Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, my name’s Luke and I’m the founder of A Chef’s Tour, a niche travel business that creates and runs daily street food tours.
We’ve grown from our original four-hour Bangkok Backstreets tour to offering food tours in 12 cities across Asia and beyond. Our customers come from all over the world - the US, Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. Typically they aren’t backpackers, they’re people who want to really understand the culinary culture in a city, the cuisine’s background and history, and the ingredients and techniques behind the dishes.
Until Covid forced us into hibernation (like the rest of the travel industry), we were seeing revenue of $55,000 per month and increasing as tours outgrew their original departures and more were added. Fortunately, the world is beginning to open and we’re back in business showing guests the best street eats in each city.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My background has always been in travel. I delayed going to university so many times to travel, I realized this was the industry I should build a career in. Over the years I worked for several travel firms both in the student and luxury markets, but sitting in an office all day has never been my style. Ironically, the people selling travel don’t get to travel nearly as much as most outside the industry think.
The day the website went live, nothing happened. No inquiries, no bookings, no traffic, nothing. I’d worked in travel, but knew little about how to drive traffic onto a website or advertise our product offering.
Alongside travel, I’ve always had an interest in food, particularly Thailand’s street food. So, one day I quit my job, flew to Bangkok (a place I knew well) with just a few quid to my name, and hit the streets eating my way through every back alley pushcart and side street eatery in a district called Yaowarat in search of an interesting tour route. I decided early on I wasn’t going to sanitize the experience and pander to foreign tastes. I wanted the real deal - places that no other food tour companies would dare take their guests.
Take us through the process of designing your first tour.
The first tour took two weeks of research and cost me several holes in my belt. I walked along every street and side alley in the large district getting lost, marking food stops, and drawing routes on a dog-eared fold-out map. I sat on little plastic street food stools melting in Bangkok’s midday sun scribbling food costs in a paper notepad. It was all very basic and still the way I like to do it today.
But I needed a guide to run the tour. Fortune was on my side when I found a licensed tour guide who was a chef and restaurateur by posting adverts on internet messages and classified boards. So we created a partnership - I was to help him build a Bangkok food tour company by sending him guests and promoting the business, he was to run it, nurture reviews, and train new guides as we grew. The pricing was worked with using a simple three-way split - a third of each booking was assigned to food, a third to the guide, and a third to the company. I named the company A Chef’s Tour.
In my naivety, I expected few bureaucratic huddles, but the authorities in Thailand have many regulations from tour guide licenses and travel agent licenses owned by a Thai national though to requirements for polo shirt uniforms and mandatory insurance premiums all of which had to be navigated before we began selling the experiences, something our new guide worked on with us. If you’re going to sell/buy something abroad, don’t do as I did; be sure to do plenty of research before.
After returning to the UK, I had a simple website knocked up, a combination of my basic knowledge of web development built on the back of a 9-week Ruby on Rails Bootcamp I took 6 months earlier and paid help found from a freelancer website total cost: US $750. It was basic but worthy enough to test the idea. I brought back photos I’d taken of the tour route, created web copy, listed the dishes they’d try, and within a week or two I had the basics of a travel company: a website and a product.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The launch went off without fireworks. The day the website went live, nothing happened. No inquiries, no bookings, no traffic, nothing. I’d worked in travel, but knew little about how to drive traffic onto a website or advertise our product offering. The first booking - which came through ten days after launch - took us by surprise. We weren’t prepared and the booking made in the morning was for a tour in the afternoon. We scrambled around to make it work, but our guide had left town for the day and it was too late to rectify.
This led me to the cornerstone of our business model: customer service and reviews. Companies make mistakes, it’s how they deal with them that’s important. We weren’t going to let our first customer drop a one-star review and sink the business before we’d even started, even if it was our mistake. I contacted the guests, apologized for our mistake, refunded them, and offered a complimentary tour the following day. It worked. The guests left us our first glowing review on TripAdvisor, one of many which now helps drive sales through our website and TripAdvisor’s own OTA (online travel agent) Viator.
Today, we have a love-hate relationship with TripAdvisor. It’s a necessary evil that drives many bookings and keeps us on our toes (5-stars great, 4 stars, and below bad) but has enough user-generated power to sink travel businesses that don’t keep up. It’s also, or at least was, a very changeable platform over the years as they grow from a review website to what now is essentially an online travel agent. Listing products is relatively straightforward, though linking to your booking software or between their booking platform Viator has been tiresome at times.
