Three Ways Tour Operators Can Grow During the COVID-19 Crisis

It was March 12th and coronavirus reports were getting more sobering by the minute. The NBA had just suspended its season and the rest of the sports world was about to follow suit. Then I heard all the news I needed to confirm what I had been sensing for weeks. As soon as news broke that Tom Hanks was diagnosed with COVID-19, I knew things had just become personal for the nation. Even in my wildest worst case scenario dreams, I didn’t realize how bad it would get. The next morning, I received a phone call — a cancellation for a convention in July that I had been working on for a year. After that the next call came and they didn’t stop. Within 48 hours, we had cancelled $200,000 worth of tours.

Our Pivot

Amid the national shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we faced a 100-percent loss of revenue. In the week following the state of Wisconsin’s shutdown, I knew our business required an immediate pivot in business operations to not only sustain payroll, but also continue support for the small local businesses our tours feature on a daily basis. Initially launched as care packages featuring hyper-local food and virtual tour experiences for Milwaukeeans, we worked quickly over the course of a weekend to reach out to many of our food manufactures featured on our tours to see how we could partner to offer products via care packages as well as to convert our website for product sales.

By Monday morning we had our first care packages ready for purchase. Milwaukeeeans and our committed past tour attendees in the community did not disappoint. Within 5 minutes of posting on Facebook we started receiving order after order after order. It quickly snowballed from that one post. Our Shelter-in-Style and Quarantine Care Kits were officially on sale.

Hyper local deliveries in Milwaukee have included a few different options. Nonna’s Easter Box featured favorite treats from chocolate shops and bakeries paired with an Easter Lily. The I Love You Mom package had locally-made cheesecake, flowers, handmade soaps and coffees.

The economic impact has been profound. Most recently, we offered a special Family Fiesta for Cinco de Mayo. We delivered to 140 area families – all within 90 minutes thanks to our team of drivers! We ordered over 1,900 tacos from a restaurant partner, 140 dozen churros from a Latina-owned bakery featured on our Tacos & Tequila tour, and 80 lbs of pinata candy! Within six weeks of the launch of care package distribution, sales have infused $80,000 back to small businesses as a direct result of orders placed online. The quick thinking has allowed us to maintain our full time staff as well as to hire back some of our part-time tour guides and bus drivers to help with local deliveries.

Our Quarantine Care Kits have shifted focus on providing products available for nationwide shipment. Some of our most popular include a “Bakery Bus in a Box” featuring ethnic bakeries from our Christmas Bakery Bus tours, “Quarantine Birthday in a Box” featuring everything needed for an at-home celebration, and a “Chocolate Self Care Kit” perfect for all of the spring holidays including Mother’s Day, Teacher Appreciation Week and Graduation.

We have already heard from so many individuals thanking them for helping the food vendors in Milwaukee. The return from the fast work of developing the Quarantine Care Packages as our pivot will be tenfold return. Besides generating revenue, it’s helping to elevate our brand and remind people that we have always been in it for more than just ourselves, we’ve been it for Milwaukee – and we’re proving it now.

Notecard of support and encouragement left for Milwaukee Food & City Tours by a past tour attendee while delivering them a Quarantine Care Package.

Our Daily Workflow

Although there are so many unknowns and our worlds seem to change on a daily basis, it is important to continue planning and moving ahead for return to tour operations.

Time is spent daily reading resources provided by Skift, as well as the Coronavirus Travel Sentiment Index prepared weekly by Destination Analytics. It provides insight on how potential visitors are currently feeling about travel, the virus, economic and safety concerns, and what they would like to see as common business practices once we re-open. I encourage you to read it here

We spend a lot of time talking with mentors in the industry, listening to other tour operators in Facebook groups such as Tourpreneur for Tour Operators/Tour Professionals and participating in conversations with member organizations such as VISIT Milwaukee and CIRCLE Wisconsin. We connect with our restaurant partners about what they believe the world of tourism and hospitality will look like in a post-pandemic world.

We’ve been talking with our past tour attendees too, asking them to share widely news of what we are offering with the Quarantine Care Kits. Nearly every single product we have offered was created in response to a conversation with a customer. Our organic search history for the month proves that when the drop-off happened, our customers responded to that request to share details of our pivot!

(By the way, if you wanted to share details to help us continue to expand our reach, feel free to share this link on your social media: Quarantine Care Kits)

The complete shutdown has allowed us to even get caught up on projects that have perpetually been on the backburner. Over the past year we worked with Blend Marketing to launch three new websites with the goal of improved conversion rate. We have continued to react to the pandemic with them to tweak our products and web presence to be successful with our current offerings.

Another highly productive project has been learning how use ActiveCampaign to its fullest potential to grow our business. Having just converted to this database in November, we already had seen a significant increase in our holiday gift card sales and our 2020 tour sales. We credit this to automating our emails and using their predictive modelling. For example, if a customer clicked a link in a newsletter about our Lenten Fish Fry Tour but did not purchase the ticket, they received an email at a later time reminding them to do so. Best yet – the reminder email was sent at the time the recipient was most likely to respond / click the link. The result? A 6-week season of our tours were at 100% capacity!

We can’t say enough things about the professionalism, training and results while working with ActiveCampaign during this downtime. If you are considering a new newsletter tool / database / CRM, we highly recommend it!

Our Post-Pandemic Re-Launch

Right now there are travel restrictions and in the coming months there will be serious reservations by Americans (and the world!) about traveling again. But, travel is in our DNA and we we know that we will travel again.

Locally, we operate Milwaukee Food & City Tours and we must be prepared for the day that we welcome travelers to Milwaukee again.

As part of the National Tour Association (NTA) Owner’s Network, we’ve been talking with fellow tour operators about what will be needed to re-open our business and ensure the safety of our guests and staff. Phil Sheldon of HE Travel recently led a conversation that has prompted us to consider several unanswered questions including:

  • Are there flights available to bring customers to Milwaukee to go on tour with us?
  • Can we deliver on our core tour components – visits to iconic museums and excellent food experiences?
  • What safety steps have been taken by the many partners we visit while on tour?
  • How do we manage social distancing on buses and other transportation when the group is together?
  • Is there a way to have a meal together at multiple restaurants during a tour while honoring social distancing?
  • In the past, tour tickets have been non-refundable. Should we allow no-penalty cancellations if someone cancels due to COVID-19 illness of themselves or a member of their household?
  • What if any Personal Protection Equipment should we require on tours? Masks? Hand sanitizers? Tissue? Should we provide them and if so, do we increase our risk of liability if someone becomes ill while on tour with our provided products?

Thirteen years ago we began offering walking culinary tours in Milwaukee, WI that tell the story of Milwaukee’s German, Italian, Polish and Irish immigrants. With more than 20 different tour routes and more than 100,000 attendees later, we quickly grew a fanbase of tour attendees that kept asking, “Can we travel with you?” Hence began what we call Travel Deliciously. Our trips allow our travelers to not only see the bucket list sights, but also delve into the culture through its cuisine and food experiences.

After testing the concept for the past 3 years with domestic travels along with recent international excursions to Poland and Cuba, we planned to launch the Travel Deliciously brand fully on March 1. As we all know, COVID-19 had other plans. We continue to move forward in prepping for the eventual launch of this brand, still curating and building itineraries for 2021 and beyond. Knowing that many of our fellow food tour operators in other cities have similar fan bases, and also knowing the many logistical behind offering overnight trips, we’ve been working to reach out to those companies to talk about what we are doing at Travel Deliciously and offering our trips on a co-branded or white label basis to them. Interested in offering a Travel Deliciously trip to your guests? Call us at 262-853-5239 or email to discuss!