Karen Rudel, owner of Sight Seeker’s Delight and contributor to the book My Paris Stories: Living, Loving, Leaping without a net in the city of Lights., one of the top guided walking tour companies in Paris, has +9 years’ experience designing and orchestrating walking tours.
A few Sight Seeker’s Delight facts:
- I’m an Jewish/American Francophile living in France on and off for over 16 years and a permanent residence since marrying a French man in 2008.
- I’ve read well over 100 books on Paris and its history.
- We’ve had over 1,000 holocaust survivors/family members go through our Jewish walking tour.
- We have 10 tour guides for 7 different walking tours and give at 3-4 tours daily.
- We book nearly 50 tours a month
- We’ve been Trip Advisor’s top 10 paid-for walking tours in Paris for 4 years.
- As of this interview, we have over 1,000 5-star reviews.
- Most recently, Sight Seeker’s Delight won the 2014 Award of Excellence.
Tell me about Sight Seeker’s Delight’s origins. It all began as a fluke, really. In 2005 my mom and dad were visiting me during one of my stays in Paris and I took them on a little tourist-train ride around Montmartre. While sitting on some stupid tourist train we approached the Sacré-Coeur Cathedral and, knowing nothing about French history at the time, I said “Hey look mom, there’s a church!” With a sparkle in her eye she told me I should become a tour guide. Having studied theatre and wanting to become an actress, Paris was the perfect stage and giving walking tours was the perfect place to hone my skill.
I was working at a youth hostel when I started giving walking tours, and backpackers are the perfect audience so I started offering tours for fun and additional pocket money. It was by doing this for several years that helped me get a sense of what people were interested in and develop the content I needed for when I finally decided to turn it into a viable business.
Most backpackers tend to be both short on time and attention span and are on vacation because they want to have a good time and learn about culture while not being bored. Therefore my tour guides needed a few essential elements:
- Theater and entertainment with a sparkling personality
- Beautiful landmarks
- Short, digestible stories full of interesting anecdotes, cocktail party trivia, that last no longer than five minutes each
In 2008 I got married and in 2009 we decided to turn it into a full-time company. So I started creating more and more tours. At first it was me running the business, handling all the emails and orders, building the website and running the walking tours all by myself. I pretty quickly began getting requests for people asking me to plan their entire vacation stay in Paris. Today Sight Seeker’s Delight organizes at least 50 vacations per year. The response was overwhelming!
As soon as I could I began handling all my payments through Paypal because:
- Sometimes I was showing up for walking tours and the clients weren’t
- Allowing people to pre-pay a deposit adds credibility to your business
- Most travelers don’t like to carry around too much cash in their pockets
- When you have a very basic and elementary website, customers just assume you’re a scam
Then, slowly, it got to the point where I had to pay somebody to do all my administrative work while I was out in Paris touring. Then, slowly, I added a guide, then another guide… In fact, I’ve added a new guide every year since I’ve been open.
How did such a small startup walking tour manage to rank so highly on such a large travel site? I’ve never done any paid advertising. Yet! I will eventually spend money on paid advertising, however so far I haven’t needed to. When we ask or clients both in our order confirmation and at the beginning of each walking tour how they heard about us, without fail they give us one of three answers: Trip advisor, a friend, and ‘I found you on Google.’
1.) My exposure on Trip Advisor. Trip advisor is travelers trusting travelers. You list your business for free and then travelers and visitors rate the quality of their experience with you.
Sight Seeker’s Delight really started really taking off once it was listed on Trip Advisor as a ‘Top 25’ paid-for walking tours in Paris, then climbed to ‘top 15,’ and finally hitting the ‘#1’ position which we held for over a year!
I’m lucky to say that of the 1,198 people who have been on one of my tours AND logged into Trip Advisor to rate it, I’ve only managed to “just meet the average needs of” only 10 people.
2.) Word-of-mouth. This is especially important in large cities such as Paris – the most heavily visited city in the world; it’s a no brainer! Anybody who posts on their Facebook page: “I’m going to Paris, what should I do while I’m there?” Right away one of my friends and/or satisfied customers who find the post is going to say: “You’ve got to do this walking tour in Paris!”
