For us, at the very beginning it was less about ‘business hacks’ and more ‘seriously hard grind’. But where should you be grinding? Where should your focus be? What do you really need to do to make this work?
Back in 2007, my wife and I were teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in our native Melbourne, Australia. ESL had served us well since finishing our Arts Degrees in 2001. We’d travelled the world for most of those 6 years and taught ESL in most places we went.
The memories were great and it had given us the opportunity to do what we loved most – travel… but we’d had enough of teaching.
It wasn’t our future.There was no passion. We were done with the classroom.
We wanted a new challenge, something exciting, something that gave us a chance to do what we loved every day. I still remember hatching the plan over a bottle of wine…it went something like:
‘But seriously, what the #**# are we going to do with our lives? I’m kind of freaking out a bit because we’re nearly 30 and we..have… not… got… a clue. Pretty soon we’re going to need to start acting like adults.’
A couple of wines later and we’d hatched a plan – day tours! It seemed like the perfect fit. We loved meeting people, we loved everything that our home state of Victoria had to offer an international and domestic visitor. We loved food and wine, great restaurants and bars, wildlife and the outdoors, sporting events, adventure…the list goes on – oh and we really couldn’t handle the thought of a classroom or an office as the setting for the next chapter in our lives.
So…we hit the phones. We called up 10 or 15 tour operators around Australia. We got the owners on the phone and we asked them for some help, advice and insights. We wanted to know about the realities of becoming a tour operator. The dialogue went something like this: “We’ve heard great things about you – you’ve got a wonderful reputation in the industry and we love X, Y and Z about you tours/your business. Could you spare 5 minutes for a quick chat as we are seriously thinking about starting our own business and would appreciate any advice you could offer us”.
It’s incredible how helpful people will be if you give their ego a little stroke and put a bit of research in before the call.
We gained some fascinating insights into the high and lows, pros and cons of operating day tours and after all of those conversations, we still thought we would throw our hat in the ring. One of those conversations led us to a guy that had started a company back in 1997 – Melbourne Private Tours- and had run it as a hobby ever since. He was looking to sell. The numbers were tiny (around 35k in revenue the previous year and 20k the year before that from memory) and the asking price was pretty comparable to what it would cost us to start our own business from scratch. We bought it.
We were up and running a few weeks later – off the back of a few bucks we had scraped together. The website was passable, our business cards looked cheap, our brochure uninspiring and our one and only touring vehicle was a 1997 model Toyota Tarago (purchased separately). Hardly the luxe end-to-end touring experience we had visualised.
We had no business experience, no tourism industry experience and no useful contacts or networks.
We were flying blind and we had no idea.
Between the two of us, we were tour guides, bookkeepers, marketers, reservations, sales and operations. We were responsible for business development, design, vehicle maintenance, office management and everything else in between.
We were still teaching on the side as much as we could to keep the cash coming in which meant of course that our progress was being stalled whilst we were trying to pay the bills.
We had no idea who our customer was and we had no understanding of the intricacies and preferences of international and domestic tourism markets.
We just hoped our customers would find their way to us…whoever they were and like the look of our tours.
We had appalling IT skills (we still do), and didn’t know what a spreadsheet was, let alone how to use one.
In that first year we did $65k in revenue and made a profit of $20k before tax. Two of us…working 60 hours a week.
That first year nearly broke us.
I was essentially the service and the product and every part of the business relied solely on Suze and I. We had no systems, no processes, no business plan and no strategic plan for the future. If I wasn’t running tours myself, then we didn’t have a business.
It was literally ‘work your ass off, keep hustling and see what tomorrow brings.’
But then things started change. Here’s what happened after that first year:
And here a few things that we did in that first year to lay the foundation for future success:
We reached out for help. We asked a lot of questions and got a lot of help and advice. In most (if not all) industries there are government bodies or organisations that are there to support you – that have a vested interest in your success. For us the two major ones were Tourism Victoria and Tourism Australia. I was well known throughout these two organisations because I was relentless – I bugged the hell out of them. I was on the phone almost daily to the domestic marketing team, the international marketers, the product development team, media relations, trade relations, the famils team. I spoke to dozens and dozens of employees over that first year and they all came to know me by name. We soon become synonymous throughout those two organisations with luxury tours in Melbourne. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. We didn’t have the flashest touring vehicle, the snazziest business cards or the glossiest brochure, but we were young, keen, articulate and we weren’t going away. We out and out asked them to provide us with a mentor – which they did. I in turn did everything I could to support Tourism Victoria and have done so ever since. These things are a 2 way street. From there we became members of the key industry bodies – Tourism Alliance and the Australian Tourism Export Council. Both memberships came with a price tag but both agreed to postpone our membership fees until the following year if we committed to remaining a member for three years. This ‘paid up’ status then gave us the green light to squeeze every last drop of support, connections, insight, recommendation, familiarisation opportunity, workshop, networking event…as they say – you only get out of a membership what you put into it and we squeezed every last drop out of these. The other thing we did was go and get ourselves a business mentor. This was critical to our success – the best thing we ever did. It cost us far more than we could afford at the time and was hard to justify early on when we weren’t seeing tangible results for our monthly retainer. But it gave us a massive kick start. It held us accountable. It helped us work out what it was we really wanted and helped us set clear and precise goals, create a clear vision for 1,2, 5 years down the track and work out what exactly we had to do to get there.
