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Mark Hoffmann

Episode 59: Giving Your Customers the “A-ha” Moment, with Mark Hoffmann

In this episode, you will learn about how listening to your customers can open up many doors from Mark Hoffmann.

Mark Hoffmann is president and founder of Sports Leisure Vacations, Sacramento’s largest and oldest packaged tour and travel company. There he orchestrates the company’s many facets of operation from escorted tours and travel agencies services to receptive, meeting, planning, and incentive travel programs.

Sports Leisure Vacations was founded in 1979 and has an active client base of 8,500 plus members. Mark was a sports talk show host on KSAC 1240 AM from 1991 to 1994. He has co-hosted the Travel Guys with Tom Romano since February 2009 on KFBK 1530 AM and now 92.5 FM. He enjoys radio announcing and confesses it has always been a dream of his, a dream that has come true twice now.

Mark proudly served as president of the National Tour Association in 2000 and 2013, the country’s most prestigious tour operator association. His mission is to be a strong and vocal advocate for all aspects of the tourism industry.

He feels the industry should be proactive in increasing positive public awareness about the value of tourism, especially among elected officials. Mark holds the designation of Certified Tour Professional as given by NTA along with a host of other honors and awards. A two-time president of the Mather Sacramento Chapter of Toastmasters International, Mark’s numerous speaking engagements have focused on such topics as marketing to tour operators, how to make marketing more effective, the nuts and bolts of group tour marketing, looking through the crystal ball: the future of the hospitality industry in America, and off the beaten track: America’s backroads.

An avid traveler, Mark’s favorite destinations are New York City, the length of Route 66, and the Main Street of America.

 

Give Travelers the “Aha” Moment

Thank you so much for joining me Mark.

You are most welcome.

I’m really looking forward to our conversation today. I know you’re going to bring so much insight to this conversation and to our listeners. Before we get started, I find it very valuable to have you tell us about your story and how you got to where you are today in your own words. It really gives our listeners more context about who you are and how you’ve ended up where you are today.

Well, Sports Leisure Vacations has been around for 38 years, which has allowed us to see a huge transition in the tourism industry from where it was to where it is today. Some people have called this not the golden years of tourism, but the platinum years of tourism. There is so much booming all over the planet. In fact, tourism is doing so well that it’s doing so well it’s doing poorly in some places. Over tourism is becoming a problem in an increasing number of destinations, and that’s something that is of great concern to me.

We have built a small company here in Sacramento with a very different business model from other tour operators in that we have a relationship with our customers that’s very one-on-one. We have a product that is perhaps much more of a Nordstrom’s product than a Walmart product. It’s not Cap Tours; we’d like to think that we’re just a half a step behind them. We occasionally stay in really wonderful upscale expensive places and we might stay in a Hampton Inn the next night so that we can justify the cost of the money we spent the two days before. We don’t have rich people who travel with us. We just have regular old middle-class folks who enjoy a really upscale fun vacation.

We’re always looking for that “aha” moment, for that moment when you can, as a tour operator or a tour director, you can stand there and say, “Boy, we’ve really captured it. Our travelers have really found something really cool.”

It’s like when we take people to the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota, most tour operators take folks and they go and stand and look at that incredible monument that’s being built all by private funds. To me, it’s one of the most phenomenal things that’s ever been done on this planet. Most people stand and take a picture of it from a mile away. When Sports Leisure travelers go to the Crazy Horse Monument, they go up on the monument and stand in front of the face of Crazy Horse. Yeah, they cost a few dollars, but it gives our people an experience that no one else will have and something to be able to talk about and relish when they come back home.

“We're always looking for that 'aha' moment. We want to give our people an experience that no one else will have that they can talk about and relish when they come back home.” - Mark Hoffmann #WhyCollaborate #podcast Click To Tweet

I think that’s really a big part of what we do here. We are a very philanthropic company. We have a listing of local charities that changes from time to time where we contribute to things in our community, things that we know will stay here and help folks in our community.

