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Off The Map

Specialty tour operators serve up travel with a twist.

Say goodbye to the days of the cattle-call bus tour, when masses of weary visitors were herded through seven countries in six days, stopping just long enough to snap a photo and climb back into their air-conditioned coaches. "Today's travelers want to participate in their vacations, not be passive sightseers," says Hank Phillips, executive director of the National Tour Association in Lexington, Kentucky. "They want to explore and experience new things."

This contemporary breed of traveler has spurred the growth of the specialty travel industry. Tourism is the third-largest retail sales industry in the United States, and specialty travel is one of its fastest-growing segments. In 1996 (the most recent year for which figures are available), more than 25 million people--many of them baby boomers with unprecedented discretionary income--traveled on tours, an increase of 22 percent since 1993.

The explosion in specialty travel has given the word "vacation" a whole new meaning. Tour companies catering to virtually every taste and interest imaginable are springing up. No longer content to settle back with a bestseller on the beach, ordinary people can spend a week living the life of a Civil War soldier, taking a Jeep safari through the Arizona desert or learning the elements of espionage. They can rope calves from atop Palomino horses, go on archeological digs, sample various types of cigars or take cooking classes in Mexico.

"A lot of these tour companies were started by people who had a particular interest," says Steen Hansen, publisher of Specialty Travel Index, a monthly adventure and specialty travel magazine. "If it's done right, anything can become a specialty travel business."

To start, you'll need $20,000 to $25,000. Much of that goes toward initial marketing efforts, purchasing blocks of tickets and reserving hotel space; the remainder covers office equipment. It's good for prospective specialty tour organizers to have experience in the travel industry or a network of contacts at hotels and other destinations. Many specialty tour operators are former travel agents.

Entrepreneurs in the specialty tour industry say the greatest challenge is marketing. Because direct mail is the most effective way for them to attract clients, many purchase mailing lists from groups whose members might be interested in their tours. They also maintain Web sites and advertise in national and special-interest publications.

Christine Johnson, owner of World Beat Tours, a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, travel company that specializes in trips to music festivals, has looked beyond the obvious and sent company literature to university music departments and record label executives.

As with any start-up, profits can be slim initially, especially since you must pay upfront to buy tickets or reserve hotel rooms--even before you've booked a single client. As the business grows, however, so do annual profits, which can range from $30,000 to more than $100,000, or an average of 10 percent to 15 percent of gross sales, say industry experts. But for people in this business, getting rich quick isn't the primary motive. Making a living doing what they love is the big payoff.

On the following pages, meet nine specialty tour operators who turned their passions and interests into an exciting way of life.

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This article was originally published in the September 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Off The Map.

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