Turning Passion For Philly & Running Into A Full Time Tour Business
On a recent episode of the Tourpreneur podcast for tour operators and tour professionals, Ian Thomas of See Philly Run shares his journey of what made him start a running tours business and the lessons he has learned so far. We share the full text of the conversation between Shane Whaley of Tourpreneur and Ian Thomas of SeePhillyRun in this blog. Also available in all major listening formats at this Tourpreneur link. Enjoy!
Shane Whaley: Hi, everybody, and welcome to episode 16 of the Tourpreneur Podcast. If I had the money, I’d be licensing the music to Rocky Eye of the Tiger for today’s show because we talk to Ian Thomas. Now, Ian runs a company. He’s a tourpreneur behind the company SeePhillyRun. He loves Philadelphia, he loves storytelling, and he loves running. So, he’s combined all his interests and passions and built a company called SeePhillyRun, where he leads unique tours all across Philadelphia.
We cover a lot of topics here and even if you are not a runner, you will enjoy today’s how. We talk about marketing. We talk about inspiration of setting up a tour operation. We talk about what made Ian go full-time with his business. We talk about how he didn’t come from the tour world. He was involved in operations and international logistics. We talk about how that helped him launch his tour business. We talk about his experiences with Fair Harbor, with Squarespace, his experiences with Airbnb. This is a demonstration of persistence because long distance runners were a persistent lot. It was third time lucky, he got knocked back twice by Airbnb Experiences, he talks us through that.
So, Ian reveals a lot about his business here. I think you’re going to get a lot out of it. All the links and resources we mention in today’s episode, you can find at tourpreneur.com/16. So, we’re ready for him? Let’s do some air boxing. Here is Ian Thomas.
Shane: Welcome to the show Ian Thomas of SeePhillyRun. How are you?
Ian: I am doing great, Shane. How about yourself?
Shane: I’m good. I’m almost slightly disappointed, I almost felt like we would be doing this whilst you’re running and I’d have the Rocky music going and everything else.
Ian: That would’ve been cool.
Shane: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Thank you for coming on the show. I’m really excited to talk to you because I don’t like to use the word “runner” when it comes to myself. We have a British word, I don’t know if it translates to the U.S. called plodder.
Ian: A plodder, I know what plodding is.
Shane: I know, 10 minutes miles or so. I used to be a lot faster but age is creeping up on me. So, I love running. I see the benefits in running. I love tours. I love histories. Then I came across an article on you, I think it was a couple of months ago on the Inquirer. There was an interview you did talking about your business. I thought, this is great. I keep seeing when I’m travelling running tours and was a bit nervous to go and so I’m really excited to talk to you about how you got into this, how you started and some of your learning. So, how did this all get started for you?
Ian: So, the idea, I think, had been percolating a little bit for a couple of years but around April of last year, I was getting close to being done with business school. So, my traditional background is in a very different world, not tourism. And I’ve really always been fascinated with really kind of owning my business. I like to see myself a bit as sort of a business first and a runner sort of second and a tour – I don’t know if this is perfect for this podcast but – sort of a tour guy third. Love history, love to show people around. I had been showing people around Philly for many years but not in any formalized way that was going, it was generating really any revenue.
So, the idea was, hey, I’ve obviously gotten in quite a bit better shape, running was a lot of that. I’ve always loved running but I’ve gotten more into it lately. And really, I’ve always loved the City of Philadelphia. Philadelphia is a World Heritage city and I’m increasingly starting to see the City of Philadelphia as this asset that was right at my fingertips, that was free to access. This all came from trying to combine couple of my passions which is running, this really passionate desire to own my own business, along with just really a love of history and some of the pop culture that goes around Philly. And I thought, hey, maybe I can create a unique way to see the city. I know it’s not for everybody but for those folks that it is for, that are really into it, so I’m trying to appeal to that audience as much as I can.
I hope that answers your question.
Shane: It does. I’m kind of smiling roofly here because you kind of make out you’re a casual runner but I know having read up on you that you’ve run five marathons.
Ian: Yeah, I’ve run six marathons, bunch of half – I don’t even know how many half marathons I’ve run, bunch of 10Ks, 5Ks. It’s really important for me to try to be in the running community here locally as much as I can just because I’m always looking for other people that might want to work for SeePhillyRun and it just creates – it lends itself the authenticity, right? I think that that’s important, people want authentic. They don’t want somebody that’s sort of pretending that they’re not. And the more that I’m involved with the local community, whether that’s from the Philadelphia Tour Guide Association or whether that’s being part of the hotel association or belonging to different groups, it feeds into itself, stuff that I’m interested in but it’s also professionally the right thing to do.
Shane: So, talk me through you’d come to the end of business school. What was your thought process? What did you bring from business school then to SeePhillyRun?
Ian: So, my background is in international transportation and logistics. So, I have a lot of background that’s in client managements, international clients but it’s really geared towards operational efficiency, let’s say. Efficiency in sort of trying to find cost savings from a business perspective. There’s still a lot of that in being a tour guide but it’s a bit more about value creation. To be honest, it’s a bit more salesmanship, up-selling. So, I think, in my traditional career, I hadn’t had that much exposure. Not that I didn’t have exposure, it’s just wasn’t part of my job description, let’s say, as much as I thought I should be.
