When Paul Brogna and Pete Stam returned to the University of Syracuse from a semester abroad, back in fall 2008, they noticed they'd had a better time than most of their classmates. That wasn't just because Brogna and Stam, both undergraduate architecture students at the time, had gone to beautiful Barcelona. The key difference, they realized, was that during their stay they'd befriended a bunch of locals who'd showed them the ropes.
"That was the idea moment: there's huge value in knowing a local," says Brogna. "How to connect travelers to these locals was the undertaking."
The idea has since developed into Urban Buddy — an app that helps travelers draw wisdom from veteran city residents in real-time. Punch a question into Urban Buddy and a few minutes later a genuine local provides you with the insider answer.
The Chicago-based duo launched Urban Buddy last fall as primarily a website, but quickly realize the key to their success would be answers on the go. This spring they released a beta app that sends answers to users via email. That program will get a facelift any day now; Brogna and Stam say they've submitted a new version to the iTunes store that features in-app communication in a format similar to text message.
In a sense, Urban Buddy has positioned itself as the anti-Yelp. As Brogna sees it, scrolling through pages of trip reviews — many of which are left by outsiders, and disgruntled ones at that — is a "stagnant, stale way of receiving information." Far better to ask a local what's what, provided of course you know one or are the type to approach one out of the blue. For those who don't or aren't, Urban Buddy serves as their "mobile concierge."
"This is a really accessible way to talk to locals," says Brogna. "You're getting someone's personal experience. That's more valuable than reading through ten pages of links or reviews."
Brogna and Stam wouldn't reveal all their secrets for finding bona fide urban buddies — what with Google's "City Experts" veering into similar territory — but they did give a basic overview of how they connect travelers with locals. The first step is finding a reliable native, known to them as a "city team leader," who builds the core buddy network. Some buddies have broad-based knowledge of a city through years of living there; others have a specific niche, like the theater scene.
Questions that enter the Urban Buddy queue are routed to the most relevant buddies and remain live until a buddy opts to "claim" the question and give a response. So far the internal vetting process is working. Animal New York recently challenged the app to a series of tricky questions (e.g. where can we find a black squirrel?) and found it more than up to the task (it even provided the species classification Sciurus carolinensis).
"It's not just a random mass of locals," says Brogna.
Right now Urban Buddy is established in six cities — Chicago, New York, Mexico City, Barcelona, Paris, and Berlin — but Brogna and Stam say they've prepared a significant expansion plan that will add 25 more. (The next two on the list: San Francisco and Las Vegas.) The co-founders cite the friendships they've made while traveling abroad as integral to their early success. In fact, some of the people they've met on these trips have become part of the Urban Buddy system.
"Pete and I were connected to two locals in Barcelona because they loved Barcelona and they were willing to share and help us, even if we were study abroad students from New York," says Brogna. "That's what we're seeking out. These people who love their city and are willing to share."