Travel Spotlight: Valerie Stivers-Isakova of Virtual GDBK

Planning, Travel Books & Movies, Websites and Blogs — By on November 22, 2010 at 6:00 am

By The Lost Girls staff

Travel writer and novelist Valerie Stivers-Isakova found herself growing tired of sifting through the “rusty junket-ville of most travel reporting” when planning her getaways. She took action and launched VirtualGDBK.com in October, a website that aggregates smart online resources about worldwide cities she knows best—from Bangkok to Zurich—onto a single page. Now, as founder and editor in chief of the site, she shares some thoughts on travel hell, smartphone fantasies, and what’s up next.

LG: How is GDBK different from other travel sites out there? 

VSI: There are lots of amazing sites that offer an editorial perspective (X qualified person or writer recommends Y), and there are lots of great sites that offer crowd-sourced reviews (100 users-like-you write their opinions of place X) but no one is aggregating all the cool content out there online, by destination.

I think I’ve achieved a really interesting mixture of being deep and far-reaching—I can pull content from everywhere—and being high quality. The decisions of what to include are all made by me, a professional with years of guide-writing and traveling experience.

LG: What’s your background in traveling and writing?

VSI: I was the travel editor at Time Out New York in 1999 and 2000, but at that time, did not have much experience traveling. Working at a weekly city magazine does not exactly allow the budget or the vacation days to “travel,” though traveling was always a dream of mine. I started travel writing for real when my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I moved to Moscow for a job opportunity for him. Since I was based in Europe and living in a fascinating and misunderstood city, it suddenly made sense to start pitching travel stories as a freelancer.

I’m also that person who must find the right suggestions when an out-of-towner wants to buy shirts or sneakers. I’ll spend time researching where a friend-of-a-friend should go out to dinner, or show visiting friends-of-friends around town, etc. I just hate to think of people lost in tourist hell. I’ve certainly done my share of wandering around foreign places hungry, looking for someplace to eat/drink that looks cool and finally ending up in the worst tourist joint in town. A particularly bleak evening at a T.G.I. Friday’s in Riga comes to mind…

I do think that if people are going to spend the money and expend the natural resources to travel, they should be seeing the real place, operating on good information, supporting local businesses with soul, etc.

LG: What prompted you to start Virtual GDBK?

VSI: In fact, my first iPhone, acquired in the summer of ‘09, inspired me to start Virtual GDBK. Smartphones are beautiful pieces of technology, with so many amazing possibilities, and I started to have fantasies of being able to point my phone at anything in the world and get a compendium of cool essays about it: user “graffiti,” wiki-entries, etc. Virtual GDBK is pretty far from that at the moment, but that was the kernel of the idea.

I’m (also) constantly traveling, and when planning every trip, I spend hours online sifting through different sites looking for recommendations, trying to find out which travel magazines have done stories recently, digging through my own personal magazine-clipping files (Though I never find the right story at the right time!) etc., and it is a pain. I curse myself: Why don’t I know any other Paris food blogs beyond Zucchini et Chocolate!? And then another two hours disappear down the Internet rabbit hole.

I think a lot of people have this problem, and a site that sifts out the junky websites and presents travelers with the best of the online resources on their destinations, plus some bells and whistles, seems like it would fill a real need.

LG: What can we expect to see next?

VSI: The next phase will be an app, of course! I want to create software that will let people actualize the “make your own guidebook” experience. Right now, they’re using Virtual GDBK, but they still have to keep notes by hand or in e-mail or wherever they keep notes about the places they like. And then managing that information becomes its own travel hassle. I have a few ideas on how to make all that much more convenient.

Valerie has written travel stories for The New York Times, T Magazine, and Travel + Leisure, to name a few. She’s traveled extensively in Europe and Asia, and dabbled a bit in the Middle East. Check out her site at VirtualGDBK.com.

Photo credit: VirtualGDBK.com

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