So, I really kind of latched on to that part of business school, trying to improve the customer experience, for example, trying to market, trying to reach that customer that is – I have a few different customer segments that I go after rather than just pure individual tourists that come to the City. So, marketing, I think, is something that I got a much better feel from, this idea of sort of customer experience, customer journey, customer retention, salesmanship. That’s the stuff I learned in business school that I didn’t see in my career, my sort of 9:00 to 5:00 career. It wasn’t going to happen in the firms or the other firms I was looking at. So, I thought, hey, let’s try to start our own company, right? So, I also from business school comes that confidence of how to start your own company, what are all the nuts and bolts that you need to do so. Those would be the key things, I think, I learned in business school.
Shane: Sure. So, you’re still working full-time with logistics now as well as running a business or you’re full-time on the business?
Ian: Full-time business.
Shane: Oh, congratulations.
Ian: I’m full-time on the business and I hope to do that for the foreseeable future.
Shane: Yeah. And just to understand the timeline a bit here, did you leave business school and then go straight to starting SeePhillyRun as full-time or did you work a while full-time and build it up? How did that look?
Ian: I was working while I went to business school, right. And I think the idea of the business – I finished business school at the end of 2017, okay. And then this idea of starting this business and it’s really kind of formulated – I wouldn’t say I had an “aha” moment but it kind of coalesced around April of last year and then was doing it on the side – it’s called like a “passion project” and sort of building up, doing all those foundational things that you need to start a business. It’s complicated. You can’t just start doing it. I mean, you could but you want to cover all bases especially in this kind of business where insurance is involved. You want to make sure nobody gets hurt. You got waivers, stuff like that.
So, I wore both hats in terms of having my 9:00 to 5:00 and then starting up this business for almost a year up until February of this year. And ever since February of this year, I’ve been full-time.
Shane: What was it that pushed you into going full-time with the business?
Ian: I just saw that I needed to be full-time. I had enough – some of my financial calculation sort of demonstrated that there was going to be an ability to do so. My wife, by the way, is also an entrepreneur. I have two children and both my children had gotten to an age where they weren’t going to be in school anymore, so my wife now suddenly also had much more opportunity to start her business. I saw that as, okay, we’re going to have that other sort of income coming in, I can be a little bit more risky in terms of my own professional decisions, go for it, they say, if you will. So, that’s where we are right now.
Shane: Right. If you can, if you can talk me through so when you set the business up, obviously one of the biggest challenge is getting the word out that you’re running this tour which is something unique. How did you go about with the marketing knowledge you had? At the very early days, how did you go about getting the word out about SeePhillyRun?
Ian: Any way I can. It’s a short answer but there’s two phases to my business. If we want to talk the pure tourism side, it’s mostly people that don’t live in the city. However, the City of Philadelphia, there’s about 45 million people that come to Philly and a big part of those people are actually people that don’t come from too far away, right. As much as the international tourism we have, we also have a lot of D.C. and New York City people that come to Philly. But I think I brainstormed – I don’t have the list in front of me in terms of all the marketing channels that I wanted to use but I certainly spread the word amongst all the running groups that I am involved with. I did a lot of research in terms of how to set up the website in such a way that Google is going to find it easier.
My business is challenging because it’s almost like Google AdWords don’t even, in some ways, don’t make sense. Like, if somebody is looking for a running tour in the City of Philadelphia, I trend really high in SEO. There’s only one other company that goes higher than me and they’re not local. So, I think I have a – let’s not call it a competitive advantage but I have a – differentiation versus them because I’m very local and there’s a lot of people that are very into being very local. So, it’s just the difference between I feel like business in general is heading in a direction where it’s moving away from the big box store and going back towards, at least, in progressive places. Like, I consider Philly quite progressive. What I’m trying to say is, this experience that I’m getting, the hyper local has something that resonates with what I think is my core customer better than does just a general running tour thing that’s offered all over the country and there’s kind of no difference. And some of the larger companies that do running tours in the City of Philadelphia, all of their social media, all of their marketing, Philly is by no means a [00:11:40] the biggest markets in the country but for them, New York is a much bigger market, Chicago is a bigger market. So, when I look at their social media, when I look at their advertising, it’s all New York on their social media, nothing here.
I’m a bit of a first-mover. I think I’m a first-mover. I know that I’m one of the only people and I think me and the other couple of people that run on my tours are – there’s not that many of us but we are definitely the best running tour guides in the City of Philadelphia. I’m not being cocky there but I’m confident that that’s the case.
Shane: In terms of the SEOs, your ranking really high, what were the strategies behind that? Was it blog-posting, was it swapping links? Because it’s difficult to do.
Ian: It’s not easy and I’m not by any means going to say that I’m an expert at SEO. Again, this is part of business school where I met and became close with other people that do that for a living, so I’ve taken a lot of their advice. But how do I rank – it’s a lot of the things that you just said. So, blogs are great though I never have time to do my blog as much as I want to. It’s always one of those things that kind of get’s – “I’ll do it next week or whatever.” Originally, I wanted to do a blog every couple of weeks and now it’s turned into more like once a month. But indeed, blogging is good because it has all these – you basically can grab people’s attention with a good headline and they come in. What you want is that person to sort of click on a few different links within your blog that then takes them, allows them to sort of look in various parts of your website, Google loves that. Using headlines and headers within the website that are what you want people to be searching for, right, that’s a key thing. Again, none of this stuff is rocket science or brand new. And then I had access to – I don’t know if you heard of SEMrush.
