The Scout Guide, a handbook filled with curated advertisements, was founded by Susie Matheson and Christy Ford to help locals and visitors find the stores and services that best capture a city. What started as a guide to Charlottesville has grown into a franchised, multi-faceted business with a presence in more than 80 cities in the country.
From the annual guidebook itself, featuring the likes of wedding planners and high-end boutiques, to the website with blog posts such as “How to enjoy Mardi Gras like an insider,” The Scout Guide brand tries to cultivate a localized experience for everyone.
“It’s great for the local that’s uncovering pearls they didn’t know about,” Ford said. “It’s great for the traveler that wants the insider scoop. And then it’s great for the new-to-town person. It becomes their bible. It’s really what starts to create their world.”
Ford, owner of Ivy Road home boutique And George, and Matheson, who wrote a blog featuring local businesses prior to creating the guide, came together in 2010 to launch The Scout Guide.
“It’s really our mission to support these businesses,” Ford said. “They’re going to go extinct if we don’t highlight them, and they’re truly the artisans that these big boxes are stealing ideas from and emulating.”
Ford and Matheson, now responsible for nationwide Scout Guide business, have passed on the Charlottesville editor position to Heather Sieg. A Charlottesville native and longtime admirer of the guide, Sieg said she was inspired by the influence of the business.
“It’s an established brand in Charlottesville now,” Sieg said. “People know that it’s been around and that it’s not going anywhere and that it truly works and that it’s completely unique. There’s nothing else like this that only highlights the best of local.”
The brand that Sieg is referring to is one that caters to a high-end consumer base. In four women’s clothing stores featured in the ninth volume of the Charlottesville guide, the average cost of a top is $206 and a dress is $298.
The latest Scout Guide Charlottesville features ads for more than 20 types of services and products, including clothing, floral design and spas.
Though the company’s leaders did not disclose the cost to advertise, they said rates vary.
Some businesses, such as Frank Hardy Sotheby’s International Realty and Scarpa, advertise every year while others do so less frequently.
“When you look at the fabric of the community and the books, you’ve got your staple [businesses] that need to be in there because they are pillars,” Ford said. “Then you’ve got the new people who are rising. This could help them take five years off their path if they’re sitting next to a more seasoned, reputable architect on the pages of The Scout Guide.”
Julie Arbelaez, founder of Peace Frogs Travel Outfitters, has advertised twice in The Scout Guide Charlottesville, and acknowledges the power of being featured on its pages and on the continuously updated website.
“There’s an immediacy to it that you don’t find with traditional print advertising where you create your ad a week before it’s published,” Arbelaez said. “As much as you put in, they’re willing to turn around and broadcast in their different ways, on Facebook, Instagram and on their blog.”
Arbelaez also chose to work with The Scout Guide because of its design style and attention to detail. Her advertisement in the latest volume features Arbelaez pulling a suitcase, followed by her husband and two sons, as an airplane takes off in front of them.
“The way that they do it has a very specific look and feel and simplicity that we try to create for our clients when they’re planning their vacations,” said Arbelaez. “It’s another avenue for us to remind our local customers and new customers who are coming to Charlottesville who we are and what we do.”
Ford and Matheson are always looking to expand, but becoming an editor and creating a Scout Guide for a new city is not a good fit for everyone. The co-owners said they receive daily calls and emails asking for new guides, but are wary about viable locations.
“The last thing The Scout Guide wants to do is go into a market where it’s going to fail,” Sieg said. “The Scout Guide is not just looking to move into any city where there is someone willing to do it. It needs to be able to sustain it.”
An ability to sustain this kind of business is not limited to big cities and as the company expands, small cities are making up more and more of the user base.
“We’ve been really surprised at some of our small markets being as strong as they are,” said Ford. “We don’t want to wait until these towns are at their growth peak. We want to be proactive in growing them.”
In addition to location, the success of a new guide is due to its editor, who is in charge of pulling together businesses, photoshoots and ad designs to create the final product.
“We need to find that perfect fit of someone who can leverage relationships that they already have, that’s invested in their community and understands that there is a lot of work that goes into this beautiful object,” Matheson said.
However, that perfect fit doesn’t always look the same.
“We have really young to really old to new moms to empty nesters,” Matheson said. “The profile that is best suited is these people who are already loving and supporting their community … It’s not just a sales job — you have to live it.”
One similarity that does unite most editors is gender. All but two editors nationwide are female. The headquarters in Charlottesville has a majority of women employees and has been home to 13 babies in the past three years.
“We have really smart women who are all college educated, had really good careers and then they had a family,” said Matheson. “[The editor position] allows them to be both. It is a full-time job … but at the same time, they can choose to take the summers off or choose to get off at 3 to meet the school bus.”
Ford and Matheson said they hope to continue to grow, with a goal of more 100 city guides. They also have plans for guides in other parts of the world. Wherever the location, the co-owners want to maintain the same ideals, being focused on buying local and valuing small businesses.
“It really is trying to get people to consciously consume things,” Matheson said. “We don’t teach you how to shop — we teach you how to live.”