When he founded CityUnscripted in 2015, Nick Whitfield achieved a long-standing ambition to start a travel business with a difference. Its premise is simple: visitors to more than 30 world cities can draw upon the expertise of a network of local hosts, chosen for their insider knowledge. The hosts can provide a wealth of services, ranging from an informal chat over a cup of coffee to full guided tours.
Travel is in Whitfield’s blood. Much of his childhood was spent overseas, thanks to his father – a chartered accountant who set up the Coopers and Lybrand office in Barbados, and who subsequently worked in Africa and the Middle East.
“I remember when we moved from Abu Dhabi to Zambia,” he recalls. “We went from five-star, glitzy luxury to living in a place where you couldn’t buy sugar half the time. But we absolutely loved it as kids.”
After reading history at Bristol University, Whitfield joined Price Waterhouse’s London audit team in 1995. He gained his ACA certification three years later, moving into the firm’s corporate recovery operation.
Even at this early stage, his ambition was to start a company of his own, and he left the newly merged PwC in 2000 to build up commercial experience.
He says: “I wanted to go into industry to learn about how business worked. My first move was to Mosaic Inc, a Canadian marketing company. It was very acquisitive, buying up a lot of small businesses. I was working predominantly on mergers and acquisitions, but also on development: coming up with new business ideas and trying to launch them.”
After the company was taken over, Whitfield was offered a job in one of its subsidiaries as a finance director (“Not a direction I wanted to go in,” he says). Instead, he moved to Cadbury Schweppes, where he worked for the M&A and global innovation team. “That was all about buying companies that were launching interesting products, or had rights over new ingredients. I liked that a lot because it was very multidisciplinary.
“I was working closely with marketing guys, and also the food scientists and the supply people – the whole line from idea inception through to launch.”
In 2005, Whitfield felt he had amassed the knowledge to start his own business in the travel sector, and left his job to research the market. However, after a year of refining his business plan, he was forced to acknowledge its shortcomings. “That idea was related to what I’m doing now, in that it was in the travel sector. But it was more about teaching people, with self-improvement holidays centred on sport and wellness,” he says.
“I got very close to signing a lease on a plantation house in Barbados, but then did some soul searching and realised I didn’t have the capital to take that sort of risk. I decided that I had to walk away and restock my capital so I could try again.”
Whitfield made the decision to return to the Middle East, landing a job at an Abu Dhabi investment bank. He says: “I was only really intending to be there for a year, but I met my wife and had kids out there. I ended up staying in Abu Dhabi for almost seven years, and the job was a good experience.
“I did a bit of everything, from investing in gold refineries to buying businesses in Egypt, Saudi and Malaysia. But we always had the intention of coming back.”
Soon after the family finally returned to the UK, Whitfield accepted a commission to set up a UK office for the bank, and it was this role which supplied the germ of the idea for CityUnscripted. When colleagues and acquaintances from the Middle East came over to London, either for business or pleasure, they would often approach him for advice about where they could go and what they could see.
He says: “It got me thinking about travel, and about what makes the difference between a really great experience and just an average one.
"I remembered a trip to Johannesburg I’d done with my wife, when I had a brilliant time because we had a friend there who knew the city really well.
“We got to experience the city very differently – unlike a trip to Paris we did, where we didn’t know anyone, and ended up doing only 10% or 15% of what we’d hoped to. That was the insight that led me to set up Tripconsul, as the company was then called.”
Today, CityUnscripted is aiming to raise significant funding to scale up its operations, with a Series A round scheduled for early this year. The immediate target is to offer its services in more than 100 cities, but Whitfield hopes eventually it will grow to include 300 destinations in the portfolio. He says: “We’ve achieved a lot so far with small resources, but now’s the time to take greater risk. We’ve proven that our model works – it’s a question of convincing other people to put their money with us, so we can really go for it.”
Above all, CityUnscripted remains rooted in Whitfield’s wish to share the pleasure of getting under the skin of a destination and experiencing it like a local.
“I set it up because I wanted to do something I thought would genuinely improve people’s trips,” he says. “I didn’t want to do something just to make money.”
I love being an ACA because... It gives me real confidence that I know what’s going on in the business and I’m not missing anything substantial.
I’m happiest when… It’s sunny and I’m close to nature with my family, whether in Africa or at home.
My favourite book is… A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It’s a wonderful novel about India – hard edged but it has a real beauty as well.
The hardest lesson to learn has been… You and only you are responsible for your choices.
I’d like to be remembered as… A kind, fun-loving and adventurous person.
My worst habit is… I think my wife would say my wild hand gesticulations while talking, or my snoring.
The love of my life is… I have to say travelling, don’t I?