We got clear on who our customer was. In reality we went about this in the wrong way. We created something – a bunch of tours – then we tried to work out who wanted them. Wrong move. If we could have our time again, We would go about it in reverse. We should have found that hungry crowd first then asked them what it is that they would like to satiate their hunger, we should have immersed ourselves in our target market and discovered what it was that they wanted. Anyway…it worked out. Our new buddies over at Tourism Victoria and Tourism Australia were firm in their belief – our tours were the perfect fit for the USA market (55-75 year olds). They would also go well with the pointy end of other international markets (UK/Canada/Western Europe). We took their advice and started living and breathing only these markets. This then shaped our trade marketing activities. The travel industry is a smorgasbord of trade shows targeting every international market in every exotic location in every corner of the globe. These are promoted to you literally every day by various tourism organisations. You can easily get caught up in the excitement and the possibility and get carried away chasing new markets and new opportunities. We didn’t. We focussed ONLY on trade shows featuring our top 2 or top 3 markets and nothing else. If your product is a good fit for a market then you will know about it. The market will tell you via traffic to your website, or enquiries via concierges.
We hustled for those elusive first customers. Where were we going to get the fastest results? Where were we going to find a supply of customers ready to take our tours now – not next month or next year? Not when our tour details were finally loaded into agent’s systems, or when their next Australian brochure was produced – or when we updated our website, rewrote the content and started driving more traffic to the site. We needed customers fast. City hotels were the answer. Other channels were going to take time. Time we didn’t have.. We pounded the pavement and we went after those most accessible first customers – those already in town and looking for something to do. Something last minute… From initial introduction to a concierge to a first customer could potentially be a matter of hours. If they had preferred tour operators that they already called on, that was fine. we just needed to wait for that first opportunity that their first, second or possibly even third picks weren’t available and be ready to pounce. Get that foot in the door. Deliver awesome tours. Get great feedback. Always be on the other end of the phone in 2 rings no matter the time. Be ready to drop everything and come running. And reward these concierges for their loyalty and for giving us a shot. That’s what we did.
We started creating long term relationships with all the key players. I got myself a list of the top 20 key agents in Australia that were selling Australia to my target market – the high -end USA market. I did my research. How big were they? What type of client did they service? What type of tours did their client usually take? Which tour operator were they currently using in Melbourne? I made it clear that I respected this current relationship and was sure they and their clients were being looked after very well. I told them that what we offered was unique and was sure they’d agree that once we had an opportunity to present our tours to them there may well find a place for both of us in their programs. It often took a while to get some of them on the phone – but I find that people generally respect persistence. Eventually you wear them down and they run out of excuses and avoidance tactics. They respect you for being keen. You need to impress them with your tenacity – in addition to the quality of your tours.
We gave a lot of tours away free. We didn’t have a marketing budget, or an advertising budget. However what we did have was our time. The ability to provide complimentary tours. We gave these away to carefully selected travel agents, hotel concierges, journalists and more and we grouped them together and ran small group tours with a mix of the above on convenient dates so we could get as many key people as possible to experience what we offered. I was happy to provide my time to showcase our amazing tours. Aside from my time, costs were minimal. We did deals with attractions, restaurants, cafes and bars, wineries…all those suppliers that formed the backbone of tours. If we pitched it right and made clear the potential long term benefit of the partnership, they were generally happy to host us free of charge.
We increased capacity – quickly. I remember the day clearly. It was November 20th 2007. I got of the phone after securing a booking for the following day with a surge of adrenalin…and a feeling of dread. I had just booked in our third private tour for the following day. With only 1 tour guide and 1 vehicle…we had a problem. It was a long and stressful evening and a restless night, however by 6pm the following evening, three successful private tours had concluded in three clean, comfortable, spacious touring vehicles ad the feedback was great. We had bitten off more than we could chew and then chewed like mad. There’s always a way. The very next day we created a guide training manual, tour operational procedures and we started building a network of tour guides and luxury touring vehicles for hire in expectation of growth so that we would never have to say no.
