Gordon Bartlett took advantage of an early retirement package from IBM in 1991 to start a tour business with his wife in Lake Havasu City, AZ. For nearly 20 years, Gordon and Patty escorted 171 tours and cruises, taking 7,315 passengers on tours ranging from the Western U.S. to destinations in all parts of the world.
Bartlett sold his company in 2012 and while preparing the new owner for a successful transition, he created various procedural guides and manuals. This was the inspiration for a new journey in his life, a book titled “How to Start and Operate a Profitable Tour Business…Make Money While Traveling and Guiding Tours.” This book is 230 pages of common sense, step-by-step information on starting a tour business from scratch. It’s based on the actual experience of the Bartlett’s, who started their business without any prior experience in the tour business. The Bartlett’s were able to sustain the company by providing excellent tours and cruises with an emphasis on great customer service.
Take 1: At what point in Bartlett Tours’ history did you realize you had built a successful business?
We relocated from Tucson to Lake Havasu City in early 1993. Much of the business plan was near complete, but we were newcomers to our town of 22,000. We used newspaper advertising to announce our new business. Our first five tours were in a Budget rental van with as many as 12 passengers to one tour with just 3. We lost money on that one but we gained experience. We continued to ask people to tell others about our new tour company. On our 6th tour in December of that year we had 46 passengers and a full bus. We did 5 more tours during that winter season with an average passenger count of 42. At this point, I knew we could sustain the business as long as we offered exciting destinations and great customer service.
Take 2: During your 19 year history you never had an employee. How did you manage when you were on the road?
I tried to schedule advertising for the weeks we were not on tour. We conducted 9-10 tours a year with two to three months off during the summer for scouting new tours. When I was leading a tour, I wanted my travelers to see that I was 100% dedicated to their tour. In fact, my office phone message was “Thank you for calling Bartlett Tours. We are on tour until Friday, August 15. Please leave a message and I will call when I return.” I can’t remember a single complaint or concern about that policy.
Take 3: Best destination you’ve been to and who were you with…
The majority of our tours were designed and conducted by my wife Patty and me and were in the Western States. When we went outside that region, we contracted with a larger tour company that had the tour we wanted in their regular offerings. Patty used to say her favorite tour was the one we were on at the time, but she loves our Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley tour into the northeast corner of Arizona’s Navajo Land. My favorite was probably Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, 23 days with Collette. We took groups on 33 cruises and 138 bus tours. I always enjoyed the river cruises, both in Europe and along the mighty Mississippi because you could usually see land and activity on both sides of the boat.
Take 4: What was more demanding, writing the book, or leading tours?
Writing has always come easy for me. Before and after the sale of our business, I spent countless hours coaching the new owner and writing procedures for him so that he could become independent as soon as possible. I wasn’t “driven” to write the book but I researched the market for books on how to start a tour business, and they seemed to be lists of things to think about rather than saying, “here’s what I did and it worked for me for 19 years.” I wanted to offer something that was a detailed step-by-step guide for someone to follow who had a passion for starting a tour business and see it succeed as I did.
Being a tour operator is certainly more demanding because when you have a tour in your schedule and you have all the reservations made and a long list of excited participants, you can’t “do it later”. It’s got to go off on schedule! I had no deadline in writing my book. The gratification from a tour is immediate and fulfilling. When you complete a tour and have happy travelers telling you what a good time they had, it’s like applause to an actor. When we sold our tour business, we missed the applause. With my new book, I get excited when another one sells, but the excitement dies out pretty quickly.
What’s your best advice for someone who’s starting out on their new journey at a tour planner?
Read my book, use as much of it as you can, and keep your business simple. Choose your suppliers, especially your charter bus company, carefully and then stay with them. Build long-term business relationships. Don’t ever buy a bus! Specialize as a tour operator. Don’t get sucked into being a travel agent for individual travel because it can be very time consuming and takes effort away from your primary business.
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