Ian: I started to use SEMrush to see what my competitors are doing and really just tried to mimic some of them. Again, anywhere where I can get publicity, like you said you found me through Philadelphia Inquirer.
Ian: I was lucky enough, I have friends that work for the Inquirer, in just pure like water cooler kind of talk conversation he had said, “I got this friend. Let’s do that.” The reporter that ended up doing the story, I mean, we had a lot in common and so he was super interested. It’s like a general interest kind of story. So, that’s how I landed that.
So, I think the key things, again, using the right keywords, seeing what your competitors are doing because as much as people think that they’re going to invent a new idea, it’s all probably had been done before, so just use what other people are doing. Those are the techniques that I’ve used and they’ve been okay. It’s one of those things that’s just constant refinement the more that you can change up your site. Even the refining itself, Google likes to see that. And in general, the algorithm of Google – the reason why I’m not number 1 is because a big part of Google’s algorithm is simply how long have you existed? So, the longer you existed, the stronger that you are. And because I’m a relatively young business, I just need more experience. I need to last. I need to not go under. And the longer that I last, it perpetuates my own existence.
Shane: Sure. And here on Tourpreneur, we’re all about sharing knowledge and expertise. So, if any of our listeners are SEO experts and they want to come on and share some tips with us, I invite you to come on. My details are at tourpreneur.com. I’m always happy to do a whole episode on SEO, but I am liking these tips from you, Ian. And I think the key to remember here is, yeah, what you’re saying with headlines and keywords, it is easy. I think the toughest part though is two things – first of all, the amount of time it takes to do that. That’s quite tedious when you’re doing it on your own. And then secondly, you are smart. I mean, SEMrush is not a cheap tool. When I looked at it, it’s quite pricey. It’s a monthly fee.
Ian: And I want to tell you how I got access to it.
Shane: Okay. Yeah, yeah. Don’t. They may be listening.
Ian: Use your network. Hopefully SEMrush isn’t listening. You can cut that out.
Shane: But the thing there is you’re getting the keywords and building those long tail keywords as well as – yeah, everyone wants a tour of city or whatever it may be but looking for those long tail keywords, I think, are equally as important.
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Shane: So, in terms of your website, certainly in the early days, did you build it yourself? Did you go out and get it built? How did that come about?
Ian: I built it myself. I had advice. I looked around at the different – I looked at Wix, I looked at Wordpress, I looked at Squarespace. There’s another one, the biggest one which is more of an e-commerce, I forget what it’s called. I looked at a few. And then ultimately, I think I just felt like Squarespace was nicest because I think it’s the most beautiful. It’s a bit more for artists or musicians, I think. It’s not exactly for a lot of throughput in terms of if you’re selling a whole inventory of goods. My have a small inventory of things that I sell, some clothes that I sell alongside the tours, I selected Squarespace and sort of leaned on my network of other entrepreneurs that were using it themselves and just try to pick their brains of “When you started, what did you do? How did you do it? What are the dos and don’ts?” And then probably spent a month in my spare time, put a month’s worth of time going through the design, what do we want the navigation to look like?
Because what ends up happening, and I’m sure my own website’s the same way, is you have all these things that you – you have to be open to people’s feedback, right? You can’t get trapped in your own echo chamber of thinking that every single idea that you have is the best and the only way to do it. The more that you’re talking to people, the more that you just kind of – it either validates your own opinions or makes you consider something else.
So, I leaned up my network. I just kind of rolled up my sleeves and did it myself. To be honest, I think it looks pretty good. It’s not perfect but I think the navigation is easy.
Shane: What did you use to build the site?
Shane: I’m looking at it now. You know, I’m always impressed. It’s clean. It’s colorful. It’s bright. I think it’s really well-laid out. I love seeing all the different tours that you offer. I love the testimonials. I’m really impressed with Squarespace. I’ve never used it myself. I’m personally curious because my website was the one on Wordpress is not the best looking. I need to do some work in it. Does Squarespace, in terms of the finances, is it a monthly fee or a yearly fee? How does that work?
Ian: Either/or, I mean, it’s like anything. It’s subscription service and if you choose the annual, they may cut out like 20% of the cost or something. Don’t quote me on this but I think what I’m using is somewhere less than $20 a month, I think.
Shane: Wow, wow. Maybe I’ll invite somebody from Squarespace to come on the show and chat through a bit more because this is an area that we all need a bit of help and guidance, I think, when it comes to websites. We don’t all have 15 grand to spend with an agency to build a site, right?
Ian: Again, I think that that’s one of those things that what web design meant as terms of a service 10 years ago, maybe even 5 years ago is very different than now. And I’m sure some web designers don’t like that it’s like that but people are a lot more empowered to sort of just do it yourselves and the more value add stuff gets in a deep more what you’re saying before is like the SEO, knowing how to do that right. This is another thing with SEO that is a super easy fix that I forgot to say is just optimizing images. I think not everybody knows that.
Shane: It’s the ultimate, yeah.
Ian: I think it’s called GTmetrix. It’s a Canadian company, free of service, you could put in every single URL that’s in your website. What it’ll do is it’ll scan it, come back and saying — it looks at about 20 or 30 different parameters of where a website might be not optimized and then it comes back to you, grades your page, and sort of gives you three top things that you could do better on that particular page, all three of charge. A lot of times it’s just optimizing images but it’s very easy to use because it not only gives you the image that is too big but it immediately optimizes that image into a size that Google is going to love more. And then you can just flip those really easily. I mean, it’s time-consuming in a way because it’s monotonous work but it is stuff that does matter to Google.
