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Exploring NOLA like a local

More than in perhaps any other American city, visitors to New Orleans come in search of authenticity. Ours is a unique culture, and substitutes for the real New Orleans -- be it our food, music, festivals or mere joie de vivre -- need not apply.

Irish native and Caribbean resident Patricia Maher has found a unique way to capture that authenticity. Her new website and smartphone app FUHWE pairs locals and visitors for one-of-a-kind NOLA experiences. Think of it as a sort of Uber for tourism, with local residents in the driver's seats.

It all started, as most entrepreneurial ventures do these days, with an idea and a chance to pitch it.

“We entered a start-up competition at Loyola,” explains Maher, who lives in Grenada on the rare occaisions when she’s not scouting the under-radar byways of the Big Easy. “I had never been to New Orleans before, and I loved the city. You have the same passion for hospitality, the same friendliness as we have in the Caribbean. And the same great weather.”

Rebecca Robinson takes visitors on an experience 'Between Piety and Desire' (Photo: FUHWE.com)

Rebecca Robinson takes visitors on an experience 'Between Piety and Desire' (Photo: FUHWE.com)

Maher and her partner, Shawn Louis, an IT specialist from Barbados, are both avid travelers. And both knew that their best memories stemmed from meeting local people wherever they went. Surely, they reasoned, there was an app in that.

“We thought, how can we make it easier for visitors and locals to connect? How could we help people explore like a local?” says Maher.

FUHWE was born. The phrase is a Caribbean expression that means something long the lines of “we the people,” advises Maher. “You hear it all over the Caribbean – is it fuhwe? Meaning, is it for us? It enhances the idea of connectivity.”

Dedra Simpson explains 'Garden District Splendor' (Photo: FUHWE.com)

Dedra Simpson explains 'Garden District Splendor' (Photo: FUHWE.com)

In New Orleans, the two entrepreneurs strolled St. Charles Avenue, stopping residents to ask them what one New Orleans thing they would show an outsider, and video-taping the answers. It became part of their competition presentation (and is posted at the end of this story).

“I honestly believe that’s what helped us win the Loyola competition,” says Maher. “Locals love showing off this city.”

Travis Menard, second from right, introducers explorers to 'Smokin' Seafood.' (Photo: FUHWE.com)

Travis Menard, second from right, introducers explorers to 'Smokin' Seafood.' (Photo: FUHWE.com)

FUHWE launched a beta website in April, and the phone app makes its debut this month. Local residents who want to offer a local “experience” to visitors can pitch the idea to Maher and her team.

“If we like it, we interview the person, then do a dry run of the experience,” says Maher. “I’m getting to know this city in ways I never imagined.”

If the outing meets FUHWE criteria, it goes on the site. Visitors -- or “explorers,” in FUHWE terminology -- can book the experience online, up to two hours in advance. So far, about 20 local operators are offering outings. They range from the history of the burgeoning O.C. Haley corridor by a resident who grew up there to a pub crawl culminating in live music at the Candlelight Lounge by a devote of that brass-band shrine.

“One of my favorites is a ‘We be jazzin’ tour of Treme,” says Maher. “It was the musical nirvana experience in New Orleans I’d been looking for.” The trek included a visit to the Backstreet Cultural Museum, and ended with a live Jazz in the Park concert in Congo Square. “I ate crawfish and grits with cornbread. It was amazing.”

Experiences are scheduled on the site in advance by the locals, and generally require a minimum of two people and a maximum of 10. All take place in public arenas, and go by foot or public transportation. FUHWE takes a commission, with the bulk of the tour price going to the local guide.

Locals who have signed up to offer unique experiences include traditional guides looking to be a little more creative in their NOLA offerings, as well as first-timers who want to share a neighborhood or passion with visitors. Some schedule weekly experiences, while others are one-time experiences, like an escorted visit to Bayou Boogaloo.

“Can you imagine a Saints fan taking explorers to a local Saints game?” says Maher. “Everyone should experience that in the Dome.”

New Orleanian Melissa Rekic heard about FUHWE at the original Startup Weekend, and signed up right away. "I can't think of a better way to make extra money than being able to meet people from around the world, and show them what I already know and love," she says.

Customers who sign up for these locals' outings run the gamut in age and background, although all tend to be adventuresome.

“We’re targeting people who generally don’t book tours,” Maher says. “There are lots of sites that give local advice on what to do in New Orleans. The difference with us is that this connects people in person.”

FUHWE is adding tours daily, Maher says. Users -- both locals and explorers -- are invited to share online as well as in person. A function is built into the platform that allows explorers to rate and review the locals, as well as message them with comments or questions.

Maher and Louis hope to expand FUHWE to other markets in the future. An exhibition booth at the recent Collision tech conference garnered a lot of interest, they say. Maher has her eye on Charleston and Savannah, cities with deep culture and histories worth mining.

“And the Caribbean, of course,” she says with a smile. “It would be a perfect fit there.”

Friendly people. A passion for hospitality. Great weather. All but that last will resonate with NOLA locals looking to share their city.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]