“I love Taiwan, but I think Taiwan needs better tourism marketing to let the world learn the beauty of this island,” said Kevin Wolkober. He is not just saying this, but has really taken action and dedicated himself to promote Taiwan to the world.
Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Wolkober has had diverse interests since his childhood. Majoring in Computer Science and Theatre Arts at university, he moved to New York after graduation to look for more opportunities, while taking more advanced performance courses. After different working experiences, he chose to become a freelance engineer, creating websites and developing apps for clients. Over six years living in New York, he enjoyed the internationalized environment filled with various kinds of opportunities.
First Asian experience: “Taiwanese were friendly to me despite my weird accent in Chinese.”
While working in New York, Wolkober joined a short film project as an actor and met a Taiwanese American, Jack Chen, also an actor. Befriending Chen aroused Wolkober’s curiosity about Taiwan. “I am not a traveller or adventurous kind of person. I had never been to Asia at that time, and I knew very little about Taiwan,” said Wolkober. He heard a lot about Taiwan and learned some Chinese from Chen, which even motivated him to attend a Chinese language school in China town.
In 2011, he decided to visit Taiwan for the first time and took a three-week Chinese course at National Taipei University of Education. Invited by Chen’s relatives in Taiwan to visit their place, he looked forward to practicing his Chinese. However, “I went to Pingtung to visit them, and found that they all speak Taiwanese, so I still didn’t understand them at all,” recalled Wolkober with a smile.
In the summer of the same year, he visited Taiwan again and spent three months focusing on learning Chinese. Over the stay, he deeply felt that “Taiwan is like my second home.” He experienced Taiwanese’s friendliness, and people he met all patiently practiced Chinese with him, through which he could learn correct pronunciation, and adapt himself to the local environment. “Some New Yorkers can be friendly too, but others tend to be more straightforward and realistic. If your English is not good enough, it’s not easy to survive in New York. It’s not like Taiwan. Everyone tries to understand what I am saying despite my weird accent,” said Wolkober.
“I want to use my expertise to solve problems for people.”
After returning to New York, Wolkober kept thinking about how to make use of his “Taiwan experience” in his life in New York. As he and Chen often needed to collect tour information for their friends who visited New York, they were inspired by this and decided to build a bilingual website, “Meet Me in New York.” (The website is no longer operating at the moment.) The website offered a platform especially for Chinese-speaking people who went to New York to travel, study or work, to find and exchange information.
Wolkober explained, “We totally understand that people all need a sense of security when they visit or move to a foreign country. We hoped this website could help new New York residents to get used to the Big Apple more easily.”
“I want to use my expertise to solve problems for people. In our lives, many people are facing similar issues, and many people want to find solutions, but most of them are just thinking about it, instead of making it happen,” said Wolkober, who is an example of people who do take action.
The first app he created helped users to find Wifi hotspots in New York City. In 2014, his second app, Kuaiboard (named QuickBoard at the time), was on the shelf. The text snippets keyboard app was not only featured by Apple as a Great App for iOS but won coverage from the Wall Street Journal. “I love hearing from people about the time they’ve saved in their daily lives using Kuaiboard,” said Wolkober.
The success of Kuaiboard pushed him to further update, improve, and promote the app. Meanwhile, he couldn’t forget about Taiwan. Based on his experience, although Taiwan is such a beautiful place, most Westerners rarely mention Taiwan when they talk about Asia. “As a foreigner who has a technology background, I am always thinking about what I can do for Taiwan. And is it possible for me to create a useful tool which can help foreigners learn about Taiwan more easily?” said Wolkober.
In 2015, he decided to leave New York and move to Taiwan.
“I want to create an access point for tourists to know the true beauty of Taiwan.”
“Taiwan’s most beautiful scenery is the people.” The slogan has often been quoted by Taiwan-lovers and also explains why Wolkober has been so attracted to the island.
In his opinion, tourist attractions allow people to share good photos on social media, but don’t really help build connections between tourists and the place they visit. In terms of Taiwan, what truly impressed Wolkober and made him want to move here, were the people.
However, “people’s friendliness” is not a concept that is easy to promote, so he decided to start from “Taiwanese cuisine” as the first step to catching foreigners’ attention and developed the “Eat Drink Taiwan” app. Different from other tourist services like Tripadvisor or Yelp, whose content are mostly based on users’ recommendations, Wolkober’s app introduces local cuisine recommended by himself or his friends. The app not only guides users to visit the selected restaurants by GPS, but introduces the cuisine provided by the restaurants, and even tells the stories behind the food. The stories allow users to gain more in-depth cultural knowledge about the food instead of only tasting “something exotic.”
Wolkober pointed out, “In terms of tourism promotion, I think visual presentation is really important. It has to be able to make people say ‘wow’ and have the impulse to pay a visit. However, I think content that goes with the visual materials is also critical. I don’t want to simply build a ‘must-eat and must-see’ database, and users just go there and check-in on Facebook, leaving without really knowing all the cultural significance.”
He doesn’t see himself as a tourism marketing expert, and what he has been working on is based on the insight derived from his own experience. “It’s a pity if Taiwan only attracts tourists who come here just for Taipei 101 or to eat Din Tai Fung’s xiaolongbao (soup dumplings), because these people don’t have the opportunity to see the best part of Taiwan, and may not want to visit Taiwan again,” said Wolkober frankly.
He continued, “I know it’s hard to sell ‘people’s friendliness.’ I like the slogan of ‘Taiwan, touch your heart’ created by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. The concept is good, but the advertisements produced by the authority don’t really echo the concept. Foreigners don’t understand what it’s about if you just present a beautiful photo of Taiwanese indigenous people on a Times Square billboard. The authority might need to reconsider the tools and visual materials used for advertising….”
Taking the “Eat Drink Taiwan” app as his first step, next Wolkober plans to build an English website introducing Taiwan. Although currently only about 10% of tourists visiting Taiwan are Westerners, he doesn’t take it as a serious issue. He said, “Many people around me asked me how I make money from my app, but that’s not my priority. I want to focus on marketing Taiwan in the right way, and create products that can really help people. I believe that if I don’t lose my passion and continue to improve my products, there will be revenue. If I think about money first, many things are unlikely to happen.”
Recalling the path he has taken over the past years, Wolkober felt content that he has followed his passion. “If I didn’t participate in the short film project in New York, I would not have met Jack, and would not be here in Taiwan. Everything I have done is connected and has led me to where I am now,” said Wolkober.
We can’t help but look forward to what new products this Taiwan-lover will create to promote our Formosa.
About Kevin Wolkober
Majoring in Computer Science and Theatre Arts in college, Wolkober developed his career in New York after graduation, and later became a freelance iOS developer. He fell in love with Taiwan after his first visit in 2011. Initially he came to Taiwan to study Chinese and travel. Through meeting friends, he had the chance to experience many different types of Taiwanese food. To better promote Taiwan, he decided to build “Eat Drink Taiwan,” a mobile app which helps people dive into Taiwanese food in 2015.
He likes building slow-cooked, tasty, test-driven software that helps people. He wrote KuaiBoard, the first non-traditional custom keyboard for iPhone and iPad, that helps people type text quicker. KuaiBoard has been featured by Apple as a Great App for iOS 8, as well as in the The Wall Street Journal, The Verge, and MacRumors.