How do you operate a walking tour business without people to walk alongside you – you transition them into an online experience. That was the question being asked by tour guide operators across New York City in March 2020 – myself included – when tourists were banned from travelling to the US because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Having spent years building a successful food and drink tour company in New York City – A Man & His Sandwich Tours – it took just three days for that business to effectively fold when the travel ban was announced. All future bookings were cancelled. Service providers closed. Marketplace platforms were suspended.
Six weeks later those same walking tours relaunched as an online experience - namely zoom enabled cooking classes. After a frantic first twelve months, with plenty of hits and misses along the way, 2020 became the best year of operation for A Man & His Sandwich Tours. Here are the top lessons learnt from taking a walking tour business online, to help fast track your transition.
Transitioning in-person walking food tours to online experiences seemed counterintuitive at first. Trying to create the same experience for guests online – walking into kitchens, meeting chefs, sampling multiple foods etc – felt impossible. Ultimately though, it was identifying what made those walking tours unique, and understanding that the food is just a vehicle for a broader interactive experience, that became the key to unlocking the online side of the business.
Rather than creating ‘just another cooking class’, we framed the online experience around a discussion of whether the hotdog is a sandwich – a theme of one of the previous walking tours. By doing so, the online class instantly captured the attention of potential customers and marketplaces, which led to it becoming one of the first online experiences promoted on Airbnb. Take the time to identify the special ingredients or unique moments that shine a spotlight on your story and business as you launch online. Capture your customer’s attention.
Launching an online cooking class business from a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment is less than ideal. Especially with a work from home partner in that same apartment. But with a ring light, a premium Zoom account, and a rotating schedule of one partner working from the bedroom, we made it work. Importantly, we quickly realized that our customers, clients and colleagues were doing the same from their own homes. And it was that relatability that bought us leniency, and ultimately success, when we launched the online experience.
After establishing your business processes over many years, upending them to relaunch online can be intimidating. So preserve whatever successful processes you can from the physical business, but don’t be afraid to attempt new ones to help launch your business online. Some of those new processes will not work at first, but you’ll learn quickly which ones they are and amend them as required. Practice will make perfect, and mistakes are amazing learning curves, so don’t be afraid to make them. Oh, and if you have a child or pet unexpectedly enter your zoom call with a client, lean into it, we’ve all been there.
If you are leaning into your hiccups, then it’s a good idea to lean into your successes too. As an existing business, one of your most valuable assets is your network. The successful transition from walking tours to online experiences was possible thanks to relationships with travel platforms, and the former guests who we had connected with through their websites.
Previous customers are an excellent launching pad for the new online arm of your business. When our cooking classes launched the first people to know about it were our previous walking tour guests. So get your marketing campaigns at the ready for your online launch! Our physical business service providers also had their own online strategies, so we tapped into them too. We leaned into our relationship with Airbnb to be an early mover on their online experiences platform and were happy to present to a small business council on their behalf when asked to do so.
Take your business to the globe, not the globe to your business.
The potential market for a business increases exponentially when it moves online. No longer did potential customers need to fly to New York to take a sandwich walking tour when we could bring New York into their living room. Suddenly, with a global audience now available for our business, we shifted our business model towards a low-cost, high volume strategy for our online experiences. This was done with the understanding that more customers that booked our class, the greater the exposure. This would then be amplified and promoted via social media channels, travel platform campaigns and word-of-mouth (the best advertising of them all).
So when taking your business online, take the time to consider who your new potential customers are and how they interact with your business. Factors such as global time zones or currency conversions become considerations for your business that may not have existed before. Craft your offering to new populations who you will not have reached before, but remember to build some flexibility into your new offerings, be attentive to feedback, and embrace the needs of a growing, increasingly global customer base.
Still not convinced? The online sandwich cooking class has now become its own Spark - The Great Hotdog Debate - come check it out live and see how asking whether a hot dog is a sandwich can transform your business.