10 Relationships You Need to Make When Starting a Tour Operator Business

By Taylor Odgers

Business TipsBusiness Tips

Man and woman kayaking

It’s no secret that starting a tour company involves a ton of hard work and dedication. And while at the end of the day everything falls on your shoulders, you can never do it all alone. There are sure to be some areas you’ll need help.

The truth is, starting a business is all about building relationships.

Just ask Brian Henry of Ocean River Sports, an outdoor paddling, and supply business in Victoria, British Columbia. Brian launched Ocean River 35 years ago and has grown it to the point of putting 6,500 people on the water last year alone.

Brian has a self-proclaimed adventurous spirit— which he says he channeled into his business. He was already used to taking risks everyday extreme kayaking. Starting a business was just a new one.

Brian has taken a lot of risks throughout his career, like building a 200 lineal foot dock, with 88′ of covered shed, where his team runs daily kayaking tours. His ability to make those risks and remain successful after all these years is due to the people around him. We got to sit down with Brian to talk about the relationships he made in the beginning that led to his success today.

Here are ten relationships you need to make when starting a tour operators business:

1. Your mentor

Many successful business owners (Brian included) speak of a significant mentor who helped them along the way. When you first start out, you may question yourself and your decisions. In those moments, it helps to have a someone to turn to for sound advice and a confidence boost.

Your mentor can be an experienced tour operator or someone in a different industry entirely. The key to finding the right person is choosing someone that will give you honest feedback, help you refine your skills as a business owner, and challenge you to step out of your comfort zone.

2. Your graphic designer/web developer

Your logo, website, and other brand assets will be the first impression of your company for many of your guests. You want this impression to truly represent what your business stands for, which is why it’s so important to find a graphic designer that, as Brian says, “gets it.”

Take some time to fully explain your travel company branding and what it represents. Then ask them to create a style guide for your approval. A style guide will ensure all of your marketing collateral is designed to match your brand image.

The Ocean River Team posing on their kayaks

3. Your accountant

Most business owners have the same goal in their first year of operation: keeping the lights on. And to do this you need a firm grasp on your cash flow. From accounts receivable to your expenses and taxes, and everything in between, you need someone you trust with your finances.

While there is super user-friendly accounting software to manage your business’s finances throughout the year, meeting with a tax accountant a couple of times a year will help confirm that you are doing things right and not overpaying.

4. Your banker

There are always financial risks when starting a business. In the next few years, you will ask the bank for loans, extensions on your credit, and many other favors. In the end, the decision of your approval comes down to the bank’s discretion. So if you can find a good banker that believes in, and will vouch for, you it will make all the difference.

Even if this person starts as a stranger, grow the relationship. Send them holiday cards, email them updates when you reach company milestones, take them out for coffee once a quarter, and above all else, consistently make your payments.

5. Your staff and subcontractors

The people you hire will shape your business and its culture so pick with them with great care. Choose people you want to work with every day and who share your vision.

Also be humble enough to hire people who are smarter than you. Brian says that he is the “idea guy” at Ocean River. He’s always trying to do things that no one else is doing. To meet those audacious goals he knew he had to hire people smarter than him (in different areas) that could make it happen.

Female stand up paddle boarder looking back smiling

6. Your advocates

There are many ups and downs to starting a business, and it’s important that you have people in your corner that believe in you. Whether it’s a parent, your spouse, or your friends, you’ll want someone to help you celebrate the wins, and talk you through the struggles.

These people will probably be your first guests and go out and champion your tour to others. And while they may never hold an official business title, they are crucial to the longevity of your company.

7. Your local tourism board

When you first start a business, it’s vital that you think local and get involved in your tourism board. Brian sat on Tourism Victoria’s board of directors for four years and has remained an active member ever since. They awarded him the Lifetime Achievement Award, which Brian believes is because he stepped up to help. 

While you don’t have to join your local board, it does help to get in their good books. The rules and regulations for starting a tour business in each region are very different. Not only can your tourism board help you navigate through the complexities of your area, but they can help you promote your tour, connect you with others in the industry and let you know when new opportunities arise.

8. Your tourism community

Beyond just your local board, try to make connections with other people in the industry. Talk to other tour operators, reach out to people in hospitality, and get friendly with your vendors. Go to any seminars, mixers, and events as you can.

At first, networking can feel uncomfortable. Brian said he would walk into a room and feel like a complete outsider. But he would force himself to push through the uncomfortable and go and talk to someone. Then after going to a few event, he said all of a sudden he stopped feeling like an outsider.

And don’t forget to give back to your community. If you don’t have the financial means to donate your money at first, spend your time. Help out local charities or volunteer at board events.

Two people on a boat transporting kayaks

9. Your processes

This isn’t your typical relationship, but you must commit to your processes like you would a person. Because As Brian says “the natural order of things is chaos,” and you need good systems in place to make sense that chaos. This is where your processes come in.

As one of the most creative ways to save time, Brian created a staff manual for Ocean River that he calls “the book of all answers.” The book contains the standard procedures for how everything is handled, from dealing with an unsatisfied customer to paying staff while at a conference. The book is a living entity, growing along with the company as more situations arise. The genius in the book is that if one of his employees has a question they just look it up.

10. Your guests

The relationships you create with your guests might be the most important of them all. If you can provide an exceptional guest experience built on trust, communication and feedback your guests will turn into your number one marketing channel.

Satisfied customers will come back, recommend your tours to friends and family and even share on social media. The easiest way to build a relationship with your guests is through personalized email marketing. Build an email list to keep them in the loop for milestones, promotions, and new tours!

Starting and running your own tour business involves some serious hard work and dedication and there’s no way you can do it alone. Make sure you have these important people in your network and remember relationships rely on your reputation. Be honest. Keep your word. And be dependable, and you’re well on your way to success!

P.S. Ocean River Sports trusts Checkfront to handle their online bookings…

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