Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
We are 3 young Italian travelers in love with eagerness to explore the world and their country who think that traveling should be allowed to everybody, despite how big the pocket is.
Starting from zero we created the first and biggest network of Free Walking Tours in Italy. A travel format based on the gig economy. Nowadays, after only 2 years, we run tours in 24 cities in Italy, with more than 7,000 tourists lead around only in the cities of Bologna, Verona, and Pisa (+150% if compared to 2018)...not bad since we started from the dust of a road counting only on ourselves.
Below a really “homemade” picture of our first national meeting
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
The idea came upon a journey on the road from Shanghai to Cambodia. We participated in several Free Walking Tours and we realized it was a perfect way to discover cities from a new perspective...more real. Usually, Free Walking Tours have an easier and more funnier approach to the city tour, focusing more on the concepts than on details (that would easily be forgotten). They target an audience of independent travelers, not organized in big groups, on which Italian tourism never really bet and developed dedicated services, the street was therefore quite empty.
Lele (one of the 3 founders) asked us: “why shouldn’t we do it in Italy? It is not even well-developed”. The answer was right there “why not?!” and we simply started. We had an idea of the great potential of Free Walking Tours, before starting the adventure we deeply interviewed some of the Free Walking Tour managers around the world.
Our financial situation was a complete disaster, we were 28 and had very little money in our pockets. The only winning point was that we had a solid basis of project management and commercial management grew in other companies in which we were working as employees. We applied a professional approach to the business in an “American style”, which is not common in the Italian touristic sector.
We invested 3,000€ to register the company and start building our network of guides. Every single cent was reinvested, everything aimed at a brighter future and bigger achievements!
We spend a lot of time on QUALITY. Our tours must be the best ones, if they are not it means we have to work harder. We are used to thinking that the higher the price, the higher the quality but this is a huge lie!
The innovative format helped us a lot to foster the word of mouth around us. In Italy, it is also today unthinkable that a business can work and grow only thanks to donations, especially in tourism, where the mainstream approach is to “rip-off the tourist”. In the Free Walking Tour, participants decide what is the value of the tour at its end and are free to attribute the value they want (yes they are free not to give anything...but if you do a good job, why should they?!).
This created a big mess around us and pushed our visibility in a very short time.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The first launch of the project was in Modena (where we live), a small/medium city nearby Bologna which recently started to see some tourists from abroad. Nobody would bet a cent on us, especially in Modena, and the result instead was brilliant!!
In the beginning, the guide was a friend of ours, in a later stage, we had to develop a dedicated communication on social networks to find new guides.
The most effective action in this sense was the organization of a small event in which we introduced ourselves and the activity to the city. The event was thought for the people working in the tourism sector. During those presentations, we usually ended up with a few CVs to be evaluated.
Not only foreigners were joining and enjoying the tour but we understood that there was a massive group of locals who wanted to re-discover their city, which meant a completely new group of customers for us.
The win-points for us have always been the innovation of the topic of the tours and/or the innovative way of explaining the subjects, for example using a more interactive way of explaining.
Since the experience in Modena (small city) was positive, we opened up also in the nearby Bologna (big and beautiful city) and the real results came rapidly!
Opening up a new city wasn’t hard as we already had the experience, the most important thing is to understand the trend of the city, every city is different from the other and so the activities which should be done there.
With the accumulated experience and some more money to count on, we started opening new cities and building new partnerships with the existing Free Walking Tours until today.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
What worked for us were 3 main points:
Having an innovative idea (for the Italian environment to bring ahead) which fostered the word of mouth, which is still our best advertising
Spend a lot of time on QUALITY. Our tours must be the best ones, if they are not it means we have to work harder. We are used to thinking that the higher the price, the higher the quality but this is a huge lie! Especially if you work only for donations you have to show participants that you deserve every single cent!
We avoid all other platforms and invest everything on our website. Especially at the beginning, it would have been easier and more profitable to sell our tours on other websites (on those multinational platforms based in Silicon Valley which have a ridiculous amount of money to spend in advertising). We decided not to do that, firstly because they don’t care at all about quality and local tourism. Secondly, because we wanted our website to grow.
First the whole of 2018 and a half of 2019, results were quite small, but suddenly from July, the views to our website started growing like never before! Several newspapers and agencies noticed our work and wrote about us...the result was astonishing.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We closed 2019 being awarded as the most innovative tourism company in the city of Modena and cooperating with several other municipalities on local projects.
We didn’t know 2020 was preparing a trick for all of us...THE LOCKDOWN and the absence of tourists. From March to June we lived in very bad times, almost no income, and no perspective.
We avoid all other third-party platforms and invest everything on our website. Especially at the beginning, it would have been easier for us and more profitable to sell our tours on other websites.
While most of the tourist sector was crying, we decided to do what we know better...have fun not to get too bored! We started therefore to organize virtual tours and more innovative activities for Italians. This gave us the financial possibility to stay strong and survive the period and at the same time to grow our reputation locally.
We started for example a project to foster industrial tourism in the city of Bologna, which was recognized by the city of Bologna.
A forecast we recently read predicted a failure of roughly 30% of the Italian companies operating in tourism. We are alive and still plenty of energy! Moreover, with the first flights cooking from abroad we have immediately received new reservations and we are back on track!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
It would probably sound boring but we have understood that the team is the real winning point. It is not necessary that the team has the best skills or knowledge but it has to be united and motivated to do better every day. Mistakes are not a problem, lack of motivation is a real problem.
We have fewer skills and knowledge than many tourist operators in Italy but still, we are playing our games, and day by day we are making more and more points.
This is us a couple of years ago...we like to remember us like this...
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We have created the website thanks to the help of a local website design company made of young people. Freewalkingtouritalia.com is based on Shopify with no particular app on it besides the booking system.
We would need to switch to a more powerful and dynamic platform but the current situation with COVID is not helping us...we most probably do it in 2021
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
We are young but we are old inside...the inspiration came most of the time from our friends and families which supported us in every possible way. What you need is not a podcast, is the support or a suggestion from a beloved which gives you the energy to push for the next step. All the answers are in front of us, we just need to have the energy to look for them.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Our suggestion is to avoid thinking of innovation as something which will lead us directly to the future. The innovation which works most of the time in real life and business is a small upgrade/new idea which leads you out of the box. This small innovation is more than enough to put you in the position to play your game.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
At the moment we are looking for a web-marketing responsible who can take care and bring to the next step all our online communication.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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