Shane: Absolutely. I want to switch tracks as little bit here. So, you talked earlier about some of the barriers to setting up. It wasn’t like you just keep your trainers on and you’re ready to go, right?
Shane: There is insurance. You mentioned insurance. How did you go about, first of all, knowing what you needed in terms of the City of Philadelphia and the ordinance they may have? And then how did you research what was going to be fair on your pocket in terms of insurance policy?
Ian: Well, with insurance, I admittedly didn’t have – I mean, I’ve never opened a tour company before but I know – again, talking to my network, they were like, “You need to set up an LLC. You need to make sure you got all your license and registration and all that stuff going on.” Just registered as a commercial entity in the City of Philadelphia which is granted probably a little bit more bureaucratic than some of the other markets in the country. Philly is an old city with a lot of rules. And so, I did that, I basically just reached out to the City and said, “I’m trying to set this kind of business. Tell me what you need me to do.” And within a couple of days, you have an answer, you need to apply for this, this, this, and this. I bought the domains. I have a couple of different domains. I bought this plus a couple of other ones which are more long-term vision of where I want to go to try to – I don’t own trademarks, I probably should. It’s just too expensive right now. I don’t see it’s worth it.
Insurance-wise, same approach, if you don’t know, just Google it. So, I Googled it and said, “Hey, look, who are the insurance companies?” I also belong to the Philadelphia Tour Guide Association so I asked around within that network and said, “How is everybody here insured?” knowing that the insurance that I need is probably a little bit different than the walking tours. It’s probably a little bit more expensive because there’s a little bit more risk. However, it’s less than some of the other Segway Insurance, Viking Tours, all that stuff is probably a little bit more. I identified three or four. Just like you would do with anything, you’ll identify three or four vendors, send them all the same messages, see how they come back to you, see how they compare, have conversation with a couple of them. Some of them feel better than others and you go with the one you like. It’s just kind of management 101. It’s the way I’ve approached almost all the companies that I have to work for or enjoy working with.
Granted, especially compared to a bike tour or just other things, this business is good because there’s not a ton of overhead, because it’s ultimately just really bring your running attire and they’re trusting me to sort of keep them safe and they’re trusting me that I sort of we know more about the city than you would get somewhere else.
Shane: Tell me, what was it like when you led your first tour? So, you get your first paying customers and you’re ready to lead the tour. How did that feel? Talk us through that.
Ian: It felt great when you finally start getting paid for all the hard work that you put in. This is another part of my journey that I don’t think I mentioned and it was actually really helpful, and I still do to this day. Airbnb Experiences, clearly the bigger and bigger cities than the – our experiences wasn’t everywhere at first. However, now I think everywhere where Airbnb is, they have Experiences, maybe I’m wrong. It seems like they’re everywhere.
So, my very first customer, the paying customer was actually through that channel which is great, which is fine. Airbnb takes a chunk of my revenue but so does Trip Advisor and so does everybody else that wants – I’m paying them for them to get more eyeballs on my business, right. And Airbnb works quite well because Airbnb, their total demographic is a younger, more experiential, healthier, it fits the vibe that I’m trying to go for.
The first time I got paid was actually compensated for the run in October. I didn’t actually launch the website till January, so Q4 2018, my business was exclusively on Airbnb Experiences. It felt great. One person came out, that person was here from Baltimore that was just like wanted to get away and unplug up in Philly. So, I took that person out, had great feedback and yeah.
Shane: I’m curious about Airbnb Experience. I get a lot of email here about working with them. So, did they vet your tour? Did you have to meet any kind of criteria in order to work with them?
Ian: They don’t let everybody in. I think they probably deny more people than they allow in. It’s not easy. Because what I’m doing, I think, vibes with their general brand. There’s some overlap so it works. Yeah, so easy to follow. Anybody can sign up for Airbnb, anybody can apply to have an Airbnb Experience, doesn’t mean that they’re going to put it up. I think there’s somewhere between 20 and 30 components of an Airbnb Experience profile but it’s just like where are you going to meet, what are you going to see, what’s your story, how much does it cost, what’s the availability, blah, blah, blah? All those components. Actually, my original submission was denied, my second submission was denied and my third submission was let in. And indeed, they vetted what I put out there and is very valuable because I still to this day when I designed the website – because that happened before the website design happened – there are certainly a lot of components and just the framework of how I think about the tour, where I used that experience from the Airbnb Experience to then apply it to my own website and then how I offer everything independent of Airbnb.
Shane: And how much of your business on a percentage would you say is now coming from Airbnb?
Ian: Probably a little bit less than half. It’s still quite real sizable. Short answer to your question is, maybe 40% or so. And the long answer to your question, just an additional point here is just, I mean, there is a downside. Airbnb (1) they take percentage which I don’t have to pay if I’m doing it on my website; and (2) so, when I first started, I was trying to reach out to all these what I thought was, oh, okay – this was before I started the website. I said, “I know where all my runs start and I should reach out to all these Airbnb hosts that are around that vicinity” and I spent a day doing that and I sent out all these messages individually to all these people and then I was not getting any response, and then I went back and looked at my communication and I realized, well, it’s because Airbnb scrambles and redacts information that includes websites or emails and I’m like, now, I look like some sort of hacker to these people. Not only did they not respond to me but they probably reported me. Airbnb wants to keep everything inside of their portal, right, because then they could monetize everything. They don’t want you communicating with people outside the portal.
