5 lessons from 5 years of selling travel

October 08, 2014
Tony Carne

If there’s one thing that’s constant in the travel and tourism industry, it’s that everything is always changing. It’s a moving target, and keeping up requires total willingness to open up to whatever may be around the bend.

This month (today, actually!) marks the 5th anniversary of Urban Adventures, a brand dedicated to city experiences shared by locals. As Urban Adventures’ general manager, operating out of Melbourne, I’ve had quite the ride watching the name, the team, and the industry as a whole grow. And no doubt, more changes are on the horizon. It’s an exciting time for travel and tourism — the prolific use of mobile, the growing emphasis on boutique brands, and the rallying cry of people wanting to be “travellers” rather than “tourists” have created an industry far different than what was on top not so long ago.

Here are five lessons I’ve learned after five years dedicated to taking people out of the guidebooks and into the world.

Travellers love food

No surprise – who doesn’t love food?! But seeing the numbers puts the importance of culinary tourism in perspective. Amid all our offerings at Urban Adventures, the most outstanding success has been food tourism. We saw early on that a small group of food tours was connecting with 25% of all of our travellers. It shouldn’t have come as a huge shock — I can’t think of one person in the Urban Adventures family that doesn’t live to eat, and that passion for finding the best local food really shines through in the product we create.

But the growth in food-focused tourism has moved away from strictly 5-star resorts and master chefs. Much of the interest now lies in more local, under-the-rader food finds. Street food and hole-in-the-wall joints are what everyone wants to find. In our top handful of tours worldwide sits the Cicchetti of Venice tour (who knew you could break away from the tourist hordes in Venice), the Street Food Tour in Hanoi (just YUM!),and the Ethnic Foods Tour of Los Angeles (award-winning), but we’ve put strong effort into ensuring that pretty much every one of our destinations has a tour to show you the best of local food — even Nairobi! Above all, it’s important to acknowledge that food tourism extends beyond the “foodie” niche. While not everyone wants to do a “tour,” everyone has to eat, probably three times a day. Our mission is to make sure our travellers only eat the absolute best a destination has to offer — their travel time is too precious to have a crappy meal in a tourist trap.

Mobile is powerful

Again, no surprise given how many of us have our eyeballs glued to our phones, but when it comes to tourism, mobile isn’t just a nice-to-have — it’s a necessity. It also gives you almost unlimited ability to “be” with your customer as they interact with the very product you sold them: travel. Mobile allows for spontaneity, so travellers’ decision-making can be instantly relevant to the conditions of their travels. If you want to wait to see what weather is going to be like before booking a kayak tour on the Yarra in Melbourne, with mobile you can do that and still get your booking locked away just hours before paddling out. If you have a huge buffet breakfast in the hotel and waddle out to explore, only to hit the wall at 4pm when the carbs run out, you can pick up a dinner tour at 5pm to take you to the locals’ favourite places.

Hotels are going local

Hotels are starting to see the importance of “local” to travellers. There has been a real shift in awareness from some parts of the hotel industry that price isn’t everything. Many customers are happy to pay a non-discounted rate if what they get is a hugely valuable local insight and experience by staying in a hip neighbourhood and being able to quickly tap into its soul. Special props go out to W Hotels, Aloft, Westin, Kimpton, Andaz, and the Ace Hotels, which are all leading the charge in different ways.

This shift from massive brand to personalized stays is perhaps the coolest development in hotels in quite a few decades. What’s more, it opens up opportunities for tour companies specializing in customized experiences — expect to see part of Urban Adventures’ future wrapped in helping hotels to deliver the best local experiences to their customers. Tapping into this need leaves hotels to do what they do best and allows us to give their customers the experience of what we do best. Bring. It. On.

Timing is everything

We started our business because we looked at a day tour scene five years ago that looked like Thomas Cook himself was still in charge. Boring historical tours full of facts quickly forgotten, and hop-on/hop-off buses disgorging tourists on top of other tourists. Where was the fun? Where were the memories beyond a photo of the Eiffel Tower? We wanted people to really remember great times on their travels and to create stories that can be retold over and over.

Just after we got into building this network, an influential peak body in tourism released a report about the massive opportunity in this sector of travel. Kaboom! Anyone who could write a line of code suddenly became laser-focussed on the tours and activities sector spawning the most incredibly long list of competitors we are ever likely to see in our entire history. That is a very exciting place to be. We met so many cool and clever people along that journey. The rising tide lifts all boats and we are very happy we started exactly five years ago as it got us really focussed on delivering the best, because that is the only way we could survive.

Digital is personal

Online businesses are about people. No matter the platforms, the metrics, the backend coding, behind all that are the people who actually have the ideas. And on the other side, are those who engage, who share, who are real travellers — not just likes or followers or fans.

No one will ever convince me that it is anything but people with pure passion that create great things. Even better is that every day is an absolute joy when you are surrounded by passionate people. It is a real privilege to bound out of bed every day with enthusiasm to see what incredible people all over the world have been up to whilst I was sleeping. On any given day they might have sniffed out a new view of their city to share, or found the coolest new bar serving only locally brewed beers that you know is years away from being found in a guide book, or are revelling at the street stall eating the same magnificent dish they have been eating since they could walk, in a place that the general tourist would normally fear to tread. Digital gives us the ability to share these experiences like never before. This shared knowledge is what inspires us, and the enthusiasm of those willing to share it makes every work day a joy. This is what travel is all about.