There’s a little bit of a joke that every time we have a preview day or Sports Leisure travelers gather to find out about the trips that we have, somebody in the community benefits. We’re always collecting toilet paper or toiletries or books or socks or something like that that we can give to make some folks in our own community a little bit better off. We do a wide variety of things from day trips to San Francisco from Sacramento. to Iceland and Japan are on our itinerary for this year. Sports Leisure Vacations is very much a local company with a local following. We have some folks who travel with us from other parts of the country, but mostly folks who used to live in Sacramento.

Wow. That’s really awesome. You know what? It’s interesting to me. You’ve been in business for 38 years and in your bio of course we said you have over 8,500 members, but it sounds like over that 38 years you’ve really gotten to know your customer really well and understand what is an “‘aha’ moment,” to use your words for them, and kind of how to balance that Nordstrom’s type of a tour company with maybe you’re at the high-end hotels for a couple nights and then The Hamptons. It sounds to me like you’ve really got a good handle on the pulse of your customer and how best to serve them. I think that that’s really awesome.

We have about 8,500 current travelers. We consider a current traveler to be somebody who’s traveled with us in the last 18 months. Over the history of the company, we have issued 52,000 paid travel club membership cards. When you think about that, 52,000 would make a pretty good size city.

Having a broad base allows us to offer a really wide variety of things to our clients because we know that whether it’s baseball or quilting, if we go to a special area where we’re likely still to find enough people within our base to be able to offer something very special.

Yeah, that’s really awesome. I want to ask you a question about the Crazy Horse Memorial example that you provided. I’m wondering how do you as a tour company get to those special exclusive opportunities? Is that something that you are seeking out or do you find your partners and the attractions that you’re going to they bring those forward? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Well, our partners bring those things to us, but what’s important is that we have to find a way to be able to get to those partners. Just like going out and making sales calls, one-on-one is very time consuming and expensive. Going to destinations and checking them out one at a time is also very time consuming and expensive. We belong to the National Tour Association, which is by far the most prestigious tour operator group in the country. We were just at a convention in San Antonio last month. We’ll be in Milwaukee next November.

At those conventions, destinations and suppliers from all over the country and indeed all over the world come and show us their wares and try to get us to come to their destination and tell us what they have to offer there. That’s one of the ways that we are able to get a lot of information within a few days and then sort through that and decide which destinations make the A-list and are worthy of perhaps in person site inspections or something like that.

Belonging to an association with other tour operators is a huge benefit to us and is a great way for us to be able to tap into that ever-changing landscape of suppliers and destinations that want our business or may not want our business.

Sure. Yeah, absolutely. I’ve participated at those types of events before.

 

How Millennials Drive Tourism for All Ages

I’m really curious, Mark, how did the destinations or those suppliers that you’re meeting with in those couple of days — because I know you as a buyer get inundated with a lot of these appointments — how do you get to those A-list destinations? What are those people saying to you or showing you that really helps them stand out?

Tourists today, travelers today, I don’t think this is any surprise to anybody, want an experience. A phrase that’s used a lot, “I want an experience.” That’s something that’s been around about 10 years now, and it’s the millennials who brought us that verbiage.

It’s the millennials who are responsible for that huge boom in tourism because the millennials have gone to their grandparents and their parents and said, “So this travel thing is incredibly life enriching and a wonderful thing to do, right?” Their parents and grandparents said, “Yup, absolutely.” The millennial said, “So then explain to us why you’re waiting to the very end of your life to do it?”

There isn’t really a good answer for that. The millennials have decided that going to Europe as a 27-year-old is way more important than buying and putting down a down payment on a new car. They have convinced their parents and grandparents to a degree that they should fast forward their travels.

unsplash-logoDrif Riadh

“Millennials have decided travel is more important than a new car. They have convinced their parents and grandparents to a degree that they should fast forward their travels.” - Mark Hoffmann #WhyCollaborate #podcast Click To Tweet

I firmly believe that’s why we’re seeing such a boom in tourism now is that the millennials have convinced the generations that followed them to accelerate their travels and that people are going to travel more from now on, but they’re also fast forwarding their travels, which makes us all wonder if the millennials won’t get to be 60-65 and stop traveling, as opposed to starting traveling. Kind of an interesting thought. I doubt that’s what will happen.