By this point, I was out of cash. The cost of flying to Thailand, setting the tour up, and building the website had cleaned me out. To continue to finance the project and survive, I needed work and I found it as a freelance writer through a company that created copy for big travel firms like Expedia and Booking.com. The pay was truly awful, but I became surprisingly efficient at knocking out search engine-friendly travel copy producing 50,000-75,000 words a month alongside the work I was doing on A Chef’s Tour. It took a year before I managed to flip over to paying myself via the business and drop the writing gig.
If I did it all again, I’d be sure to have a more solid marketing plan to grow the sales quicker instead of getting stuck in the catch 22 of needing an income to survive, but this need comes at the cost of slower startup growth. Be very clear on how you can drive sales or prepare for slow organic growth.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Since launch, we’ve expanded from our original Bangkok food tour and used the same format in 12 different cities from Hong Kong to Bogota. We treat each city’s head guide as partners and instill in them from the start that this is their business to run and care for. Each one I have personally set up on the ground and we provide all the support to our new guides to help them make it a success. I can’t be in every city to oversee each daily tour - so I rely on the head guides to look after each guest and build the reviews before recruiting new guides for new departures.
Head guides are typically the first guide for the tour. There’s no playbook to finding these guides - each country has different platforms and message boards to look for suitable people. Or there are Facebook groups or good old-fashioned word of mouth. All have worked for us. We quickly know which guides will work and won’t through interviews - lots of experience isn’t a prerequisite for a better guide for our business.
Often we’ve found they are set in their ways and unwilling to learn our style of tour. It’s not to say they aren’t fantastic guides, but most often guides with less experience who are eager to learn and have a passion for food have worked best for us. They work hard to build and nurture the tour, learning the experience inside out for at least a year before we, together, begin to recruit new guides at which point their job turns into more of a management role.
Review sites, particularly TripAdvisor are key to growth. It’s possible without these websites, but you’ll find it an uphill battle. Our Bangkok tour being the oldest has the most reviews and we work very hard to ensure they stay high through guide training, tour improvements, and user feedback. We’re now the number one food tour in the city on TripAdvisor (the two above us are cooking classes) but it’s taken many years to get there. That position and account with TripAdvisor have value alone.
Treat your customers right, fix customer issues quickly, underpromise and overdeliver and actually do something with critical feedback (there’s no point just collecting it!) and the reviews will follow. Make sure the guides are at the top of their game and the tours are as perfect as they can be before sending ‘Write a Review’ links automatically to your guests after the tour concludes.
It’s been and continues to be a journey. There’s been no overnight success, just steady growth built on the back of very long hours. We’re still a lean team (just two of us and our guides), so each day I’m torn between guide meetings, marketing, accounts, social media (which I often have to ignore), website maintenance, customer service, and selling our products to new agents.
My to-do list grows quicker than I can tick off. But I’ve learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work, what drives traffic and bookings, and what’s a waste of money and resources.
Each tour is like its own mini business - each has its own problems and its own successes. Some take off quicker, others take more time and effort. Most tours we’ve opened on instinct, but now we’re starting to dig deeper and analyze the data we have to determine new tour locations.
Every business is different, so what was a mistake for us might not be for another. Get out there and try, test, and evaluate. If it worked great, if it didn’t, that’s okay too. Learn from everything you do.
I can’t share all the secrets we now know, but I’ll state the obvious: whatever type of tour you launch (whether it’s food, active, historical, walking, drinking, etc.) look for high tourism numbers and low competition. It’s the same as looking for good SEO keywords - sky-high search numbers and few people using a keyword is usually a winning formula, few searches and lots of people using a keyword are not.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The business was profitable after a year. Our gross margin is 50% now and we don’t spend a penny (after several trials) on traditional online advertising. We were paying ourselves, the tours were growing, our guides were doing well and we looked forward to a successful 2020 with new tour openings. We were beginning to work with agents creating white-label food tours, our TripAdvisor listings were producing 30% of our bookings and our website took the majority 50% of sales.
Then Covid-19 hit.
We felt it earlier than most. Thailand had the first official case outside China. Cancellations were quite rare but started to hit our email box in late January 2020. Our bookings were 50% down in February. Then March came and countries started to go into lockdown.
We went from 1000 guests a month to zero almost overnight along with a wave of cancellations and refunds which left our future bookings in the single digits. By 10th March we went into hibernation. Fortunately, our overheads are low. We worked out solutions for guides including buying our team in Bangkok a food truck to help them create an income during the downturn.