Shane: So, why do you think it was third time lucky? Why do you think it was your third application? Was it having the website and the credibility or?
Ian: No, because that all happened before website.
Ian: No, I think it’s just when you apply, and maybe the feedback they give you is rather relatively general. They don’t say like, “Change this and change that.” But I think what they do have or probably what their customer service has are like a dozen things that possibly keep people from getting in. And what they do do is they say, “Of that 12, #2, #5, and #9 are areas where you need to work on. Once you do that, come back.” So, it wasn’t like I had to start from scratch. All the work still stays there, it just says it’s like they denied but you can go back in, edit again and retry. If you try like a dozen times, maybe they say, “Just knock it off, man. Go away,” but I didn’t get that far.
Shane: I mean, it sounds like it’s a lot of work and it’s a pain but as a consumer, I’m really happy to hear that Airbnb Experience is doing that, that they really are vetting experiences rather than just checking everything on the shelf, right. So I think, ultimately, it’s good for the traveler at the end of the day.
Ian: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I agree.
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Shane: You also say in terms of other OTAs, you’re also working with Trip Advisor. How is that working out for you?
Ian: Good. I’m trying to move up and so everything is reviewed, everything is searching, how you rank within. Trip Advisor, I’ve moved up to #9, I think, in terms of outdoor experiences in Philly, but what I want to do is get enough reviews that I’m there even for a general list. I want to be there in the top 10 of just things to do in Philly not outdoor things to do.
Shane: What are you doing to encourage your guests to leave you Trip Advisor reviews?
Ian: At the end of an experience or run, I reiterate that. I just thank people for coming out. I’ve only had one person not give me a 5 star review and it’s like one of the few people that I’m still in contact with to this day and from a business perspective because he’s actually an event planner down in Brazil. I was like, “Why did you not give me 5 stars?” He’s like, “Well, our expectations are quite high in Brazil.” And I’m like, “Come on, man.” But anyway, I think it’s also good for me. It makes me look legitimate, that not everything is 5.
But to answer your question, two things – I always just smile on my face at the end. They usually have a smile or they’re sweating, drinking water, and just say, “Hey, give a fair review if you had a good time. I just ask that you please give me a review.” So, it’s a verbal sort of request, and then all of my canned communications which is again, after something is completed, which if it goes through my website, it’s time to go literally like as we hit the finish line that they now have this message in their inbox, where they get back to their hotel or wherever, that just says, “Hey, thank you. Reviews for small businesses are super important as you know. Could you please review me on Google?” And if Airbnb is applicable – I concentrate on Google Trip Advisor and Airbnb if it’s applicable. But not everybody signs up to Airbnb, so then it gets removed. And then automated communication is actually another downside to Airbnb because you can’t do that to experiences, certainly not through any sort of links or any of that kind of stuff. Because I go to my website, that part of the process is much less manual when it’s through the website versus Airbnb.
Shane: I understand. So, I want to talk a little bit about the tours you offer. You started off with that one tour on your website. I can see you now have five different tours and an option to customize. Which one is the most popular?
Ian: So far and away, the lion’s share of the business or the tours that come through are – and I just changed the name and this is for Google reasons and for simplicity reasons, so now it’s called Philadelphia Highlights Tour. Before that, I was calling it Philly Squared, which I love. And again, this goes to get outside of your own echo chamber. I loved that. I got to a point where I’ve heard a few people say to me like, “If I’m just going to your site, I’m not sure if I know what that means, Philly Squared.” You want to make it as easy to understand as you possibly can.
Ian: So that run, the Philly Squared/City Highlights Tour, that one and the Rocky one are the ones that get the most. I have done all the other runs, however, they make up a much smaller percentage, and that would be the Fairmount Run, there’s a Beer Run – there’s a longer and shorter one – and then there’s a Mural one. I’ve known this from other tour guides, it’s like what ends up happening is, you want to present a face of a breath, that you’re doing all the stuff even if behind the scenes, you’re only doing a couple of them for the most part. The [00:31:52] but if you’re given the appearance and you have the ability to do a much broader range of things than I think, it makes you look more attractive in the eyes of a potential consumer.
Shane: Yeah. And I think also what I hear on the show is not having too many tours as well because it has the opposite effect. If you had 20 tours to pick from, then everyone’s kind of, “Ah, I don’t know which one to pick. Let me review. Let me research.” Then they end up either not booking or going out.
Ian: Yeah. I’d be curious, do you think what I have is too many compared to what you see?
Shane: No, no.
Ian: It seems just about right. It’s a small amount. It’s still only five plus a customized, right?
Shane: No, I like it because as someone who’s been to Philly as a tourist and who likes to run and who loves Rocky and who loves beer, my question here is, which one do I pick?
Ian: Right. Okay. That’s awesome. That’s good to hear. It’s good.
Shane: Yeah. I mean, we’ll touch on it in a short while about the picking of the tours but I like that it’s clear that there’s an objective to each one in terms of the areas. So, no, I think it’s fine. It’s just I was speaking to some people who have like 20+ tours and they pared them down, then their revenues went up because you only have – there’s an old book, an old adage called “Don’t Make Me Think” which we used in a previous job of mine. When you’re talking about online booking, I think it really does make a difference.