I’ve always been a firm believer in a kind of a philosophy that sounds kind of simple and perhaps even dumb when you say it, but I’ve always said that it’s really difficult to drop a bomb on a man’s house once you’ve eaten dinner there. If you go to another country and you meet people, you realize that they have the same challenges that you have in your life. Why would you want to rain down on them? Travel really is the world’s best hope I think for survival. I would say for peace, but I think survival is the better word.

Yeah. That’s an interesting perspective. I hadn’t heard anyone talk about the millennials and their influence on the generations before them and how that is speeding up I think their need and want to travel rather than waiting.

I’m sorry. Maybe I got away from your question too much there.

No, that’s okay. No, that was just a great perspective because I really hadn’t thought about that.

 

Provide an Enriching Experience

You spend a lot of time talking about the millennials and how are we going to capture this new audience. I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts are.

They are the people who said, “You don’t travel just to see things and meet people. You travel to have an experience, to bring all that together.” I had the opportunity about a year ago to see Anthony Bourdain, the CNN travel host, in person in San Francisco. I strongly recommend that if you like to travel and you’re an open-minded person that you go see him if you ever get the opportunity because it was a fascinating hour and a half. Of course, he’s a chef who’s gotten into travel. Now he’s known for going out on TV and sampling all these funny foods and getting into these strange situations and stuff.

I think the reason his show is popular is because other people are jealous of that. They would love to have the opportunity to be able to do that. In many cases, when they travel, that’s sort of what they’re looking for is that moment when they’re sitting with local people trying some local delicacy and talking about the challenges of life in that particular place. To me that would be an “aha” moment, right? Everybody has their own definition of what is really that great moment when they’re traveling.

I think that’s one of the things that people look for so they can come home and say, “Wow. I went to Poland and I went to Krakow and I really met people. I really talked to people and I really ate the local foods. I went to a couple of small towns like Zakopane up in the mountains and I said ‘Wow, now I’ve really been to Poland. I didn’t just travel to Poland. Now I know people in Poland.'” I mean we could be talking about Philadelphia or some little town on Route 66. The experience varies at every place, but the experience is always something a little bit beyond. That’s what we’re always looking for at Sports Leisure Vacations.

We just had a group at the figure skating championships in San Jose over the past weekend, the US Figure Skating Championships, where the Olympic team was picked. Our tour directors are very experienced guys, one of them had been to many figure skating championships before, he walks around the concourse the first day or so looking for people who might be speakers, potential speakers. People who might come and speak to the group because every day there are a couple sessions and there’s time in between. Indeed, we had the junior champion come out and get on the motor coach and talked to our people for 30 minutes between shows.

When everyone else was just milling around outside, our bus pulled up. Our people got on. They had an opportunity to meet someone who had just been on the ice a couple of hours ago and really learned something about the event that they were attending. To me that’s the thing, we are always on the lookout. Even when a tour has already departed, even when it’s already out on the road, we’re always looking for ways that we can enhance it along the way. Because for the company that says, “Well, okay, we’re done. This trip is ready to go,” not so much. You would have missed the junior champion in San Jose to talk to your people.

That’s great. Words coming to my mind is it’s the experience, but you’re talking about like enrichment, enriching and learning on these trips as well. I think that’s a huge key difference and it sounds like a big point of differentiation for you and your company.

People might get on a cruise ship to relax, but when people get off the cruise ship at a port of call, frequently they have something that they want to do in mind whether it’s just shopping for local things or get something to eat or just stroll the streets. Everybody’s idea of an experience is found in a different place at a different time with a different set of circumstances. My job as a tour operator is to create as many of those sets of circumstances as possible so that as many people can find their way.

“Everybody's idea of an experience is found in a different place at a different time with a different set of circumstances. My job is to create as many of those sets of circumstances as possible.” - Mark Hoffmann #WhyCollaborate #podcast Click To Tweet

When we go to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, which is probably the most picturesque place in the whole country, we don’t just go to the Hall of Fame, we arrange for a special memorabilia presentation, which costs a lot of money. They will bring out seven or eight items that are really special from the archives and there’s a story of course with everyone. People sit there just transfixed for the better part of an hour.

