Taiwan’s New Tourism Ambassador? American Engineer Develops Taiwan Cuisine App

Taiwan’s New Tourism Ambassador? American Engineer Develops Taiwan Cuisine App
Photo Credit: Beyonder Times

What you need to know

'I want to focus on marketing Taiwan in the right way, and create products that can really help people.'

“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 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 advanced performance courses. After different working experiences, he chose to become a freelance engineer, creating websites and developing apps for clients. During his six years living in New York, he enjoyed the international environment filled with various kinds of opportunities.

First Asian experience: 'Taiwanese were friendly to me despite my weird accent when speaking 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 motivated him to attend a Chinese language school in Chinatown.

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.

In the summer of the same year, he again visited Taiwan and spent three months focusing on learning Chinese. During the stay, he deeply felt that “Taiwan is like my second home.” He experienced Taiwanese friendliness, and people he met all patiently practiced Chinese with him, through which he could learn correct pronunciation and adapt 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 tourist 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.) The website was a platform especially for Chinese-speaking people, who travelled to New York for study or work, to search 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.

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 launched. The text snippets keyboard app was not only featured by Apple as a “Great App for iOS,” but was covered in 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.'

The slogan, “Taiwan’s most beautiful scenery is the people,” 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 also introduces the food these restaurants serve, 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 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.

He continued, “I know it’s hard to sell ‘people’s friendliness.’ I like the slogan, ‘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, Wolkober plans to build an English website introducing Taiwan next. 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.

Photo Credit: Beyonder Times
"Eat Drink Taiwan" makes it convenient for users to search good food nearby in Taiwan.
Photo Credit: Beyonder Times
"Eat Drink Taiwan" allows users to search restaurants based on pricing and food category, which is also convenient for vegetarians.
Photo Credit: Beyonder Times
Each food on "Eat Drink Taiwan" is introduced with its name and pronunciation in both English and Chinese, as well as the story of the food in English.

Beyonder Times has authorized publication of this article. The original text is published here.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole