This Travel Startup Lets You Vacation with Artists from around the World

It was the dead of winter and, like many New Yorkers, Geetika Agrawal wanted to escape. “But I didn’t just want to sit on a beach,” she says. “I wanted a transformational travel experience—something that stimulated the creative side of my brain.”

The young creative director looked high and low for a trip that fit the bill and “settled on four days of acroyoga in the Dominican Republic,” she laughs. “But it definitely didn’t satisfy my urge for an artistic experience.” That’s when she recognized a gap in the travel industry—and the mission to fill it took hold of her.

In November 2015, Agrawal launched Vacation with an Artist (VAWAA), a website that offers short-term apprenticeships with artists, designers, and creatives around the world. Through VAWAA, an art-hungry traveler can book several-day workshops with a street artist in Buenos Aires, an ikebana master in Kyoto, and a bamboo bicycle-maker in Bangalore, among other artisans representing a vast array of mediums.

Agrawal and her business partner connect traveler and artist, suggest optimal flight routes and lodging, and generally act as guides through the experience. “Luckily, I’ve now been to all of these locations and spent time with all of these artists,” Agrawal says. “So organizing the logistics comes easily to me.”

In the years since her acroyoga misadventure, Agrawal has become seasoned at sniffing out artists eager to share their skills. When Google, travel agents, and even her community of experienced travelers weren’t able to point her in the right direction, Agrawal took a year-long hiatus from her role as a creative director at powerhouse ad agency R/GA to explore the world. Her goal: to locate master creatives renowned in their local communities.

She spent one month in each of 12 countries—Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, Turkey, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Peru—and landed back in New York with a network of artists skilled in bespoke shoemaking, ceramics, rattan weaving, sacred movement and healing, natural dyeing, calligraphy, woodworking, felting, tango, and more.

  • Vu Thao, natural dyeing in Vietnam. Courtesy of VAWAA.

    Vu Thao, natural dyeing in Vietnam. Courtesy of VAWAA.

  • Jigisha Unnu, felting in India. Courtesy of VAWAA.

    Jigisha Unnu, felting in India. Courtesy of VAWAA.

Today, VAWAA offers apprenticeships ranging from $300 to $3,000. Those price tags consist of a fee set by each artist (which includes the cost for materials), along with a portion covering VAWAA’s operating expenses. The experiences range from four to seven days, and from 20 to 70 hours.

To date, VAWAA has organized projects with 32 artists and an ever-growing pool of travelers. Agrawal’s clients are “tired of the typical tourist experience that’s packaged and fed to them,” she says. Instead, they’re looking at vacation time as an opportunity to “find inspiration, challenge themselves, and connect with a passion for creativity and local craft.”

Some treat the trips as an ephemeral diversion. They come home with creative inspiration and the bounty they made (a felted scarf, a lacquer painting, a pair of leather brogues) during their stay. But that is where the experience ends. For others, though, the excursions have unlocked new paths and projects.

In one case, two VAWAA tourists discovered a passion for natural dyeing through a vacation with Vietnamese designer Vu Thao, “so they’re starting a whole brand around it,” Agrawal says. In another, French couple Franck and Christophe embarked on several-day stint with Kimiko Yamamoto, an artist trained in ikebana, the ancient art of Japanese flower arrangement. After the trip, they used the skills they’d honed to design the interior of a chic Parisian guest house.

This past December, a musician from New York apprenticed with Uruguayan music producer Francisco Lapetina. The rendezvous resulted in a collaborative album by the two men, slated for release later this month.

While VAWAA has yet to drum up enough business for Agrawal to give up her day job and devote her full attention to the tourism start-up, she’s clearly ahead of a burgeoning trend. Airbnb recently launched its “Experiences” initiative, which encourages users with specific skills to host workshops and tours. One such event came in the form of a tour of Parisian street art with the street artist Shiry, culminating in the collaborative creation of a wheat-paste mural.

But Agrawal is setting VAWAA apart by relieving artists of logistical responsibilities and pressures, so that they can focus on individualized instruction for each traveler. “That’s the biggest benefit of not traveling as a group with a fixed itinerary,” she says. “It allows us to create experiences for travelers that are more spontaneous, more personal, and based on the relationship you end up having with the artist.”

This week, Agrawal will introduce a new group of artists from Spain to VAWAA’s community. They include a sign-maker and a photographer from the Canary Islands. Soon after, she’ll add creatives from Scandinavia, Portugal, and Morocco to her roster.

As her network expands, Agrawal hopes that more fruitful and symbiotic relationships between artisans and travelers—those who “want to feed an active mind”—will proliferate in step.

—Alexxa Gotthardt