When they leave and they come home, the one thing they want to do from all the ballparks they went to and the games they saw and all those stuff, they want to go back to Cooperstown and have another one of those memorabilia talks.

That’s awesome. Yeah, it is very picturesque there for sure.

 

Listen to Your Customers

Well, you’ve us gotten off to such a great start. As we were talking a little bit before we started the interview, we do focus on creativity on this podcast. You have shared so many great creative ideas already, but I’m wondering, Mark, if you can talk a little bit more about it. We’ve talked a little bit about how destinations can be creative, right, in their offerings and their experience. What kinds of things have you done at Sports Leisure Vacations that you think have really made you stand out over the years and really last through all of this transition that’s happened?

We listen to our customers. I was not a travel person when I got into this. I worked for a park district and started running trips to baseball games in San Francisco. As an employee of the park district, I realized that that was one of my responsibilities and I knew there was a market for that. That was in 1978 and we became a formal company in 1979.

I think that the transition in the tourism industry that I’ve watched happened, when people retired 40 years ago and they lived in Sacramento, one of the major activities was taking a bus to the casinos in Reno and Lake Tahoe and you’d pay $15-$20 for your bus fare and the casino would give you rebate when you got there that was generally most of your bus fare and a food ticket, and then they hope to get your money over the next six hours. We took literally hundreds and hundreds of people a week up the hill, as we call it, to the casinos. At that point in time, that was considered an experience. Now we don’t run buses to casinos anymore.

Of course, there are many casinos that are a lot closer and in gaming facilities and stuff like that, but the point is that people have such a wide variety of choices of things to do. The day trips and the things that used to sell that people wanted to go see that were an hour or two hours from home, heck, they’ve seen all those things now. People travel much more freely than they did 40 or 50 years ago by plane, by car. People have seen those things and done them or on TV they’ve watched how a certain thing was made and they no longer have the interest in going to the plant and spending time and money and effort of seeing how that’s made.

Now if you could take them to the plant and introduce them to the person who has the three generations old caramel recipe that they used in all of the candy that they make, and that person will come and talk to the group and share some insight and maybe even share their recipe, now we’re talking. Now we’ve taken it to a level that’s above and beyond. People don’t just want to go there. They want to meet the people who are behind there. They want to meet the chef. They don’t just want to meet them. They would like to talk to them and they would like to hear their story. Everyone has a story. Everyone has a story.

Sometimes the stories of people who find themselves in these situations where they are serving tourists, travelers, have fascinating stories to tell of how they got there. Sometimes that’s a very big part of the whole experience. We are always on the lookout for things like, as I said, that “aha” moment, but how can we make things really special? One of the ways you do that is you encourage your customers to tell you where they want to go, what they want to do. Every few years at our tour preview day, we spend a lot of money and throw questions up on a screen and everybody has a portable gadget in their hand and they can vote on whichever one they like.

unsplash-logoBenjamin Voros

“How can you make things really special? One of the ways you do that is you encourage your customers to tell you where they want to go, what they want to do.” - Mark Hoffmann #WhyCollaborate #podcast Click To Tweet

It gives us an opportunity to find out a whole lot about what our customers like and, just as important, a whole lot about what they don’t like. Listening to your customers I think has been probably the key to our success.

The other big key to our success has been for years and years and years I’ve heard the old axiom “the customer is number one, the customer should always be number one,” and that’s just garbage. The customer isn’t number one. Your employees are number one. Your team is number one. If you make the people who work for you number one, they will take care of your customers and you’ll never have to worry about them.

Yeah. That is so true. Actually I’m reading a book right now called Traction. Have you read that book yet?

No.

I mean I literally I think just read that two days ago talking about how you’re exactly right. You invest in your team and your employees and then they will take care of your customers. It just really does transcend. You can certainly tell the difference between when you’re working with a company that has very happy and dedicated and committed employees versus one that doesn’t. The experience is definitely a lot different.