The question I have for you as well is not to do with your tours as such but the Rocky Run, just to be clear, I once saw a YouTube video and it showed the Rocky Run and it said, “Well, if you actually ran in all the places he does in the movies, it’s like an 18-mile run or something.”
Ian: Right. There’s actually somebody —
Shane: Is that true?
Ian: Yeah. There’s actually somebody that does the Rocky 50K. That’s actually more like, I guess, about a 30-mile run rather than 18. If you were to try to do the Rocky stuff in the chronological order that it’s sort of in across the first few movies, it’s like a 50K run.
Shane: Right. The magic of movie-making, right?
Ian: Right. Another different —
Shane: San Francisco all the time, they turn a corner and be on the other side of the City. I mean, it’s fun when you know it.
Ian: It’s the same thing here, yeah. You’re down on the Navy – so, the majority of Rocky stuff is in the Kensington Area of just the start of North Philly. That’s where the boxing, training room is. It’s where the bar is from the first couple of movies, some of that night life stuff.
Ian: And then the house where he lives with Adrianne and the church where they get married, her restaurant, all that stuff, that’s down more in South Philly. And then the steps are over on the art museum which is Central Philadelphia but it’s getting over towards the western part. So, all of those things are not really all the close to each other.
Shane: Yeah, yeah. I was just curious about that. As a big fan of the movie, that’s definitely the one I would pick.
Ian: Cool. I’ll take you.
Ian: You’re not that far away. Come out. I’ll take you out for a run.
Shane: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll definitely do that. I mean, I’ve run up the steps on my own but not as part of a run with others. It would be kind of cool to do that.
Ian: Fun. Please do, you’ll love it. Yeah.
Shane: Yeah. How did you device your tours? You have five. I mean, what was the process that you sat down, thought, “Alright, I want to come up with different tours”?
Ian: I started augmenting a database which I already had which was through the Philadelphia Tour Guide Association. I suddenly had a few hundred different sites, facts about them, and then started thinking about, okay, what are the different stories that I can curate that people may be interested in? The historical one is more of I approach this as – you got to tell the story and that my story is that a lot of people come to Philadelphia and they have a very limited view of what Philadelphia is. There’s just a couple different things they might know about. They might know about Ben Franklin or Rocky, but Philadelphia has this chip on its shoulder, sort of feels like, “Well, we used to be the best. We used to be the biggest. We used to be the strongest.” It’s all about that, and the movie Rocky is about that. That’s why Rocky was so successful because Rocky is a personification of the city itself.
So, identified all these locations and I started to think about – and I looked around what other people were doing. Very historical sort of – again, [00:35:53] I want to show you actually how cool – as much of Philadelphia as I possibly can in a short amount of time. That’s the original one. Of course, the Rocky one is just iconic, so I have to do that and I’m glad I did. And then the Beer one, Philadelphia, not only do we have a lot of breweries but we have a lot of breweries sort of in the central part of the city, that’s why I chose that. Philadelphia has the largest public arts program also in America, so that’s why the Mural one was done. But I like to try to mix the murals with – so there’s the publicly funded program and then there’s all of the sort of independent art it does, so it needs to be a little bit of both because then you’re also sort of doing something that’s unique, that nobody else is doing. And then the Fairmount one is again, just another part of Philadelphia.
Some people, especially if they’re going to be here on assignment here for a couple of weeks, that’s just a whole other side to the city. Really, it was like I wanted to find five things that were unique and have a little bit of overlap, right. What I don’t want is somebody to sign up for two different runs and have too much overlap. But it’s okay if I can leverage some of the material from this and put it into that, that’s okay.
Shane: Absolutely. And there’s no chickens involved in the Rocky Run, right, no chasing any chickens?
Ian: No chickens. We do run by live chickens.
Shane: There you go.
Ian: Actually, one block down the street from my house is on the corner of — there’s a few businesses that have been grandfathered in, where you come in and order live birds and they actually do the whole work right in front of you. The Rocky Run runs right by one of those and sometimes they’re squawking out there as we run by. But the people likes to see is like they’re waiting right before they chop off the head of the chicken.
Shane: That’s superb. That’s great. Yeah, I like that. And I guess, putting myself in the consumer shoes for a moment, I’ve been to Berlin quite a lot and they have running tours there. I’ve always been too nervous to sign up for it because, “One of these runners,” like I said at the start, I’m a plodder. I don’t really consider myself a runner anymore. I’ve ran four half marathons. I used to run a lot then I got old and got injured so I don’t run as much as I used to. So, I always get nervous when I see running tours. I think it’d be really good to do it but I’m nervous. How do you overcome that? Because I imagine that’s a big challenge that people face when they want to go on a running tour.
Ian: Great question. I mean, that’s the constant hill that I have to overcome and try to convince people of such. You said you’re just on my website. I try to put that in the language very early on. I include this language of like all runner is welcome. It’s on my Instagram page, it’s in the Facebook that all runners are welcome. And just the way that I try to position thins in general and the way that I do my SEO and again, this is the way that I’m trying to differentiate myself between the other couple of companies that do this, is that I really don’t want my company to be geared only towards avid runners. And so I often get questions about like, “What if you have very strong runners versus very novice runners that show up?” Reality is that’s happened and don’t show up in high heels. Don’t show up thinking that we’re going to set a world record either. We fall into a median pace, there’s breaks. I try to just set that tone and make people understand that before they make – what I don’t want is somebody to think it’s something that it’s not and show up and be highly disappointed and crush me with this zero star review.
