Creating a Tour is Your Ticket to Fun and Profit
I love the freedom that self-employment gives. If I feel something is right, I do it. If I feel it is wrong, I don’t do it. And I can take a break whenever I need one.”
For Amanda Courtney, a New Hampshire native, the only thing that rivals the taste of freedom is the taste of fine Italian wine. Six years ago, she decided to follow her passion and move to Italy. Now she gives wine tours in Piedmont, a region renowned for its excellent wineries.
It was a similar taste for regional flavor that brought Nicole Furnace and Jeremy Hand to Colombia to start their tour business. When they realized that they could make an income doing what they loved, in a place that they loved, they jumped at the opportunity. “For fun we like to eat, eat, and eat. Did we mention eat?” says Nicole. “And we just love cooking with all the wonderful fresh and exotic ingredients found in Colombia.”
The beauty of creating your own tour is that it can be entirely tailored around the things you like to do. All you need to get started is an interest that you can share. Nick Manning discovered tour guiding as a way to fund his love of travel. “After university, I was all work and no play. Then one day I just burnt out. I realized that I wasn’t happy, and I was in danger of becoming the most boring person in the world. So I quit my job and decided to travel,” says Nick. He traveled with Contiki Tours but loved it so much he applied to be a tour guide the day after his trip finished. What he discovered from the start is that tours don’t need to be formulaic.
What matters is that they’re driven by passion. “Tours can be more than just a walk around the landmarks of a town. If you love chocolate, do a chocolate tour. If you love beer, do pub crawls. If you love photography, or nature, or food, then you can make a tour out of it. If you enjoy it, chances are someone else is going to enjoy it too,” says Nick.
“I ended up working as a tour guide and tour manager for seven years with different companies, and privately as well. I worked all through Europe. However, my favorite country to work in was Greece. The Greek Islands were amazing. Every day I would wake up, walk the short distance from my bedroom door to the beach, and think to myself how lucky I was to be alive. Even the worst days on tour were better than sitting in a drab office cubicle working 9-to-5.”
Lisa Condie, from Salt Lake City, found what she loved when she traveled to Italy in 2012. Eight years after a painful divorce she had the urge for something different. And it was while visiting Rome that she fell in love with the country. “I noticed the Italian people enjoying everyday life in a way I didn’t see in the U.S. It was as though every gathering, meal, or event was a celebration—and I wanted more of that in my day-to-day life. I didn’t want to wait until I retired at 65 to begin to savor each day.”
After selling most of what she owned back in Utah she had enough for one year in Italy on a reasonable budget. “I knew I could stay for three months [the legal time you can stay in Italy] and did just that. I decided I wanted to stay longer, so I started the application for an elective residence visa,” she says. When her application was approved, she embarked on her new life in the city of Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance.
The idea of doing tours didn’t occur to her immediately. In her first year in Florence she started writing for the Huffington Post, giving tips for living and traveling in Italy. But once she started getting emails from women looking for advice on what to do in Tuscany, she realized the business opportunity. “It dawned on me that I could help these women have a truer, more authentic experience. Many times, they are just searching on Google or TripAdvisor, so they lack the knowledge of a true on-the-ground insider in Italy.” Thus, her tour company, Find Yourself in Tuscany, was born.
Eliot Greenspan, who runs Costa Rica Custom Trips, found his way into the business by chance. “I was just a hippie backpacker traveling south through Mexico and Central America for about a year and Costa Rica is where I ran out of money,” he says. In order to continue his adventure he started teaching English, then he took a job as an editor and translator, and finally as a guide book writer. After that, it was a natural transition into the tour business. “Travel has always been an important thing for me in my life. I have spent that time exploring, enjoying, experiencing, and tasting the full gamut of this beautiful country’s natural, cultural, culinary, and historic wonders. And, I’ve loved just about every minute of it.”
Now, at 25 years in Costa Rica, the New York native is happily married, with a 16-year-old son and loves his life in his adopted country. He lives in Santa Ana, a western suburb of San Jose on the southern side of the Central Valley. “I like the slower pace of life and the fact that within an hour or two, I can be in deep rainforest or at the beach. My favorite things to do are adventure sports and bird watch.”