Some companies are run by very powerful people who can get a lot of things done, but unfortunately, they can’t always get a lot of things done by them. Almost everybody needs some help somewhere along the way. I’m very lucky I have a great team of people who are constantly doing exactly what I’ve just been talking about here to create the kind of experience that makes customers come back.

That’s awesome.

 

Why Smaller Groups are Better for Travelers

I’m going to switch gears just a little bit because I find when I ask my guests this next question, it just gives us a little bit of a different perspective on creativity. Is there a time when you have faced a challenge in your organization, and if so, can you share with us some of the kind of creative response that came from that challenge or adversity?

A challenge that we faced in our organization came after 9/11. This wasn’t necessarily related to 9/11, but that’s just the marker when it happened. After 9/11, airlines started using 50 passenger regional jets to serve secondary and tertiary cities. In some cases, those cities had had bigger planes serve them in the past. Suddenly we found places like Traverse City, Michigan and Green Bay, Wisconsin and Bellingham, Washington, and places that we wanted to fly into, Spokane, Washington. Suddenly we’re being served by planes that weren’t as large as the planes before and the airlines were not interested in giving us 40 seats on a 50 passenger airline unless we paid a whole lot of money for them.

We said, “Wow.” Most tour operators who run motor coach tours run them at capacity of the coach, which is 52, 54, 56 people, which is ridiculous. I mean that’s just way too many people to put on a motor coach. It’s way too many people to travel in a group together. It’s a terrible commercial for our industry. It’s a ridiculous idea. We have always maxed out our groups at 42.

When this situation came up with the airlines, we said, “Huh. How many seats will you sell us?” They said 25. We said, “Well, huh, guess if we want to go to this destination and not fly into a city that’s a two-day drive away, we’re going to have to figure out a way to do it with 25 people.”

The airlines kind of forced us into something that has turned out to be a tremendous idea, and that is smaller groups. In many cases now, we have only 25 people in a group that might go to an international destination or even a fairly regional destination. The number 25. Most people would like to travel in a group of 15 to 20 people.

Unfortunately for tour operators and the vehicles that they use and stuff like that, sometimes that’s not a very cost-effective way to travel. When you can get up to a number around 25, now it’s a little more expensive than traveling in a group of 40, which is a little more expensive than traveling in a group of 50, because certain costs that are split among every traveler are split among fewer travelers. We find that the one thing that really happened there was that we were forced to lower our group size and that has turned out to be a tremendous idea.

Traveling with a group of 25 has become something we’ve adopted over the last 15 years and we regularly do it, and we advertise it, and we tell people that our groups will be between 25 and 30 people in most cases. You’ll get more attention and better service and have a better experience because you’re traveling in a smaller group of people. That was something that was forced upon us by circumstances of the airlines and we were able to turn it I think in a positive direction.

I don’t think there’s a single tour operator out there now, even if they still travel with groups of 50, who won’t privately tell you that yes, smaller groups are better for the traveler.

“Smaller groups are better for the traveler. They get more attention, better service, and have a better experience because they're traveling in a smaller group of people.” - Mark Hoffmann #WhyCollaborate #podcast Click To Tweet

That’s so interesting because where that could have been perhaps negatively perceived by the travelers especially if let’s say the cost of the trip is going to go up because it’s shared by fewer travelers, but that’s offset by this whole idea of the better experience, more attention. I imagine that those trips, especially with those smaller groups, must sell quicker.

Yes, they do. Also, the cool thing is that a trip of 25 might sell out. Well, then if you only went to a destination every other year, now you can go every year. In some cases, we’ve doubled and now we will have two departures instead of one. Do I make less money for departure? Yeah, sort of, but I still maintain my markups. As you said, the tour is going to be a little more expensive. It’s a matter of educating your customers to the fact that when you travel, you get what you pay for. By and large, once in a while you can snare a bargain, but by and large, you get what you pay for it.