We played big right from the start. I read a great book back in 2007. The e-myth. It hammered home the need for systems. To document everything. To set your business up so that anyone can walk in the door, take a copy of your operations manual, your procedures, your roles and responsibilities document…whatever you want to call it…and be able able to slot in and do your job and allow you, or other key people in your business to step out. From the very start we aimed to get everything out of our heads and onto paper and document it in a system. Sometimes the systems were shit. Often in the early days the systems were really shit. I look back on some of these now and I laugh and think ‘oh my god how the hell did we run a business like that’. But that’s fine. Once the system is established, it can be improved or discarded for a better one when you outgrow it. Every part of every business should be constantly improving and evolving. ESPECIALLY the systems. Creating systems shouldn’t overwhelm you. They just need to make sense to you and your team. There’s no right or wrong format, right or wrong answer. They will continue to improve over time. Basically – if anybody in your business needs to ask you how something is done, there needs to be a system written down for that process. The next time that person or someone else has the same question, you should be telling them to go and read the system that you documented.What worked at 3 staff and 500k probably won’t work at 8 staff and 2 million and will, need to be refined and improved.You play big by thinking big and talking big.When you keep talking big it starts to permeate through everything you do in your business. I remember the day clearly back in 2009 that we crunched the numbers, taking into account the number of tour bookings we were holding, the cost of vehicle hire v’s vehicle repayments, car maintenance, servicing. The number’s stacked up and we took a loan out for a second touring vehicle. MPT now had a ‘fleet’ of luxurious touring vehicles.Rather than working at a tiny desk in the hallway of our cramped city apartment, we were ‘in the office’ or ‘out of the office’.Our one allocated underground apartment car park had now become the MPT ‘depot’ where our two vehicles (if not being used for touring) needed to be rotated onto the street every hour between 9 and 5 to avoid parking tickets.Rather than riding my push bike in tracksuit pants barefoot down the street to grab a coffee and a litre of milk for my cornflakes, I had ‘just stepped out of the office for a breakfast meeting and would soon be back in front of my computer’Our ‘reservations system’ was in fact a hand held diary with lots of scribbles (We still have it – an artefact from another time in business). I’m sure many friends and family will remember the A4 size diary that was permanently tucked under my arm.Visualise the type of company you want to be running in 5 years from now with the turnover, resources, technology and start talking NOW like that’s what you are.While you are starting out, finding your feet, or scaling your company…every interaction you have in business, the other party should be walking away thinking you are bigger or better, more professional, more experienced, more resourceful than you actually are. Think big, talk big and you’ll end up being big. Its crazy how it works. Actually no – it’s not crazy at all. What you think, you attract or you become. It’s simple.
We said ‘yes’ to everything and we turned things around fast. We became ultra reliable. We were always available. We grabbed with both hands and a positive mindset every opportunity that came our way. We used our only real currency (ourselves) to get that foot in the door with so many hotel concierges and travel agents “ you need a tailored itinerary for a client proposal (with no guarantee of winning the business)” – sure no problem – have it to you overnight. “You need a last minute city sights tour for a hotel guest? Consider it done – we’ll be there within the hour – I’m preparing a vehicle as we speak”. We went above and beyond to crazy extremes. We knew our energy wasn’t sustainable but we needed to get that chance, to get that foot in the door – to get that foot in many doors and to keep it there. We had to be relentless, desperate and to let people know that we were here to stay, we were going to do whatever it took and we weren’t going away.We never ‘hid’ behind emails, or newsletters, or social media posts. We worked out
exactly who’s business we wanted, and did whatever it took to get the attention of their key decision makers, got them on the phone and then got in front of them – irrespective of where they were. The general rule that we discovered was – the further you have to travel, the more impressed and respectful people were and the greater likelihood of giving you a shot with. If you’re trying to get established then you need to get seriously influential people, serious decision makers seriously impressed by the lengths you will go to to tell them about your business and win their business. If the answer was – i’ll see you for 15 minutes tomorrow at 11am (on the other side of the country) – the response was ‘sure no problem i’ll bring morning team for the office)I once flew Melbourne – LA, landed at 6am, then took a midnight return flight, just for the chance to meet one product manager who, after many phone calls had agreed to a quick coffee meeting. His first question: “What are you in town for?”. My response: “To see you. I got in this morning and I’m leaving tonight”. He had another long term supplier and thought I was nuts, although his respect was clear to see. For three years nothing came of that 30 hour round trip, although i kept working the relationship and chipping away every few months. 5 years later that account was worth 200k per year.
So that’s how we did it. That’s how we turned an idea, a passion into a serious tour company – and life and business soon got a lot easier!