My name is Sidney Smith. I own and operate Haunted History Tours, considered by many to be the #1 tour company in New Orleans, and recommended by the Travel Channel as… ’A Must Do!’ Haunted History offers several different amazing tours daily & nightly, with a focus on the paranormal. Ghosts, Vampires, Voodoo, Cemeteries, plus more!
Both walking tours and bus tours are available and guaranteed to leave each guest SPELLBOUND! Additionally, I also own VIP City Tours, offering bus tours of the entire city, three times daily. And finally, I operate two French Quarter Welcome Centers, offering discounted tickets on all New Orleans attractions.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
I was the only child of elderly parents, neither of whom came from wealth. From an early age, I was fascinated with how people made money. As a kid, when I’d go on family vacations with my parents, driving across the country, I remember being curious as to who this ‘Howard Johnson’ was and how he created this massive hotel/restaurant chain.
When I was 15, my father died. He was an amateur photographer and I began a photographic career focusing on rock stars. Between the ages of 16 and 22, I worked with some of the most famous musicians on the planet. Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, and The Allman Brothers Band were all artists whom I worked directly within forging what I thought would be a career as a professional photographer.
At 22, I followed a different dream when I started Merry Minstrel Singing Telegrams, an entertainment company delivering comical, mini theatrical performances for birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions.
After successfully opening offices in several different cities around the country, I sold that business and started Haunted History Tours in 1995. Haunted History was one of the first (if not the first) companies in the country offering haunted/paranormal tours of a major metropolitan city. New Orleans has always been a major tourist destination and considered by many to be the most haunted city in the country. My original idea was to conduct all the tours myself in a theatrical, yet historical vein. I soon discovered that my time and talents were better-spent marketing and promoting the company. I began hiring tour guides with theatrical abilities who would make the stories come alive, leaving all tour participants with a ‘WOW!’ experience. Today, Haunted History Tours is arguably the most popular tour company in New Orleans, employing almost 50 tour guides offering over a dozen different daily / nightly options, including many private tours for school groups, convention groups, and family gatherings. We are also the only company to have literally written the book on famous New Orleans haunts, ‘New Orleans Ghosts, Voodoo, & Vampires’, a local bestseller.
Additionally, Haunted History is the only company to have had a nightly television series, ‘Haunted New Orleans’, of which I was the host for over a year.
My journey has been one of ups and downs, including bankruptcy in the late 1980s due to circumstances both in and out of my control. And I have learned powerful lessons along the way, the most important of which is to be frugal when necessary, and not to spend more money than you are making.
Haunted History Tours continues to be a leader in the tourism industry. However, in March of 2020, the Coronavirus shut our business down along with all hospitality industry businesses. Prior to this, the only similar challenge we’ve had was having to rebuild the tourism industry after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That disaster took almost two years to recover from. Sometimes only the strong survive, and I am dedicated to bringing our tours back to life whether it takes months or years.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I've always considered myself to be a 'frustrated actor'. My original game plan was to create a creepy ghost tour of which I would be the sole tour guide conducting tours throughout the ancient cobblestone streets and sidewalks of the New Orleans French Quarter. My plan was to utilize my animated personality to make the tours come alive and leave everyone with a desire for more. I also possess a natural ability for marketing and promotion. That, coupled with the fact that I am a professional photographer would make it easy for me to create and market the product.
I spent countless hours writing the copy and taking the pictures for the ads that I planned to run in tourist publications. There would also be brochures to create and decisions as to which avenues to spend my advertising dollars. In New Orleans, all tour guides must be licensed by the City before they are allowed to dispense the city's history. The licensing process involves going through a maze of hoops and hurdles including passing a test on the city's history. After becoming licensed, my time became so involved in creating the stories and promoting the name Haunted History Tours, that I soon realized my time was far better spent on the marketing end rather than spending the lion's share of my day conducting tours. By the time I had all my eggs in a row, I had already created 3 separate tours (Ghost, Cemetery, & Garden District) and needed to hire additional licensed guides. I looked for guides with some acting ability who would share my vision as to how I wanted the tours conducted.
Describe the process of launching the business.
After hiring my initial 3 tour guides, I went balls to the wall on promoting the business. Early on, I struck a deal with a popular Voodoo Shop in the French Quarter as a start point for our tours. I then struck a deal with a bar next to the Voodoo shop for our tour participants to receive 2 for one drink specials. I created 2 different brochures in the beginning...One to promote the French Quarter Ghost and Cemetery Tours and one for the Garden District.
I paid visits to dozens of hotels and welcome centers every day talking up the tours and working out special commissions for concierges who were promoting my particular tours to their guests. This proved invaluable, as hotel concierges are often the first individual a tourist speaks to when asking for local info as to what to see and do in the city. I spent a small fortune on advertising in local and national tourism publications. I became a member of the Convention & Visitors Bureau and took advantage of contacting convention groups who would be visiting New Orleans within the upcoming months.