Shane: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Ian: I want to always be like, “Hey, look make this very clear upfront, we’re not going to fly. We’re not going to walk. It’s somewhere in between.” It worked so far and I hope it continues to work. To be honest, the bigger challenge I have sometimes is just the diversity of people and their own perspectives that come into the tour. Meaning you have to make this interesting and engaging and transformative for total wide range of people.
Shane: Yeah, absolutely.
Ian: Some people from Uzbekistan that have no idea about America and they show up, and then also like some Marines show up from Texas. Those people are coming from very different places and you have to find a way, and we do it all the time, to make it cool for all of them. That’s harder than the running side sometimes, right?
Shane: Although I think that if I was the one on running tour, yeah, I want to learn history and some fun facts but I’m not expecting it to be like an Oxford Academic —
Ian: No, I want to give that —
Shane: If I go on a Cold War walk in Berlin, I’m expecting something a little bit more than “Here’s checkpoint Charlie” to be quite frank. But on a running tour, I would just assume, hey, you’re going to get some fun factoids, things that most people don’t know, and some general stuff. I think, going back to the other point, you know this and I know this as runners, that the running community is very, very friendly. It took a lot of courage for me to join running groups when I looked in San Francisco. I also thought [00:40:50] super fast and laugh at me. No one ever laughed at me, even the really fast, they would hang back. And if they were interested, then you would have a chat and conversation. I think it’s one of these things that once you do the first running tour, you’re alright. They’re all like this. We’re fine. And you overcome that.
Ian: That’s 100% the case, super friendly community, everybody’s welcome. Yeah, a running tour, you’re right, it’s different than a walking tour.
Shane: And I’m not demeaning it what way but I mean because I’m running with you, it’s like I’m not —
Ian: I embrace it, though. Meaning, I actually answer or think about it in this way, that I think my core demographic, younger demographic, they want to do a tour in the same way that they process information when they’re surfing the internet which is the primary way that they get internet. How do they do that? They look at headlines. They might read a paragraph or two, boom. Move on. Next thing. That’s how a running tour works, right? We’re not going to go on a long diatribe about why Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton, when it happened, blah, blah. By the time I get into the third or fourth sentence, people have fallen asleep. So, we need to move on and look at the next cool thing. I need to tell you a couple of things you otherwise would not have known and I we do that the whole time. I would do that for a hundred different things in the city and you’ll be like, “That was awesome. I never could have done that by myself.”
Shane: In terms of text, I noticed that your online bookings, if I want to book online with you, you’re working with Fair Harbor?
Ian: Yeah, that’s right.
Shane: How long have you been working with Fair harbor for?
Ian: Business is super young, right?
Ian: So, I’ve only been online for six months but I started out using the vendor which Squarespace provides you, the free version of another provider, so I switched out of them because I had somebody just tell me like in terms of the transaction fee that they charge is lower than industry standard, that they focus specifically just on tour industry or tourism. So, that’s how I selected them. There’s some elements I would give them an A-. I mean, I think it’s been good and they’re very responsive. It’s like anything. I’m a very hands-on kind of person. I want to understand the why and when you outsource that kind of work – because it’s not like I need them every day. I only need them every once in a while. But I need to like depend on them to make changes. That’s the one part of it I don’t like.
Shane: Well, let me tell this to you, Ian. We’re very lucky at Tourpreneur that many people, including senior management at Fair Harbor listen to Tourpreneur, and I’m very flattered that they do that. So, you have their ear right now, what would you say to them that you would like them to change or implement in order to make your business more effective?
Ian: It’s a great question.
Shane: Don’t go shy on me now, will you.
Ian: No. Like anything, their customer service is sort of scattered all over the world. They all speak great English. They’re all professional. It’s just my only hang up is that sometimes I would like to do something myself but I need them to do it for me, and there can be some back and forth in terms of understanding exactly what I was asking for. So, here was the hang up, for the most part, they fixed it. So, they put up a hovering “Book Now” button that goes throughout the website, it’s everywhere. And it just doesn’t need to be everywhere. Like, I love that it’s in certain places and they think because every single time somebody buys, they get some money, so they would never want to limit it in any location. That “Book Now” button does not need to be in the blog page, I don’t think, or like – there’s pages throughout the website where it’s just confusing for it to be there and it’s totally unnecessary and detracts from the experience, and they were a little bit sort of like not that happy to not completely cover my website; (1) because it’s work, and (2) because it’s potentially taking away from their revenue. In my mind, I’m thinking, by doing that, you’re actually increasing your revenue possibilities because you’re not going to turn anybody off.
Here’s the other thing, if I have a promotion like, let’s say, on Facebook, I don’t want people to have to click 5 times. I want them to click directly unto the URL that’s going to take them as fast as possible for the processing of the transaction. And Fair Harbor, if you post their link on, say, your Facebook page, the thumbnail picture is just like this crappy “F” for Fair Harbor. It’s not a picture of my business, and I feel like it takes away from clicks because people are like – you know what I mean, like – I don’t even know what that is. It’s Fair Harbor. So, if there was a way to make it not be FairHarbor.com\ URLs in more places, that would be helpful, too. If it’s SeePhillyRun.com URLs as everywhere possible and not theirs because it only leads to confusion and I think people – Fair Harbor can be totally safe but it could turn people off because they’re like, “I don’t know what that is.”
