You’ve finally taken the plunge and decided to follow your passion and start your very own travel tour company. You know, the one you’ve been dreaming about in your head for probably way too many years now. How exciting! It’s going to be amazing. Completely different from all the other boring tours out there. And people are going to love it.
But then you start trying to fill up your first trip and find that it’s a lot harder than you ever imagined to get people to sign up. The date approaches fast, and you haven’t filled the trip, so you cancel it. You set another date – this time giving yourself more runway – but yet again the same thing happens! You know that you are offering something amazing and have no doubts that customers will love it…but you desperately need those first few customers to get the ball rolling.
If so, you’re not alone. We started our tour company Other Way Round in late 2017, and only after a few wrong turns and a lot of perseverance did we finally manage to fill that elusive first tour. Here we are going to share with you our experience and give the advice we wish someone had given us one year ago.
Our Journey So Far
In 2017 I left my corporate job in the UK, and along with my Colombian wife, we decided to follow our passion and start a tour company in Colombia. We wanted to do our part to blast away the negative stereotypes of Colombia while at the same time do the type of fun, adventurous, immersive trips that we enjoy doing with our own friends. And as Colombia is quickly starting to be recognised within the travel industry as one of the best holiday destinations out there, we felt that this was the perfect time to get involved.
My background is in technology/project management, and so I’m very well versed in the lean approach to doing things, and therefore at the outset I was sold on this as being the best way to approach our new business. Build basic prototypes, run experiments, test that there’s actually demand before sinking all your time and money into an unproven idea. So, we started out this way. We built a basic website, and we experimented with driving traffic using Google Adwords and Facebook Ads. But we didn’t get very far. Our PPC Ads were able to drive some traffic to our website, but these didn’t result in anyone taking action. No email sign-ups. No enquires. And definitely no bookings! And it wasn’t like this was all quick and easy either – it still took a lot of time and effort to run these ‘experiments’ without any real conclusive results. Did people not like the proposition? Were they put off by the rudimentary website? Were we driving the wrong type of traffic? Did the people we were targeting actually believe all the myths about small group tours? Or maybe we just needed more traffic?
Honestly, we just didn’t know. But we were absolutely convinced that what we were offering was indeed special and that there was definitely a market out there for it – even if our tests didn’t necessarily back that up. So at this point, we were faced with the decision to either spend more time and money testing with minimum viable products (MVPs) – or – to back our hunch and go all-in. We decided to do the latter!
We knew instinctively that there was a market for our tour, and we decided we were going to do everything in our power to create a great tour company. From that point on, we agreed to take a more holistic approach to building our tour company and to tackle everything with a more long-term view. We invested the time and effort to build a great website, as we knew this was effectively our shop window, and we hired a digital marketing consultant to help us grow our online presence. Even with all of this, it still took us a couple of attempts to fill our first trip, but we’re glad to say, we finally got there in the end.
The Big Challenges Facing a New Multi-Day Tour Company
Before telling you how we managed to find those first customers, we thought it would be worth sharing some of the major obstacles we have faced.
1. It’s REALLY difficult to get the word out about your tours.
‘Build it and they will come’, right? It has surprised us just how difficult it has been to get the word out there about our tours. It takes a LOT of time and effort to reach a reasonably sized audience.
2. SEO takes a long time.
We mean a really long time. While you should definitely be working on this as a long term goal, it’s likely not going to bring in your first customers.
3. PPC is a tough nut to crack.
If SEO is not a realistic option, then PPC seems like a great short-term alternative. And while at the outset Google Adwords and Facebook Ads appear very logical and easy to use, they do take a lot of experience – or more accurately a lot of trial-and-error – to become effective. You could easily blow a significant amount of time and money on this.
4. The large OTAs won’t accept you.
While online platforms like Viator and Tour Radar seem like the perfect option to give your tours more visibility, many of those sites don’t permit multi-day tours, while the ones that do generally don’t want to list an untried and untested operator.
5. People generally don’t want to be the first to try a tour.
Especially not a tour which runs for a full one or two weeks. It’s a huge gamble from a customer perspective, as such tours are generally not cheap, will use up their limited vacation time, and (in our case anyway) they have to commit to an expensive international flights to get to us. Most customers are extremely cautious of making such a commitment without seeing many reviews from previous travellers.
6. Tour dates are an issue.
It’s a real “chicken and the egg” situation. You’re struggling to get enough customers for even one trip, and so you limit the number of dates you offer. But then, even when you do find customers who are interested, there’s a high possibility they can’t make those specific dates (and you’re typically up against a number of competitors offering year-round departures).