Everyone has a different reason for getting into tours. Amanda loved wine and wanted the freedom that tours offer her, but she also had a deeper connection with Italy.
“It has always been there, my love for Italy. My great-grandparents were Italian, so I grew up making Italian dishes and drinking Italian wine. When I went to study to become a sommelier, I really fell in love with the Italian wine world.”
At first, Amanda worked full-time in a local winery helping out with dégustations (tastings), customer relations, and marketing. After a while she decided to set up her own business. “When I moved to Piedmont, some friends would come out and they would want me to show them around the area. That’s how I got started with the whole idea of running tours,” says Amanda, who started small. “After a while I noticed my business was taking off, so I decided to put more effort into the tours and less to the winery.” Amanda still does a couple of days a week in the winery but spends most of the time developing her own tour company, Amanda’s Wine Adventures.
Originally from St. Louis, Missouri and Las Curces, New Mexico, Nicole and Jeremy started La Mesa Food Tours in early 2015. “We were ready for a change in lifestyle, scenery, and jobs, and we wanted an entrepreneurial experience,” says Nicole. They chose Colombia because it has so many benefits for expats. “Colombia has warm and friendly people and also we spoke Spanish,” she says. “It’s an easy jaunt back to the U.S., has incredible weather and scenery, great travel opportunities, and is very affordable.” They left behind their corporate jobs and now are giving visitors from all over the world a taste of Colombia.
“I got started in tours totally by chance,” says Tara Tiedemann, who runs Viva Adventures in Costa Rica. “I left the U.S. in 2010 to join the Peace Corps. I was sent to Guatemala as a Sustainable Community Tourism volunteer and worked in a tiny coffee and macadamia farm up on the Pacific Slope of Guatemala. With my prior knowledge from having worked in the hospitality industry, I designed itineraries for my family and friends when they came to visit me, and they were all amazed at the experience. That got me thinking seriously about opening a tour operator business. And after my service in the Peace Corps ended, I decided to just go for it.”
After seven years, Tara’s custom tour business is thriving. “It’s my own version of paradise,” says Tara. “I love the ocean and living an active outdoor lifestyle and believe in conservation. I try to craft and promote trips that focus on these passions of mine. I get the freedom to have my own business, work for something I believe in, and spend my time outside and in the water—and get paid to do it.”
Creating a Tour That Works
Once the theme of the tour is established, the next step is to consider the potential clientele. “Knowing who is likely to want to do your tour is the number one thing you need to know before you get started. It’s no use designing a tour that targets millionaires if the only people vacationing in your region are broke students,” says Nick.
The advantage of doing something you enjoy is you know what clients with that particular interest are looking for. You know their expectations and typical lifestyle, as well as current trends in that niche.
Amanda was very clear about the target market for her wine tours. “Most of my clients are wine savvy and a lot of them have done wine tours before. They prefer to go with somebody who knows the area and has that special connection with wine makers,” she says.
Amanda’s winery experience meant it was easy to create the perfect itinerary. “A tour lasts a full day—eight hours—and we typically do two wineries a day. We always stop for a lunch break. If we have time, I take them to see a few different towns. I don’t have a set schedule because it is important to have a bit of leeway as you never know what’s going to happen.”
The type of tour you organize, and what you want out of it, will also dictate the size of your groups. Because Amanda runs the tours herself and wants to keep the experience as intimate as possible, she usually has at most eight people.
It’s a very different experience for Nicole and Jeremy, who run the food tours in Colombia. Though the traditional advice is to start small and expand over time, Nicole says they quickly realized that there were enough foreign visitors in other cities beside Medellín to support tours as well.