A year and a half later and we’ve reopened again. The tsunami of this pandemic hit our business, the wave has finally subsided and we’re rebuilding. As I write this, I’m sitting in a very humid Bangkok. I flew the day the country opened in early November to regroup the guides and tours across Thailand and Asia most of which will change after, sadly, the permanent closure of some vendors.
There are signs of life again. November has seen 20% of what we did before the pandemic. Next month will be more if the Omicron variant doesn’t cause mass lockdowns and travel closures and our availability is starting to slowly but surely fill up once again. It’s been a challenging time, but with so many lives and livelihoods around the world devastated by this pandemic, we feel lucky to be here at all.
2022 is going to be a very different year. Other than fixing and rebuilding our current tours, we have our sights on new locations in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. We’re creating plans to build teams - regional managers and a customer service team - which will open up my time to look at the business as a whole instead of getting in the weeds. Not to say the last four years of working on every aspect of the business hasn’t been useful, it’s been hugely helpful for me to understand how I want every part of the company to operate.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I think we’re riding a wave of interest in food. In many cities, casual restaurants cooking street food dishes from every corner of the world along with more food travel TV shows than I could count is spurring on a more adventurous palette and despite the pandemic, I think this will continue in the future. This has worked well for us but wasn’t something we’d thought of before we started. If you’re going to work on something that has longevity, look for trends that aren’t a flash in the pan (apologies for the pun, I really didn’t see it until I just wrote it).
I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way and I’ll make plenty more I’m sure. I think mistakes, as long as they aren’t disastrous for the business, are the best way to learn. Every business is different, so what was a mistake for us might not be for another. Get out there and try, test, and evaluate. If it worked great, if it didn’t, that’s okay too. Just learn from everything you do.
We’ve never had outside investment in the business. If we had, we could have grown it quicker and it would be much larger now. But I don’t want to be beholden or explain myself to anyone. That’s why I stopped working for someone else in the first place. It might be a harder path, but if you do it on your own, it’s well worth the effort.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I try to limit the number of tools and platforms I use. I don’t want to make things more complicated than they already are. So, if it’s not necessary, we don’t use it.
Here’s our list: our website is custom built with our own admin (I despise WordPress and the zillion available plugins), we use business Gmail with our own email (e.g. [email protected]), Stripe has always been our go-to payment processor and it’s linked to a tour booking software called TicketingHub which has embedded widgets on the website.
Any other tools we occasionally need (e.g. sending large files), I’ll find a free web version of the tool online and any third-party services I'll hire via one of the freelancer websites.
I’d like to use fewer tools, but that’s what our business requires to function. If you can get away with fewer, do it. You’ll be surprised at how quickly the subscription costs build up.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I don’t tend to read books or listen to podcasts about business. I knew very little before I started (and I still don’t know that much now), but my lack of patience and personality means it’s easier for me to learn about each part of the business t when I need it than broader business ideas.
There are so many resources and how-to posts online for almost everything you could need, whether it’s learning basic accounting, how to drive web traffic techniques, or fixing website issues. When I need to find out something new, I Google it. That may not be the most efficient or brightest way to go about it and it probably won’t be right for most.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Don’t work on a business just for the money. Only the lucky few build a business that takes off quickly and makes big bucks, particularly with no funding. Most are successful through grit and hard work. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing, you’ll give up quickly. Though I work long hours, I get to travel and eat often for my job. This makes me happy.
Learn the things that work for your business quickly. It seems obvious, but the number of hours I’ve wasted on things for A Chef’s Tour that added almost no value is staggering. When there are a million things to do, prioritize what’s going to make the biggest difference. I’m still trying to get better at this today.
Invest in decent equipment as soon as you can. Almost all businesses are run in at least some part through computers - a cheap/old one will slow you down. Sitting in a run-down Delhi hotel at midnight with a crappy laptop that’s just gone kaput and a dozen urgent customer questions you now can’t answer isn’t fun. Nor is watching the dreaded spinning wheel every time you click on a button. I rely on mine for everything from customer service to remote guide meetings, from content creation to website maintenance. I can’t deal with any computer that isn’t fast and reliable any longer.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below. I’m more than happy to chat with anyone who wants to start a travel business and offer my humble advice. We’re also always open to partnerships, new ideas, or anyone who might like to get involved in the food tour business in some way. I’m always available via my email [email protected].
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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