This is a follow up story for Delicious Denver Food Tours. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published almost 2 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
My name is Jessica Baumgart, and in 2017 I launched Delicious Denver Food Tours, a walking food and drink tour company in Denver, CO. My walking tours feature local restaurants and chefs, and we take guests behind the scenes at some of the best and most unique restaurants in the Mile High City.
Our most popular tour is our Downtown Denver Food tour, which is a three-hour small group experience that features tastings at six award-winning local restaurants in the heart of downtown. Our local foodie guides talk about Denver’s emerging and thriving food scene as well as the city’s history along the way, so guests get to try many different local dishes while learning about the city itself.
Pre COVID-19 (my business is obviously on hold during the pandemic), we hosted between 300 and 600 guests per month on our food tours and averaged $35,000 in revenue monthly. I am the sole full-time employee of the business but couldn’t offer our tours without my team of 8 amazing tour guides and my 1 admin assistant.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
My business has continued to grow since we last talked, moving from about $20,000 in revenue monthly to roughly $35,000. That said, all of this was pre-pandemic.
It’s better to do one thing really well than to try to do lots of things halfway.
To achieve that growth, I focused a lot on SEO and organic traffic. Tours have a number of options to market themselves through OTAs or online travel agencies (TripAdvisor, Viator, Airbnb Experiences). All of these are great tools to get your products in front of travelers, but each OTA takes a big chunk in commissions (usually 10-25% of the total sale). For tour operators, our goal is always bringing sales directly to us through our websites, so I hired an SEO specialist and focused on producing content and improving my website to increase my domain authority and search rankings.
As my sales have increased, so has my staff. At the height of my business (right before restaurants and bars shut down due to COVID-19 concerns), I had a team of 8 part-time food tour guides running three tours across the city 7 days a week. I also had a part-time admin assistant that helped with day-to-day logistics. At this point, my team is furloughed as we wait to re-open tours when conditions are safe for small-group experiences.
To date, my most successful marketing and advertising tactics include Google ads and my partnership with Denver’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, Visit Denver. As my digital marketing experience was limited, this past year I decided to hire a marketing specialist on a contract basis to manage my Google ad spend and tell me where the holes were. This has been huge in eliminating waste and increasing my efficiency with Adwords.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
My biggest challenge continues to be scaling the business up while maintaining the same high quality for my tours.
In the beginning, I guided all of my tours and was the sole contact when building and maintaining relationships with the restaurants featured on my food tours. Now that I have a larger staff, I’ve had to outsource a lot of that work and handle growing in a way that doesn’t compromise the experience my guests receive on tour and the relationships I have with my restaurants, without which my business wouldn’t run.
This means that I’ve moved from an operator role more into a management role. Managing people comes with all sorts of ups and downs. My team is amazing, and they’ve brought me great ideas and angles I’m not thinking of. At the same time, there are personality conflicts and relationship conflicts that I’m responsible for managing to make sure that the business runs smoothly and all stakeholders are happy.
The biggest challenge we, of course, are currently facing is the COVID-19 pandemic. Tour businesses across the globe were just ramping up for our high season (usually summer when people travel) when this pandemic hit. With forced restaurant and bar closures and stay-at-home mandates, we, of course, shuttered the business completely. Some tour operators are pivoting to virtual experiences, but I decided pretty soon into this that what makes my food tours fun and engaging is the in-person experience dining in the restaurants. So unlike some of my peers, I am not changing my business’s focus but rather using this downtime to focus on long-term projects so that I can be ready to hit the ground running as soon as we can re-open. As a tourism business, I recognize that my industry will likely be the very last to recover, so my strategy is now stretching resources, reducing expenses, and holding on for as long as possible until my guests return and travel feels safe again.
It’s not ideal, but the major lesson I’ve learned is you have to have strong accounting systems in place. Many other tour operators did not keep enough cash in their businesses to refund future guests as they never expected every guest to request their money back. We were lucky that I’ve been conservative and always keep unearned revenue in the business, so I was able to quickly refund all guests and still have cash in the business to maintain systems while we wait this out.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
If you’d asked me this two months ago, my answer would have been very different. I would have talked about growth, launching new tours in Denver, expanding to other cities in Colorado, and growing my staff to include a full-time operations team.
Now the outlook looks different. My short-term goal (looking through the end of this year) is simply to re-open and start running my existing tours again. I fully expect to jump in and begin guiding again to reduce expenses, and my team will likely shrink to a few key guides.
Long term I fully expect tourism to recover as it has after every other major depression, recession, and global event. It may take many months or even years for things to look “normal” again in my sector, but I have no plans to change my business plan or shut it down. My intention is to continue to grow and to continue forming new relationships with restaurants and chefs in Denver so that I can keep providing amazing food experiences to my guests.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
On the personal front, I just had a baby a few months ago, so that’s meant my reading has pivoted from business books to baby books of late :).
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
The biggest mistake I see entrepreneurs make is overestimating how much of their target consumer’s time and attention they actually have. The fact is, people are incredibly busy, and you need to be able to communicate your value proposition quickly and directly.
I also see entrepreneurs try to do too much, thus convoluting their value proposition and losing focus. I think it’s better to do one thing really well than to try to do lots of things halfway.
Drop any loss leaders (unless they’re really providing you a good pipeline of actual sales), stop spending time on marketing channels that don’t produce revenue (social media can be a black hole for a lot of people) and whittle your product offering down to your bestseller(s). Then stay the course. Don’t jump ship right away and really give yourself time to grow.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I wish! When the world returns to normal, I’ll likely be hiring a virtual assistant, but who knows when that may be.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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