Writer Beth Whitman turned tour operator five years ago when she discovered a growing need for tours offering women-only adventures coming through the emails from readers of her popular blog site, Wanderlust and Lipstick. Travel-Intel interviews Whitman to find out what unusual and in-demand qualities WanderTours can bring to the table and to shed light on how travel sellers can bolster their business through blogs and creating compelling niche tours.
1) Tell me about your tour company: What are the concepts behind it that make it unusual and purposeful?
Most of our tours are women-only. We go to destinations where you either have to go with a tour (Bhutan, Papua New Guinea) or where it’s difficult to get around without a prepared itinerary (India). Other tours are specialized, focusing on a specific interest, such as our Santa Fe Culinary Tour.
But what really sets us apart are two things. First, we really get beyond the surface experience that a large group experience cannot provide. We organize dinners at the homes of families at our destination, arrange for meetings with high Lamas in Bhutan and have cooking classes at hotels or restaurants – from Santa Fe to Bhutan.
Second, most of our tours include a giving program where a portion of the tour cost is donated to an organization or village in need. In Papua New Guinea, we are building water tanks in a village near the Sepik River. The water there is contaminated from mining. We’ll provide these tanks to capture fresh rainwater so that the villagers can have healthy drinking water. In both Bhutan and Burma, we donate money to nunneries to provide meals and other necessities for the resident Buddhist nuns.
2) Why do you go to the places you go?
I personally choose the destinations based on where I like to travel. I figure if it’s a place that I’m excited about, I can get others excited about it as well. I’ve always liked places that are off the beaten path, hence we go to destinations such as Papua New Guinea and Burma rather than Italy (though there is nothing wrong with Italy!).
3) What do the participants on your trips usually want? What are they looking for that gets them to choose your itineraries over others that are out there?
I think the women are interested in the camaraderie found in our women-only groups. Most of the women who join one of our tours are either widowed, divorced or their husbands don’t like to travel. Being in a group environment with other women makes them feel safe. They tend to bond super quickly and life-long friendships are made. We’ve had a number of women make friends with each other and then return on future trips.
I also think our participants (men and women) enjoy the fact that we do some pretty unique things on our tours – like attending a private musical performance in someone’s home in Varanasi or meditating with a monk in Bhutan.
4) How many people are on each trip?
Our trips cap out at either 10 or 15 people depending on the destination.
5) Describe an upcoming signature tour — what do you think makes it so compelling?
Well, we started with a cultural tour to Bhutan and run that one at least once a year (though usually twice). We also add a trek every year or two to provide a different experience for those who would like to return to Bhutan.
But probably the most unique tour(s) we offer are to Papua New Guinea. There are only a few companies offering tours to this region, making it a relatively easy trip for us to fill and we’ve quickly become known for running tours to that area as a result.
6) How did you go from writer and publisher to tour operator? Why?
Good question! I came out with my first book, Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo, in 2007. Ironically, I wrote the book to encourage women to travel independently and many of them were asking if I led tours. I understood immediately that there was a need for this. While it had not been my mode of traveling (in a group), I realized that women were looking for a safe way of traveling and they wanted someone else to make the arrangements because they didn’t have the time or the know-how to plan it.
7) How would you say trip goers hear about your offerings?
I do a lot of speaking engagements around the country, mostly to encourage women to travel more. Many of our participants have heard me speak and want to jump on board a tour. I also have a large mailing list of more than 12,000 subscribers, a well-trafficked website and a lot of followers on Facebook and Twitter. I think all of this feeds into the WanderTours/Wanderlust and Lipstick funnel.
8) How does the blog site help?
The blog and website allow me to get personal and tell people about myself and the company in a way that other tour companies don’t really do. I think a lot of people get to know me and then want to join a trip.
9) How important would you say blogging is to your business?
I’d say it’s extremely important. But all facets of the business support each other. In other words, I write a blog post drawing from material I wrote in the book. I then post that on Facebook and Twitter. Take one of those away and it might be OK but together they are what makes the business work so well.
10) How would you imagine travel agents would benefit by starting a blog or an interactive website?
OMG – it’s an absolute must and it isn’t as hard as one might think. The biggest reason I hear why people don’t want to start a blog is that they wouldn’t have anything to talk about. But, my goodness, a travel agent? Just think how much knowledge they have about destinations and insider knowledge about the industry. By sharing that info, they are making solid connections with their clients. It’s the best business move they could make if they haven’t already started one.
11) How has the tour component grown over the past few years? Why do you think this is?
Amazing that in THIS economy we have gone from 1 tour in 2008 to 9 tours in 2012. It started with me and I now have 3 part time employees who help me with the website, clients, sales, marketing and social media. I think we just hit upon a niche that was ready to explode. I also think that the “Wanderlust and Lipstick” name (we launched WanderTours in 2011 to encompass the co-ed tours) resonates with a lot of people and they “get” immediately what we’re about and trying to do.
12) What would you say are some of the hardest parts of starting and running a tour company?
Working 16 hours/day, 6 days/week. BUT it beats working 9-5 for a company that I don’t respect. The last job I had left such a bad taste in my mouth that it’s my biggest motivator to have a successful business
13) What advice would you give to a travel agent who wants to dip into this side of the business or a small tour company starting up?
First, make sure it’s a destination that YOU are passionate about. People can smell a phony sales pitch a mile away and if you don’t love the destination, you’ll never sell it.
Second, start slow. Offer one or two tours at first and build up your client base in this new role you’ve taken on. It’ll take some time for people to trust you and once you’ve had some success, then they’ll jump on board and you can offer new destinations and more departure dates.