Customers who travel with Sports Leisure with their friends, the one thing that publicly we get dinged on often is, “Oh, those Sports Leisure trips, they’re more expensive. They’re too expensive.” When they say that to somebody who travels with us, invariably the answer that they will very quickly get is, “Well, you get what you pay for. Yes, I pay more, but I get a lot more than you do when you travel, and that’s the way that I like to travel.”

That’s fabulous.

 

Sports Leisure’s Route 66 Trips This Year

Mark, is there something that you’re working on now or a project that’s coming up in the future that you could share with our listeners?

For the first time in five years, this year I’m taking a group out on Route 66. That is something that I tremendously enjoy because when you follow that old ribbon of highway from Chicago to Santa Monica, we do in two sections, the Eastern section in the spring that’s 11 days, and a Western section in the fall that’s 10 days, because it takes three weeks to travel 2,400 miles and stop and meet the people, and taste the food, and see the rabbit that autographs postcards with his teeth, and stop and meet the man who’s buying his hometown one building at a time and moving it to a place 35 miles away so that he can keep his hometown forever I guess.

There’s a tree covered with yarn outside of Springfield, Missouri that I was just sent a picture of the other day that I’ve never seen before. I mean the entire tree is covered in yarn, which makes absolutely no sense at all except that it’s the perfect Route 66 attraction. Being able to go out on that old highway and see people, I’ve been doing Route 66 trips now for almost a quarter of a century and I haven’t been out there for a long time. I have a lot of friends along that old road and a lot of it still exists. You can still travel a lot of the original Route 66 route. That is something that really makes me happy.

I’m the kind of guy that always wonders what’s over there on the other side of that hill? If you’re out traveling and you see a bunch of mature travelers on the side of the road looking down at the ground walking in circles, it’s probably a group of Sports Leisure travelers who are on a piece of old pavement from an old highway and they’re enjoying the scenery.

That’s awesome. We’ll have to keep that in mind. I think that’s great. A tree full of yard, I’d love to see that picture. That’s pretty cool. Well, thank you for sharing that. That sounds like a great or two really great trips actually. You don’t have to be from Sacramento to participate on those trips. Is that correct?

No, you don’t. Our website is SportsLeisure.com. You can join a trip from anywhere in the country.

That’s awesome.

 

Sharing Ideas is Collaboration

Well, great. I’d like to switch gears and talk a little bit about collaboration because that’s another area that I really like to explore on this podcast and mostly because we’ve already talked about a lot of things that require collaboration in terms of the works that you’re doing. In travel and tourism, I just find it fascinating how much true collaboration exists.

Not just collaboration between let’s say yourself as the travel buyer and maybe some suppliers as you’re planning your trips, but also collaboration among perceived competitors. You talked about NTA and this group of tour operators who come together at these conventions every year and belong to this organization. I’d really like to explore that a little bit with you. Can you talk just a little bit about collaboration and how that’s worked for you and your business?

Well, there’s a whole association now of tour operators now called Travel Alliance Partners where about three dozen tour operators have come together essentially under the premise of buying each other’s product being their main goal. That’s collaboration on a tour operator level that perhaps hadn’t existed before that. It’s not uncommon at all at an NTA convention. For someone, especially once you’ve been in the business for a little while, the reason you go to conventions is to network with people and have those conversations while you’re at an event or on a shuttle bus or something like that that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

It gives you an opportunity to somehow find something that you might not have found or find something that someone else is doing or learning from someone else. Collaboration sometimes can be just stealing somebody else’s idea.

I say stealing, but John Stachnik, who’s the owner of Mayflower Tours in Chicago, came into an NTA meeting about 25 years ago and he said, “I just want to tell you guys something.” He says, “I have an idea this year.” He said, “I bought a bunch of vans and I’m picking my Chicago area customers up and bringing them to the airport or the train station or the bus departure point, and people are just loving it. They just think it’s the most incredible service that they’ve ever experienced.”

I sat in that room and when John said that, a light bulb went on. I said, “Wow.” One of the toughest things is people need to get a ride to the airport or a ride home from the airport or a ride to where the bus is going to pick them up. The bus to the airport is expensive going through town. What if we could pick people up at their homes and take them to the airport? We came home and bid it out the local shuttle companies and eventually ended up with a limousine company that takes our people to the airport.