It happened a couple months ago one woman asked her friends what to do while in Paris, and she was referred to our walking tour. That woman has now sent me over 30 clients in the past three months!
When I was first starting out, I was giving the tours out of a youth hostel, and those customers would then spend the next few months traveling around Europe and telling the hundreds of other backpackers they meet to 1) stay at this particular youth hostel, and 2) Go on their walking tour. It was good business for both the hostel and myself.
Today, the internet has made it possible for small entrepreneurs like me to gain massive exposure whereas 20 years ago you had to be listed in Lonely Planet and Frommers.
Sight Seeker’s Delight is currently listed with Lonely Planet and Frommers, but the magical thing about those guys are that they have ‘secret shoppers’ once every couple of years to evaluate your business and you never know who or when. Additionally, they don’t even contact you to let you know you’ve been referenced.
How did you differentiate Sight Seeker’s Delight from your competitors? There are plenty of tours all over Paris. Some hold you hostage on a boat for a couple of hours, over-charge you for food and drinks and force you to listen to a pre-recorded script listing of facts about Paris in 6 different languages.
Others are “free.” Their proposition is: “come on our free tour and pay us what you want!” However it isn’t really as black and white as that. A lot of these companies pay for all the advertising to market their free walking tour, and make their money by charging the tour guides per-head and the tour guide is not allowed to tell the customers that – which is a bit deceptive.
So as an example, a ‘free guided-tour’ might have 30 people sign up, and while it’s free for the customer, the tour guide might have to pay the tour guide company 90€ for signing the 30 people. So if the tour guide is unfortunate enough to land a bunch of lousy tippers, those customers who do tip are actually paying for those who don’t, and the tour guide could actually finish his or her tour actually owing their company money – a cruel practice and a bit exploitative.
That’s why I choose to pay my guides per hour and per head, and any tips they get is all for them. Additionally, if the tour guide gives a tour and their customers then sign up for additional tours, I pay the tour guide for that. This gives my tour guides incentive to provide my clients a superior experience, and I think that shows through my word-of-mouth referrals and the comments on Trip Advisor. Additionally, our tour guides aren’t your typical tour guide repeating pre-scripted text; they are actors and actresses and who have the information and are able to add their own personality and flair into their performances.
Another way we differentiate our tours is by building our tours on flexible starting hours based on the first customer’s booking. When your travel itinerary provides you with a limited tour guide window from 13:00-16:00 before your flight leaves, and all the other guided tours begin at 12:00 or at 15:00, we cater to you.
Tell me about your pricing structure. I compared what we offer with our competitors and looked at their pricing structure, and for any business you really have to charge a certain amount if you want to attract a certain type of customer. Because our offer is so unique we are among the higher-end guided tours in Paris. But we balance this with a lean business model; our pricing structure allows us to break even with just two clients, so our hours are flexible and we minimize the risk of unhappy customers having to cancel their tour at the last minute because ‘not enough people signed up.’
Our prices fluctuate based on season and on tour. Our foodie tour is the same price because it includes the food you sample. Our Jewish tour is also the same price because the tour guide is Jewish and a portion of proceeds from each tour is donated back to the Jewish community because over the years I’ve built up a level of trust with them. This is in part one of the reasons why Sight Seeker’s Delight has access to the Jewish community in ways NO other guided tour company could ever hope to have.
Secondly, I don’t consider free tours a competition. If you want to go on a free tour make sure you leave a tip, but I no longer market to penny-pinching backpackers. We do offer student discounts and group tours if you ask.
How have your walking tours improved since you first started? Like I mentioned, I’ve personally read over a hundred different books to cross check facts. Additionally, my research has been supplemented by facts and stories from our clients who attend our walking tour and give us new bits of information and facts. Like I said, we’ve had over 1,000 holocaust survivors and family members go through our Jewish walking tour alone. Every one of their stories folds into future walking tours.
