Off The Map

Specialty tour operators serve up travel with a twist.
Magazine Contributor
10 min read

This story appears in the September 1998 issue of . Subscribe »

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, . "They want to explore and experience new things."

This contemporary breed of traveler has spurred the growth of the specialty . 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 with unprecedented discretionary income--traveled on , 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 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 ."

To start, you'll need $20,000 to $25,000. Much of that goes toward initial 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 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.

The Wheel Deal

Company: Randonnée Ltd.
Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba
Owners: Rick Bueckert, 48, and Ruth Marr, 40
Date started: November 1990
Start-up costs: Approximately $30,000
Sales: $500,000 in 1997

"Randonnée" is a French word meaning "to make an excursion under one's own power." And that's the key to Randonnée Tours, a Winnipeg, Manitoba, company that arranges self-guided cycling and walking tours of England, France, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Nova Scotia and Switzerland.

"Self-guided tours are a European style of ," says Ruth Marr, who co-owns Randonnée Tours with her husband, Rick Bueckert. "You have the feel of being on an organized tour, but also have time alone."

This husband-and-wife team is uniquely qualified to run the . Bueckert is a travel consultant with a degree in classics and art history; Marr is an environmental consultant who speaks fluent French, has traveled in Africa and Asia, and has written two books on walking and cycling. Marr ran an environmental consulting firm for five years before deciding to follow her bliss in the specialty .

"We have experience traveling this way, so we know what it's like to spend seven days on a bike. That helps us plan and gives us a better idea of customers' expectations," explains Marr, who makes two or three trips with Bueckert to each destination to work out details before clients arrive.

Most of Randonnée's clients are women in their late forties, although ages range from 20 to 70. The company's fastest-growing market is honeymooners. In the future, the partners plan to create shorter self-guided tours for businesspeople who want to combine work with pleasure--as they themselves have done.

"Adventure travel is a lifestyle," says Marr. "My husband and I get to spend five or six months each year in Europe. [In this industry,] you have to look at nonmonetary rewards as well as monetary ones."

Ladies First

Company: Wild Women Adventures
Location: Sebastopol, California
Owners: Carol T. Rivendell, 51, "Queen Executive Officer," and Martha Lindt, 49, "Queen of Operations"
Date started: May 1994
Start-up costs: $5,000

Their motto is "Insanity with dignity." They pose for their promotional literature in outfits that would make Carmen Miranda turn grape-green with envy. And the names of their could win a creative writing contest: Red Hot Mamas Cookin' (a week of cooking classes in Mexico), What's Mayan is Yours (a trek to the Yucatan Peninsula) and Erin Go Braghless (a tour of western Ireland).

But behind the lighthearted facade, Carol Rivendell, a former psychotherapist, and Martha Lindt, a agent, are serious about offering women high-quality, guilt-free getaways.

"We created Wild Women for women who want to travel on their own--but not alone," says Lindt, who met Rivendell when their children were high school sweethearts.

Without enough start-up capital to compete with established tour operators and their slick brochures, the partners needed to find another way to distinguish themselves. "We decided to be menopausal bitches from hell," Rivendell wisecracks. They dressed up and had a friend do their photography. Their catalog, reminiscent of Mad magazine, is printed on inexpensive newsprint. Their first clients came from a mailing list provided by a local comedian.

Although they initially targeted housewives and older women longing to see the world, their client base has expanded to include young professionals too busy to plan their own vacations. "We're passionate about travel and feel strongly about women taking time off to do something for themselves," Rivendell says. "This is hard work, but my God, it's fun."

Surf's Up

Company: San Diego Surfing Academy
Location: San Diego
Owners: Pat Weber, 38, and Lynne Weber, 34
Date started: June 1995
Start-up costs: Less than $5,000
Sales: $200 to $1,600 per day

He used to sell carpet for a living, but his heart always longed for the waves he had surfed since age 6. After talking with owners of other surfing camp companies, Pat Weber knew he had to make the break.

While his wife, Lynne, continued working as an administrative assistant, Pat bought three used surfboards for $250, begged friends to donate wet suits, bought liability insurance and started the . The company offers surfing lessons; a six-day adult surfing camp in the spring and summer; and surfing jaunts to Baja, California, in the fall and winter.

Pat still remembers his first clients, a twenty-something couple who'd always wanted to surf but lived in the Midwest. Other clients who now flock to his camp for sun, fun and adventure include teenagers who get surf lessons as graduation presents, people battling midlife crises, and sales representatives who win surf lessons as workplace incentives.

Working from home, the Webers (Lynne's now in the business full time) market their company through the chamber of commerce and local tourist bureau, ads in surfing magazines, and word-of-mouth; much of their business comes from their Web site. Although the business sounds glamorous, there's a great deal of grunt work: loading equipment, rinsing wet suits and completing paperwork. "Some days, I'm a poster boy for Advil and Ben-Gay," Pat says. "But I have a romantic notion about being paid to be an athlete."

The Beat Goes On

Company: World Beat
Location: Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Owner: Christine Johnson, 31
Date started: November 1997
Start-up cost: $25,000
Sales: Aiming for $300,000 in first year

A happy confluence of Christine Johnson's love of music, her experience as a agent, and a fiancé who's a concert promoter with access to tickets gave rise to World Beat Tours, a travel company that coordinates tickets, travel accommodations and related activities for music aficionados planning vacations around music festivals.

World Beat makes arrangements for clients attending everything from the New Orleans Jazz Festival and the London Beatles Tour to the Reggae Sunsplash in Jamaica. Because each concert attracts a very different type of client, Johnson targets her direct mailings accordingly. Focusing only on residents of Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, she buys appropriate mailing lists in those cities, then markets only to people she perceives as potential customers. For an upscale event, such as the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, Johnson sells to a middle-aged, upper-middle-income customer; for the Reggae Sunsplash, she focuses on a younger crowd. Despite the success of direct mail, her Web site has given the best return on investment.

Still in the start-up phase, Johnson is learning about details such as accurately estimating the number of tickets she can sell per event. But those are snags that will work themselves out. Doing what she loves is what her and her life are about.

Star Tours

Company: FilmScape Vacations
Location: Fresno, California
Owners: Jacqueline Farkas, 52, and Jay Farkas, 28
Date started: April 1997
Start-up costs: Less than $20,000
Sales: Estimated at $65,000 in first year

Deep in our hearts, we all want to be movie stars. FilmScape lets clients fulfill that dream--at least for a week. Guests experience the art of movie-making, assuming the roles of writer, director, producer and actor under the careful direction of Farkas' 28-year-old son, Jay, a professional producer and director, and FilmScape's co-owner and vice president.

Participants come from all walks of life, but many are middle-aged and upper-middle-class folks who long to penetrate the mystique of Hollywood. To expand the market, the Farkases recently launched a program for clients aged 15 to 23 who want to learn about TV production.

FilmScape was born of necessity when Jacqueline, who had owned a agency since 1994, found profits dwindling after airlines placed a cap on commissions. Jay came up with the idea for FilmScape; his mom provided the start-up capital.

A one-time accountant, Jacqueline much prefers travel to numbers-crunching: "I get a far better reaction when I'm handing people a ticket to a vacation than a tax form."

Pamela Rohland is a writer in Bernville, Pennsylvania.

Contact Sources

FilmScape Vacations, (800) 345-6625,

National Tour Association, (800) 682-8886,

Randonnée Ltd., (800) 465-6488,

San Diego Surfing Academy, (800) 447-SURF,

Wild Women Adventures, (800) 992-1322,

World Beat Tours, (888) 430-BEAT,


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