Nicole says part of what made it easy to scale up was the universal appeal of their tour product. “Food is one of the few experiences that translates no matter what country you are in, or from,” she says. “We think it is one of the best ways to tell the story of a country, its history, and people.” With a staff of six, La Mesa Food Tours connects guests with the sights and tastes of Medellín, Cartagena, and Bogotá and host between 100 and 200 guests per month. They offer three different tours: Street Food Tour, a seven-stop walk that takes in the city’s best vendors; Foodie Dream Tour, a three-hour, three-restaurant dinner; and Colombian Coffee Crawl Tour, a two-hour stroll to three cafés, teaching you the philosophy and history of coffee as you go. Small groups are easier to manage and allow for more flexibility—you can accommodate requests more easily and have a more personal relationship with the clientele. However, larger groups can be more profitable.
On Tara’s custom tours in Costa Rica, there are no set numbers for her groups. “Every single tour that I offer is different and that is the beauty of custom tours. It never gets old and each client presents new opportunities and challenges to design their perfect trip,” says Tara. “For trips that I personally guide (typically larger groups), the first day starts with a meet and greet at the airport. The next day we start their itinerary. It could be going out to a coast or perhaps heading up to the mountains. Perhaps we’re off to a remote river lodge where the only access is by rafting. We might dive right in to surf lessons, or perhaps a trip out to do some whale watching near the Osa Peninsula, or snorkeling near giant schools of fish while. Each group is filled with different guests and a different adventure.”
Getting the Word Out
Changes in the travel industry have made it easier than ever to start a tour business. While in the past, tour operators had to rely on partnerships with walk-in travel agents, the internet and social media have made it possible to bypass the gatekeepers and reach clients directly.
The key to a successful social media strategy is to give your clients a good reason to talk about your trip. If they’ve been shown a good time, for a fair price, they are very likely to give you a glowing review on Facebook, Yelp, or other social media channels.
For Nick, in Europe, TripAdvisor played the most important role in getting his tour off the ground. “Getting a number one ranking for tours in your region can catapult your tour into stardom.”
Because tourists are becoming savvier with technology, they are now more likely to plan their trips in advance based on social media recommendations and reviews. Amanda, in Italy, says that most queries come from TripAdvisor and Google search, and she advises that anyone starting a tour business first set up a website and TripAdvisor listing.
But keep in mind TripAdvisor has certain rules that exclude some tour operators. To qualify you have to offer a one-day tour. If your company is only offering multi-day or multi-country tours, your listing will not be approved. This is because TripAdvisor listings are location based and require your tour to be pinned to just one town or city. On this basis, Eliot Greenspan’s Costa Rica Custom Trips cannot be listed. But he still relies exclusively on online marketing— utilizing his website, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, Google AdWords, and the occasional Facebook promotion.
“I have tried a variety of marketing methods for my tour company and still find the best way is social media and word of mouth,” adds Lisa, who does the Tuscany tours. “Since my primary market is Americans, it is imperative that I have credibility as a travel consultant and tour leader. Podcasts and interviews are a great advertising tool for me. It takes time to generate a base and a reputation, so I would advise someone going into business to expect that.”
Offline marketing can play a role in diversifying your clientele, helping you garner more walk-in business. Europe tour guide Nick, for instance, found point-of-sale displays to be quite effective. He would leave his brochures in travel agent offices and hotels where his target customers would stay
However, Nick admits that there is no substitute for word of mouth and he had a simple trick to give it an extra push. “When I did 12-day tours in Greece, I used to create a DVD with a little movie presentation featuring videos and photos that I’ve taken on the tour and give one to each client. That might seem like a lot of work, but it wasn’t—I had a pre-prepared template that I just slotted photos and videos into. It was a great way to get people talking about a tour when they got home.”
Tara, who runs Viva Adventures puts a similar emphasis on the power of word-of mouth recommendation. “I have all of the requisites…Facebook, website, and Instagram. My best marketing is doing a good job on a trip so that my clients recommend me to friends and family back home and taking good care of repeat customers. Plus, I like to get out in the community. Even just getting out and traveling and talking about what you do and what you can offer helps. Many of my friends have friends and family that come down, and they don’t necessarily want to play travel planner the entire time. They send their friends to me to help them with their trip so that they know they’re are in good hands and will have an amazing experience while they’re here.”