I came up with souvenirs (such as) skull fans to pass out to tourists during our hot and humid summer months. (See attachment). All of this contributed to the successful launching of Haunted History Tours.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Constant promotion. Always staying ahead of your competition. In the beginning, I had no real competition to speak of. Twenty-five years later, there are over 40 tour companies competing for the exact same tourist dollar as Haunted History Tours. I've had to create several new tours to stay ahead of the game including a Haunted Pub Crawl, which is perfect for a party town like New Orleans.
Continue to promote, advertise, and market your company, even when you believe yourself to be #1 in the industry.
Another relatively new creation over the last few years has been a twice nightly Ghost & Legends Tour by BUS taking folks to areas outside of the French Quarter into areas that they wouldn't normally visit while visiting the city. I also have opened up my own tourism welcome centers in and around the French Quarter selling my tours exclusively as well as other non-competitive ones such as swamp tours and riverboat tours. Years ago, we also created a local best selling book, New Orleans Ghosts, Voodoo, & Vampires which helps to solidify Haunted History Tours as the expert in the industry. (See attachment)
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I was doing great until the COVID 19 Pandemic closed our business down along with all others in the tourism and hospitality industry. The current situation is similar to what New Orleans experienced after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. With determination, we slowly came back to life from that experience and we will rise again from this crisis as well.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Don't spend more money than you are making. Continue to promote, advertise, and market your company, even when you believe yourself to be #1 in the industry. There will always be someone looking to dethrone you. Always stay informed as to what your competition is doing. And as the old adage goes...Stay close to your friends, even closer to your enemies.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use social media such as FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram. We have pages for each tour to cross-promote as well as our own paranormal site and podcast called Scariest Paranormal Radio. We also have a podcast called *Afterlife Radio.. Haunted History Tours also promotes Dark Oak Press which is affiliated with Iheart radio. My advertising dollars are spent on tourist publications as well as internet advertising.
I have created several different brochures for my company which is featured at numerous hotels, welcome centers, restaurants, and other locations throughout the city. Hotel concierges are extremely valuable to a tourism-related business. Having a great relationship with hotel staff can do wonders for promoting a tour company.
Additionally, I often send out complimentary copies of our company’s best selling book (which I mentioned earlier) to prospective clients who inquire about bringing large groups to New Orleans. As a member of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, I receive notices of upcoming conventions and I will often reach out long before these groups hit the town in the hopes of acquiring their business. I also create and give out promotional items for the tours.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
For Haunted History Tours, and even for VIP City Tours, we have a wealth of information in and on New Orleans through a variety of Louisiana historic archives including the Williams Research Center, the Historic New Orleans Collection, and even the public libraries. For Haunted History Tours, we have conducted many of our own paranormal investigations which have in turn become a great resource for the tours that we conduct as well as other books we have written, such as The Ultimate Guide For Ghost Hunters by Kalila Smith, a member of our staff.
Kalila has also created the New Orleans Paranormal Research Society, dedicated to the research and documentation of all things paranormal. In fact, Kalila has also taught the Haunted History of New Orleans at 2 local universities, solidifying our company as the ‘go-to’ for paranormal tours and information.
In conclusion, what I would suggest to those out there who wish to start their own business is simply to start saving your money. Many people have not acquired that ability and spend foolishly when they could be saving for their dream. Choose an industry that you love, form a game plan, and don’t be afraid to invest your savings. However, do your homework. Learn who your competitors are, how much initial investment will be needed, and be prepared to work your tail off in the beginning. It took me years to realize that I could actually delegate responsibility to others. I was convinced that I had to do everything myself in order to succeed. Once you get past the initial start-up period and have money available, don’t be afraid to delegate. It will add years to your life!
Where can we go to learn more?
Due to the fact that both Haunted History Tours and VIP City Tours are tourism-related businesses, 90% of my marketing efforts are directed at those visiting the City of New Orleans.
On several occasions, I have invested my promotional dollars on local advertising campaigns which went nowhere. KNOW your industry, do your homework, and with a little luck, you WILL succeed.
For more information on my personal business ventures, I invite you to visit these websites:
- VIP City Tours
- Rock Star Photos
- Haunted History Tours on Instagram
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Discover the best strategies of successful business owners
Join our newsletter and receive our handcrafted recap with the best insights shared by founders in Starter Story each week.
Useful, convenient, and free:
Are you ready to boost your revenue?
Using Klaviyo will open up a massive, untapped sales channel and bring you closer to your customers!
Level up your email marketing with Klaviyo!