Shane: Yeah, it could be bad. Yeah, the man on the street doesn’t really know Fair Harbor.
Ian: They’re going to be, “What’s Fair Harbor? I don’t know what that is.”
Shane: I mean, I guess, in their shoes, what I would do with you is say, “Right. In terms of the popup, here is your revenue with the pop ups on all the pages. Here it is without, and then you make that decision because it’s ultimately your business.” And if you’re like, “Well, yeah, I’ve lost some money but I think the experience is enhanced.” And I share that because on my own site at Tourpreneur, I did a test where I sent out a daily brief which is a curated email of all news. In fact, I put SeePhillyRun in there when I found the article, so it gives out the —
Ian: Nice. I’d love to see that, cool.
Announcer: Did you know every weekday, Shane curates the most interesting news articles in tours and activities and sends them out in a snappy daily digest? Grab your copy of the Tourpreneur Daily Briefing at www.tourpreneur.com.
Shane: I have pop ups on every single pages and I’ve got complaints from people, “Shane, you have way too many pop ups on your site. This is bad news.” And I took them all down and then I left it a week and then I went back and look at conversions and my conversion really plummeted when I took off those pop ups. So, it’s that decision you have to make which is, okay, of course, I live or die by those signups but also, how many people have I annoyed because of those pop ups. It is a big decision to make.
Shane: So, I think, sometimes having those numbers in front of you, you make the call.
Ian: Right. You just lose some control by using an outside vendor like that. I don’t know that analytics, right, the data of it. I don’t know how many people go inside FairHarbor.com\ the URLs that are associated with my business and how many of those are coming and leaving. They know. I don’t. They don’t share that with me.
Shane: So, in terms of other tools, so you used Fair Harbor, Squarespace, you’ve used SEMrush in the past, are there any other apps or tools that you use that’s really super useful for you and your business?
Ian: Yeah. I mean, it’s local but it’s – so Philly has like a bike share program.
Ian: I know this is maybe way off topic but for my type of tour, it’s super useful because I could end tours at different locations than I began them which give me a pro and con but bike tours kind of do that, so what it is, I run to the start point, get them freshed up and then we go – and then take one of these city bikes from wherever it is that I end. So, I actually use almost the city bikes related to my tourist almost every single day that’s called “Indigo.” That’s an app that I use. Let me look at my phone. I mean, I don’t know. What else do I use that’s a common app related to the business? I mean, clearly I’m using Airbnb. When I have larger tours, I’ve done where I so Uber Conference. So, if I take larger groups out, this is going to be more for like conventions and stuff. If I had to take like 50 people out, I’ll or have another runner in the back, then I’ll have people bring their own ear buds, dial in and have that running around. And then I have like a mic’ed up headset, where I’m being like, “This is the VSFS building which was founded in the 1930s.” So, I use that app. The analytics app is just something that I use quite a bit from Squarespace.
Shane: Were there any books that you found were super useful for you either when you were starting out or even now where you’re looking to take your business to the next stage? Are there any folks that you recommend to people or podcasts or anything like that?
Ian: Another good question. I mean, I got a lot of just pure running books. I mean, there’s a lot of business books but that’s kind of more connected to my time when I was in business school.
Shane: Sure. Just recommend Born to Run then, isn’t it, Crystal McDougall?
Ian: Born to Run, yeah. What I think about when I’m running which is by – do you know that one? It’s a Japanese – I forget his name.
Shane: I need all the mental juice I can get when I’m, out there running.
Ian: He’s a great writer. I loved him but that is not going to be applicable to your general audience.
Shane: No. Okay. No worries, it’s fine. Not everyone is a big reader and had books they recommend. Good. Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to share with our listeners today?
Ian: Just Philadelphia, come here. It’s a great place. Philadelphia is a growing, growing market, 45 million people come here every year. Really cool position between New York and D.C. If you do come here, it’s a great place to run because it’s flat, it’s gridded, there’s a million different stories to tell. It’s an awesome city and it’s one that is changing right before our eyes but still is sort of maintaining a lot of the historical gems that it’s always had.
Shane: Marvelous. Well —
Ian: I would just like plug for SeePhillyRun.
Shane: Yeah, I’ll load all the links to the show notes for today’s show. Ian, thank you very much for coming on the show. I’m really excited to visit Philly at some point, got some friends down there, and come on the Rocky Tour because that —
Shane: Yeah. I’d love to get on that. And keep on running, sir.
Ian: Thank you. Thank you very much. It’s my pleasure to be here. good luck with Tourpreneur. I hope it continues to grow and I’m glad that you invited me on and I’m glad to have been here.
Shane: And a big thank you to Ian Thomas of SeePhillyRun.com for giving up some of his time to share his experience, his journey, his knowledge, his successes and his challenges with us here on the Tourpreneur Podcast. Who do you want to hear next on the show? Do you have an exciting story to share with fellow Tourpreneurs? Then go over to Tourpreneur.com, hit the contact page and let me know. I’d love to feature your story here on Tourpreneur. And as always, if you’ve enjoyed today’s show and if you know someone else in the industry who you feel would get a lot out of this, maybe be inspired to start their own tour, please do drop them the link, that’s Tourpreneur.com. Until next time, cheerio.
Announcer: Thank for listening to the Tourpreneur Podcast. Be sure to visit Tourpreneur.com to join the conversation and access the show notes, including links to the resources mentioned on today’s episode.