Ypsilanti-based travel app Zonder pivots to encourage pandemic-friendly adventures at home

This story is part of a series about Washtenaw County businesses' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.


Having overhauled his travel app to cater to more pandemic-friendly activities, Ypsilanti resident Harry Yang says COVID-19 has taught him that "staying mentally flexible is super-important."


"You need to accept change and input and be ready to react," Yang says.


Yang brainstormed the idea for his app, Zonder, a few years ago, when he started traveling to Europe, Africa, and South America. Upon reflection, he realized that he didn't have a full recollection of his adventures. That didn't sit well with him.


"Maybe I knew the name of the city, but I couldn't remember what I did on a particular day or I couldn't recommend a restaurant later because I didn't write down the name," he says. "When I talked to others, I realized I wasn't alone in that experience."


He believed his travel app would be a perfect, zero-effort solution for travelers looking to track their trips. Zonder automatically logs travelers' arrival at any location or landmark from a database of over 100 million locations worldwide. The information can be shared on a newsfeed without users even taking their mobile device out of their bags, backpacks, or pockets.


Of course, Yang couldn't have foreseen the travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which took his new business on a rollercoaster of an adventure. But instead of getting off the ride, Yang buckled up and decided to use his time to refine and reroute. The app's soft launch — originally slated for March — was delayed until May, and a new feature called "Lockdown" was introduced. It allowed people to track how long they stayed safely isolated at home. Users could also engage in playful competition with friends and family to see who remained in lockdown the longest.


Although the feature was positively received by Zonder users, unfortunately Yang had no choice but to remove it.


"The Apple and Google app development departments didn't want any apps to reference the COVID-19 pandemic in any way," he explains.


A second new feature called "Hometowns" remains both popular and intact, however. Introduced in October, the feature allows people to show support for their local cities and community businesses. Users start by selecting the city they'll represent. If they visit places within 50 miles of their chosen city's center, they earn points for their town. In the spirit of competitive fun, the points are tallied toward an overall score that demonstrates how much support different cities are getting in comparison to each other.


"We designed Hometowns as fun entertainment and a way for people to express community pride and support during these times," Yang says. "It's not about money or rewards. It's about encouraging users to support local places and companies that really need help and recognition now more than ever."


Zonder's previous version boasted about 3,000 users and the new incarnation is picking up steam at just over 1,000 users. The steady progress is perfect according to Yang, who is using the pandemic-induced slower pace to his best advantage.


He plans to optimize all passive income, redesign Zonder's website, expand the app's online presence, and partner with companies that may want to sponsor tours or attractions. He also needs to ensure that any features that were not part of the initial plan are bug-free.


"A lot of the plans we had fell apart, but we've learned to think and rethink," Yang says. "Being able to react well to different challenges is important for both travelers and for entrepreneurs."


For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.


Photo courtesy of Harry Yang.

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