.
What’s the story behind the name? Who is Sophie?
Sophie means wisdom in Greek. For us, travel is not about escape but about learning more about ourselves and the world we live in.
How hard hit were you by COVID-19?
Overnight after March 13 2020 (it’s etched in our memories!), orders dropped to zero, and all our upcoming orders were cancelled. We’re proud that we were able to waive all cancellation policies and offer 100% of our customers their money back. It was a really tough time for travellers and we wanted to do what we could to help.
It was also the biggest test of our mission to help small local businesses. Many had already paid for the logistics for cancelled trips. In order to ensure the local businesses weren’t out of pocket, we dug into our savings to pay for the cost of cancellations. Thankfully, many of the small local businesses were able to keep their staff on during the worst months of the pandemic.
We knew that travellers wouldn’t be able to travel internationally for a while, so we widened our product range significantly to include experiences that travellers could do near them – such as hidden nature weekend getaways for our clients in Malaysia and Vietnam, and short day experiences in Singapore.
When borders open, where will you go first?
Wherever the rules allow! In an ideal world, we would spend two weeks in Tambora-Moyo Island-Komodo-Sumba. Our route is all planned out. In the meantime, we’ve been trying out our Singapore experiences ourselves, and it’s given us a new appreciation of how many incredibly creative, innovative local guides there are here.
We used to think that Singapore didn’t have many outdoor or adventurous experiences but crawling through WW2 bunkers and kayaking to local kelongs has definitely changed our minds. We hope that these tours will help others see Singapore with new eyes too. We think we know what Singapore has to offer, and we’ve stopped seeing how magical she really is. Keep an open mind and open heart, and speak to strangers, as you would when you’re travelling – you’ll find Singapore is full of surprises!
Find out more or book a tour at seeksophie.com