Starting & running a small tour business is hard. Really really hard!!
Doing this in tourism can look, on the surface, to be one of the softer options in terms of difficulty and certainly one of the more fun opportunities. You build some cool product based on what you are passionate about – that bit is easy. And then you try to find customers.
There is nothing simple about catching customers in travel. Tourism distribution is complicated and convoluted. If you can find the right distribution – there are lots of dead end roads where an apparent distributor is actually just a subset or white label of someone else – and then you need to find the right person inside that distribution channel. Trouble is you might already have been wandering the path for 6 months and now you are in their queue. And they are just one possibility. And they maybe not even able to sell well. Sound familiar?
Even when you do get it sorted out, you end up with dozens of product managers you need to juggle, keep informed and never disappoint.
And then there is your website, your SEO and SEM strategy, your reservations system. Aren’t we just supposed to be showing people a great time!!! Problem is without these pieces set up right, there are no or too few customers …
There is an alternative!
Urban Adventures is a network of global partners (small start-up tour operators mainly) who as ex-tour guides wanted to help our friends and colleagues, around the world, make the transition from tour guide to tour business owner. But without the usual pain and time of going it alone.
Our philosophy was not that complicated. At the head office we take care of the things that are generally more difficult or time consuming to work out. We give our partners the reservations system, a local website that takes no maintenance, a global SEO and SEM strategy and we take care of all the major distribution partners.
By offering a global range of unique product for which we source and having the state of the art technology of API’s allowing partners direct access to live availability from the system (think last minute sales) – we get priority access, loaded, featured and sold by those distribution partners.
We also help our operating partners with their pricing of products. This is one of the most critical pieces of the puzzle. If there is one thing people get wrong most often it is underestimating the costs of running their business. It is one of the most important parts of our training program which we take all of our new partners through. We’ve also built lean models that is cash positive right from the beginning for the owner.
Our partners create products which they are passionate about (the fun bit) and then run those trips with excellence. We have a particular style in which we run our tours so they have a familiar feel globally whilst still being able to be individual to both the guide and the city. The partners also look after local distribution opportunities so the sales work is shared across both sides of the partnership along with the benefits of multiple sales channels all adding to filling tours.
The most perplexing part for many is the price to be a part of our Network and is the place a lot of people drop off because the answer is we don’t charge anything. At this point people’s “too good to be true” radar has blown up. Or maybe it is because something that costs nothing can’t be worth anything. I’m not sure and it doesn’t matter because someone dropping out at this point probably isn’t going to make it anyway. What I would say is that it works for us because we don’t want the best resourced to work with, we just want the Best and the best shouldn’t be determined by the amount of cash you have. It means the pool of candidates is total. It also gives us time to build what is most important in any relationship and that is trust.
Most of our partners come through direct recommendations from other partners, their guide friends in other destinations or tour guides coming off the road from working with multi-day companies and that has some mutual benefits for us all. We like to know who is representing us and we only really want to work with the Best. As a result some commercially lucrative destinations remain unfulfilled because we won’t compromise.
Being a Network, the other major benefit we bring is that there are literally hundreds of other people around you doing exactly the same thing as you. Someone is always online. You are never alone. Any question can find an answer and most times almost instantly. As a brand we also have built a loyal customer base and naturally share customers travelling from one destination to another – another sales channel and let’s face it – you can’t have enough.
To keep everything together we use the simplest mechanism there is to ensure businesses are run to the highest professional level possible. That mechanism is ownership. We don’t own our destinations – the partner we are working with does. That actually is the prize. Each partner is individually building their own asset and own nest egg in a business they own. Be it self-interest or self-pride – usually a good mix of both – our partners aren’t asked to succeed on our behalf. They are encouraged to succeed on their own behalf. By being collectively brilliant the partners build up the strength of the brand.
And after that, it still isn’t easy. You have to work your backside off to make it work. We have a formula, a program if you like, that if you follow – in our experience to date, you will succeed. But you have to work the program, not wait for the program to work for you. Because it won’t and it doesn’t.
I have nothing but the utmost respect for those who have figured everything out for themselves and have worked all the angles to build for themselves a great standalone business. It can obviously be done and can be done spectacularly well. I love hanging out with those people because I know exactly how hard they’ve worked. I love also hanging out with the Urban Adventures people because I know they are likewise working really hard – but also enjoying the life they are creating for themselves. We get together each year as a collective and have an amazing time all together.
If you’ve made it this far in this case study the burning question will be – but how do you make money! Of course we are a for-profit business and we are also a sales business. We sell tours. We sell our partners tours (and only our partner’s tours) to be exactly that. Part of that amazing SEO and SEM work and part of the contracts we make on behalf of our partners also derive benefits back to the Head Office. Our simple theory is that is you are making a few dollars on most of your tour sales and you are selling a million tours, then you are contributing to filling up your partners tours and doing OK yourself.
Running a business is still hard. Our goal is to simply make it less difficult than it otherwise needs to be.
Provided by Tony Carne, General Manager Urban Adventures Australia
Company Bio: Over just seven short years, Urban Adventures has created more than 140 small tour businesses for local people across 6 continents and 90 countries. These businesses in turn all create absolutely unique tour products, based on the concept of FLAVOR: Fun, Local, with insider Access, with great Value, Original, and worthy of Remembering. Urban Adventures currently delivers experiences to an audience of over 125,000 travellers annually.