Be it enjoying the natural wonders of Costa Rica…tasting wine in Italy…or enjoying the culinary delights of Colombia, all these tour operators have something in common: the desire to do something they love and the opportunity—and income—that allows them to do it.
How much you make from tours depends on a variety of factors, including what you want to get out of it (is it just for fun or a fully-fledged business?), the size of your tour, the cost of your tour, and the frequency at which you run them. There are also nonfinancial benefits to consider.
For Amanda, who runs wine tours in Italy, the biggest reward is her adopted home. “There is this wonderful sense of community that I love about Italy. It is a very relaxing environment and a wonderful place to live. In the U.S. everything is so busy and big. I personally feel that I have slowed down a lot in the six years I’ve been living here. I feel better, I’m less stressed, and I’m happier.”
Likewise, Lisa’s Tuscany tours have afforded her a life of fulfillment in the Bel paese (beautiful country). “I adore the Oltrarno area of Florence, as well as my new neighborhood around Borgo Pinti,” she says. “I love the sandwich shop Borgo alle Fate or meeting a close friend for a lovely long lunch at Natalino.” By making smart choices, Lisa can live on $30,000 a year. She rents an apartment for approximately $1,000 a month, and shops three times a week at the Sant’Ambrogio market, where she can buy sacks of fruit and vegetables for $6.
In Costa Rica, Tara’s tours cover 100% of her living expenses—including rent for a two-bedroom home within walking distance of a beach. She loves that she can work as much or as little as she likes, depending on her needs. “If you want to grow a large business, go for it. If you want to have more free time and keep it small—that is your choice as well.”
Tara is in growth mode; creating a bigger client list and taking on bigger groups. “The bigger the group, the better the return,” says Tara. “It takes just as much work to plan a two-person trip as a 10-person trip, so focusing on the bigger groups is a good strategy. And I’m finally starting to see a reward for all of the hard work I’ve put in. If you provide a great level of service and work as your client’s best advocate, you’ll see a great return.”
“The amount of money you can make from a tour is dependent on many variables,” says Nick. “It’s directly related to how much effort you put into it. If you take two tours every week and charge $50 per person, 10 people per tour will net you $1,000 at the end of the week. If each tour is four hours long, you’re making enough money to live comfortably in most countries in the world for only eight hours of work.”
Nick has since settled back home and turned his experience as a tour guide into a book called How to be a Guide, which he hopes will inspire others to give it a try. “Truthfully, many people find it hard to leave the industry. I see many friends attempt to quit, only to go back to being a guide after six months because they can’t handle ‘normal life.’ There are highs and lows, but for the most part there’s no better job in the world.”
11 Steps to Starting Small
Starting small with your tour company makes it easier to self-evaluate and make necessary changes as your business matures, without major financial risks. While in this phase, you can figure out new strategies to give yourself a greater edge in the market, tweak and improve your itineraries, and make local connections.
The key is to take that first step, no matter where it leads. Each new step will help improve your tour.
Here are 11 steps to getting your tour business off the ground:
- Identify a hobby or interest you’re passionate about. It can be anything from cooking to hiking, cycling to bird watching.
- Buy a ticket and travel somewhere that interests you and that suits your hobby.
- Get out there and experience your surroundings. Take the tours, ride local transport, use taxis (make sure to talk to the drivers), eat the food, and ask lots of questions.
- Write down all of the information you learn and organize a list of local contacts.
- Evaluate your experience: What did you like? What did you wish you could have done? What were the highlights? What would you have rather skipped?
- Create your ideal trip itinerary using your personal experiences and 20/20 hindsight.
- Go home and tell all of your friends in your cooking group, hiking club, etc. about your amazing experience and show them pictures. Tell them you’re going back and organizing a tour. Who wants to come with you?
- Work with one of the local contacts you’ve made and package the ideal itinerary to market to your friends.
- Get your group on board and collect payment.
- Enjoy your next trip back with your friends.
- Find more clients and grow your business.