When Andrew Fowers was going to school at Brigham Young University -- Hawaii, he noticed that Aloha State visitors tended to fall into two general categories.
"There are those that are with a tour guide on a bus and they are getting a lot of good information from a local. They do all and see all but maybe it costs $100 a head," Fowers said. "Then there were the people who just went out on their own freestyling it with a guide book. But they are just figuring it out as they go, and they have a hard time deciding when and where to stop. They see Hawaii at the surface level only and are missing out on a lot."
Fowers got the idea that he could bridge the gap between the two groups by offering affordable but well-researched audio guides to the islands. He started with compact discs to prove his concept, but the idea really took off with the advent of GPS technology and the ability to allow the user's location to drive the audio.
In February 2016 Fowers launched the current version of his original idea from a decade ago, Shaka Guide, a series of audio tours for mobile devices with a total of 21 itineraries across Oahu, Kauai, Maui and Hawaii Island. The Maui version of the app is one of the most popular, Fowers said, with the Road to Hana and drives to Haleakala National Park among the favorites.
Once a user launches one of the Shaka Guide tours, the narration is triggered by the device's location services, so they get the historical significance of a particular bay or advice on where to stop for a snack at the appropriate moment.
"I was a tour guide myself when I lived in the North Shore, and I think a good guide has a careful balance of relevant storytelling that is historically and culturally based, and tying that in with logistics," Fowers said. "There's quality and authentic storytelling, but also tips on where the cleanest toilet is. We take the history and cultural elements seriously, and while I'm not Hawaiian myself we work hard to make sure that a local Hawaiian would be proud of our presentations and would find it representative of the culture and people. ... We want to bring the islands to life so people will connect with them more."
Not every tour is designed for a car. There are a couple of Honolulu walking tours available in addition to a bike tour, and Fowers says he would like more non-automobile tours in the future. Additionally, Shaka Guide currently has two tours on Oahu that are offered in Japanese, with plans to offer more.
"One thing that makes us unique is our product is very agile," Fowers said. "When there were mudslides on Kauai, the volcano erupting on the Big Island, or the access road to Mauna Kea was shut down, we were able to update that app in real time so the customer is aware. It's all the benefits of a guide without the tour guide."
The audio tours work on both Android and iOS smartphones, and turn-by-turn directions are peppered with tips on where to stop and what to see along with colorful lessons on Hawaiian history, language and culture.
"I do believe that Hawaii is changing as a destination, and there is a need to promote responsible tourism," Fowers said. "In order for a tourist to be responsible, they need to be educated, and Shaka Guide educates people at the time when they need it most. Brochures get stuffed in luggage and forgot about. But when one of our customers pulls up to one of our most dangerous beaches, the guides will say this a difficult shore break, for example, and this isn't a safe place to swim."
Shaka Guide works with travel advisors in multiple ways. A wholesale rate is available, and advisors can offer individual tours as an extra incentive to sell a rental car or other upgrade package, Fowers suggested, or they can also earn a 30% commission on any Shaka Guide tour bundles, which retail for $19.99.
"Because the Shaka Guide isn't a big-ticket item it might make sense for the agent to include it in a package as an incentive," Fowers said. "We can make customized links for companies or individual agents, and invoice at the end of the month. ... We are working on setting up an agent portal as well."
Down the road Fowers is looking to expand the number of offerings in Hawaii as well as take Shaka Guide to the U.S. mainland.
"With the U.S. road trip culture I think what we found in Hawaii is a great niche and it can work very well in other locations, especially major cities and areas around national parks," he said.