So it’s about combining solid research and experience with customer service. Our walking tours are always a work in progress, and will only get better. Over time you find out which jokes work and which don’t, which stories and themes receive the most questions and ‘Aha!’ moments and other stories where you can literally watch the audience’s faces glaze over. If you talk about Napoleon for 15 minutes, people will fall asleep. If you summarize only the best of Napoleon in seven minutes, people are going to capture it. Old stories that clients were visibly bored with get thrown out and new and better told stories get added.
How do you handle the difficult, arrogant, angry, rude, disappointed and complaining customers, especially in a business where they can ruin an entire walking tour? Take it in stride. The moment I begin my tour and I notice the husband, I notice the face he’s making, and it’s obvious that the ONLY reason why he’s there is because his wife is dragging him along; that is the client you want to love you the most. That is the guy you want to break.
The 80/20 principle says 20% of your clients provide 80% of your problems. Why not just refund his money and let him go? In certain industries I can understand this principle. But in this case everybody else has chosen to be there; everybody else already likes you. In this case where you’re stuck with him over the next three hours, it’s the most difficult ones that you want to like you the most.
Regardless of whether the customer is right or not, bend over backwards and kill them with kindness, be fair and empathetic and offer to make any wrongs right. If your business is based on word of mouth and referrals, for every one customer that complains, a hundred others will stand up for you.
You’re an expat living and working in a foreign country, how did you adjust? I realized that my French was never, and may never be good enough to hold a ‘professional’ position in a corporate company, and so I know that I would teach English, babysit, or become an entrepreneur. This is a common problem expatriates and immigrants have, no matter what country you’re coming from or where you’re going.
As an expat entrepreneur living in a digital world, I’m not bound to only French clients just because I live in France. I was able to come in, take advantage of my location and position, and build a business for a niche market. Paris is the most visited city in the world. At any given time there are 600,000 people from the UK living in France. There’s 112,000 Americans living and/or studying in France; 35,000 in Paris. Paris is the obsession for almost every traveler and tourist. As an entrepreneur, you must uncover what is the obsession for your target audience and then take it, develop it and then give it to them in a way that will help your business grow.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Derek Banas, owner of NewThinkTank states that “as a website owner, you’re no longer tied to the fluxuating local economy.” For Derek, “only about 40% of his traffic comes from the his home country.”]
Any plans to eventually automate your business so you no longer ‘have to’ work? The fortunate thing about guided tours is that I work 2.5-3 hours of work a day maximum. So I’m never working more than three hours unless I’m double-booked. Also, with 10 qualified guides I book them first before I do any tours. I’m quite happy with that, and the moment I find myself ‘not having to work,’ I would probably look to expand Sight Seeker’s Delight into another major city. Why? Because that’s what the customers are asking for.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?
- Create what your audience is asking for. Every tour I offer is because clients constantly asked for them. If you don’t, then you’re losing money. Or worse, you’re leaving money on the table for your competitors to steal.
- People will always find a reason to complain; so go with your heart. There are surely plenty of people who don’t like certain things about our walking tours, but at the end of the day it’s your creation and you have to trust in your gut. Trust that you know your target audience and that you know what is best for your business.
- You have so much more to offer than the mere products and services you sell. Explore every niche and aspect at your disposition and research every angle you have to build a business.
- Know your market and your competitors. How can you really distinguish yourself as a superior product if you have no idea what your competitors are offering?
- Join meet up groups and do social networking. Co-publish a book. Don’t JUST do things only in your niche; contribute to projects complimentary to what you offer that broaden your exposure and build your credibility and trust. I joined into a ‘Successful Women of Paris’ Meetup group and 22 of us ended up contributing a chapter each to a recent book called My Paris Stories: Living, Loving, Leaping without a net in the city of Lights.
- Finally, nobody’s perfect. Until you have a bad review, people don’t take what you do or claim too seriously. Once people start saying you aren’t perfect, that’s when people start taking notice of you.
- When things don’t go as planned, make sure you do an even better job. Customers don’t care about ‘how you feel’ or ‘circumstances beyond your control.’ On days where a walking tour must be cancelled at the last minute because it’s raining so hard that you’re all stuck in a bar hoping the rain stops soon, you want to be at your best at that moment because otherwise you’ll have a handful of unsatisfied customers feeding off of each other.
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