What Worked for Us
So in the face of such obstacles, how did we manage to book up that first trip? Here’s what we did:
1. Focused on one specific tour date
We pushed everything else to the side, picked one particular 2-week slot 4 months in advance, and put everything into making that date work.
2. Offered a ridiculously good discount
We worked out how much we could do the trip for at cost and offered it to customers at that price. In our case, that was 40% off. We took the hit on the marketing and some other indirect costs and stripped it down to exactly what the customer would pay if they organised the exact same trip themselves.
3. Radical transparency
We turned our weakness into our strength. We told the customers we were new, we shared our story, asked them to be part of our journey, and to help us try out our new tour. We coined it as an ‘Insider Trip’.
4. Facebook Ads
We ran a Facebook Ad campaign. We selected one specific country, focused on our target demographic, and promoted our offer to them.
5. Landing Page
We created a super focused landing page. Specific to this particular trip, to this particular offer, and asked them to register their email for the full details.
6. Automated Email Series
Upon landing page sign-up we sent an initial email with the detailed trip information including price, dates, and full itinerary. We then followed up with a 7-part email series informing people more about us and our trips (we did this with MailChimp).
7. Prioritised Customer Queries
We went above and beyond to answer any customers who responded to our emails with interest. We prioritised these above everything else, responded quickly, and answered questions honestly even when it sometimes showed us up as being ‘newbies’.
And in the end, we managed to book out the tour and get over that massive initial hurdle faced when starting a multi-day tour company from scratch. Does that mean we recommend Facebook Ads? Honestly, we’re far from experts in this area and are sure that the performance of our ad campaigns have significant room for improvement. But Facebook Ads certainly did the trick in this case.
Is this the only way to do it? Definitely not. This was just how we did it, and we’re sure there a number of different paths to achieve this same goal. Think about your own particular business, the unique challenges you face, and what drives your target audience. Develop a strategy that might work for your specific circumstances.
What we’ve learned through this process
So what are the key takeaways we think could be useful to other multi-day tour operators in a similar position? (Otherwise known as the things we wish we’d known a year ago.)
There are so many different ways of promoting your business that it becomes overwhelming – if you try to do them all you’ll inevitably go nowhere. Pick one or two areas to focus on, and dive deep into those.
Get some help
I like to think of myself as someone who can pick things up quickly, and I also enjoy the process of learning, so I really wanted to give it a go of doing all the digital marketing stuff myself. Things only started to pick up for us when we got help. A lot of this stuff is very logical for sure, but nothing beats experience. If you can afford it, get some expert help.
Don’t rely too much on your friends
That may sound harsh, but here’s what I mean. Most businesses will tell you that they got their first customers through friends (or friends of friends), which makes complete sense. But for our particular business, a one- or two-week tour is such a huge commitment – both in terms of time and money – that people are only going come if they are really genuinely excited by the trip and not as a favour to help out a friend.
It’s a numbers game
Following from the point above, you need to get your offer in front of a large number of people to actually fill your trip. The percentage of those who will actually have the money, can make those specific dates, and really want to go will be fairly low, so you need to get the offer in front of as many people as possible (probably a lot more than you initially think).
Don’t focus on profit
Easier said than done, I know, but the most important thing in the early stages is learning how to win customers and then get some experience of actually running the trips. Profit will come later. If you expect to be making a living off this in the early days, you’re probably in for a shock. Make sure you have an alternative plan in place to support you financially for a significant period of time while you grow your business.
Use a landing page
I don’t know how many times I read ‘don’t drive paid traffic to your homepage’, but I did it anyway. I was looking for quick wins and didn’t want to spend the time building landing pages. The minute we finally created one, things started happening.
It requires a holistic approach
There are no quick wins. People won’t simply arrive at your website and purchase straight away, especially with such a big ticket item. They will search for you on Google, they will look through your social media profiles, they will seek out online reviews. You really do need to have some form of online presence if you realistically want people to purchase your tours.
This is our experience. We are by no means experts, and we’re absolutely sure that there are other/more efficient ways to do this. However, we do genuinely hope that our experiences can be useful to other aspiring tour operators facing a similar challenge. Good luck!
This guest blog post was written by Steve Dillon, Co-Founder of Other Way Round, a culturally immersive travel group which brings together small groups of like-minded travelers and shares with them an off the beaten track, adventurous, insider experience of traveling through Colombia. Steve started Other Way Round with his Colombian wife Marcela, and their mission is to help show the world the real and authentic Colombia while also using their tour group to help drive positive change in Colombia. They currently offer 3 trips including 1 Week in Medellin, 8 Days in Cartagena and Bogotá, and a Colombia All-In-One tour.
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