Anytime it’s a multiple day tour, whether it’s by coach or by air, it leaves, the people get picked up in Sacramento. We collaborate and work with a local limousine company that takes 11 or 12 cars to pick up 30-35 people in the morning.

That’s one way, an interesting way, that we work with another segment of the industry that you perhaps wouldn’t necessarily put those two together on a normal basis, but I can tell you that my customers consider being picked at their homes to be something of tremendous value.

Yeah, absolutely. Talk about finding a pain point and solving for it. I think that’s a fabulous idea. I can see them really enjoying that. You’re getting that ride or else your paying for parking fees, right, to leave your car somewhere.

Well, exactly. Plus, airplanes don’t always follow the printed schedule. Your flight comes in two hours late and somebody’s got to be out at the airport waiting for you. Their whole evening or their whole afternoon is taken up by taking care of you. Guess what? When that person who took you to the airport, the next time they travel, guess who they’re going to call to take them to the airport? This is a way of becoming a little bit more independent.

We also market heavily to single travelers. We have a collaboration here in Sacramento of trying to find other businesses that market to mature single women, and that perhaps we can market together or perhaps we can help that company sell their product to our customers, and they will help us sell our product to their customers provided that of course, the product involved on the other end is something real and valuable. We’re big on integrity, and we’re big on transparency and being honest with our customers and not trying to pull the roll over their eyes or BS them about things. We tend to look for companies to do business with who have that same philosophy.

Yeah, that’s a really great example as well. Do you have a specific example of one that you found in that particular segment? The single traveler segment?

We have a company here in town that sells locally made cosmetics, hand lotions, soaps, things like that. Their clientele obviously is 95% female. The average age of their client is about 45 years old, which is a little bit young for us. We tend to start picking up people in about their mid-50s. The boomers are coming in at a younger age than their parents did.

We’re currently working on a deal with this little tiny shop, she probably has 25 customers a day, to create something to giveaway her soaps on some of our tours. She’s going to make special sample sizes of soaps and we will give them away on our tours. She’s going to have a drawing in her store once a month I think for a several hundred dollar tour certificate that can be used on any of our trips. That’s a way that we are going to put our product in her store and she will put her product on our buses and hopefully we will all get some business from.

I love that example because like the limo company, but this is even further outside of the industry per se, and building that relationship and that synergy with a retail shop. I also love that you’re bringing local product, right, onto your trips.

We have a very distinctive demographic and most tour operators do. I mean some operators are student operators and some deal with different demographics than I do, but the majority of tour operators deal with mature travelers. The thing is you can just ask your customers and they’ll tell you where they shop and where they go and what they do and stuff like that. You can watch them when they go into gift shops when you’re on the road. What do they buy? What are the things that really light them up?

I didn’t know for many years that, because I wasn’t paying attention and I’m not a woman, but my ladies buy a disproportionate amount of earrings. When you find a store, you’re out checking out destinations, you find a store that has a whole wall of inexpensive earrings, my ladies apparently disproportionately buy a lot of those. A store that had a lot of those that might not normally be a stop on a trip for somebody with a different demographic would be a must stop for us. It would make people very happy. You would say, “Earrings? Why earrings?” Hell, I don’t know. That’s something that older women buy on the road.

As one of my tour directors explained, “Well, you lose earrings a lot. You’ll lose one of them or something like that. Ladies like to have different pairs of earrings for different days and different places. It’s a change of mood sort of thing.” I understand that.

That’s awesome. When you really focus and get intimate in your customers like you have been able to over the last 38 years, those are the kinds of things that you know about them now. I think that’s really awesome.

 

Partners Won’t Fall Into Your Lap

Mark, I’ve been really enjoying this conversation. I have one more question for you before we are wrap up. Before I let you go, I just would like to ask you what advice you have for someone who might be listening who might be thinking about collaborating maybe with a business like you described with that local business, what should they be looking for?

I understand the target demographic, but what else should they be looking for in terms of a good partner?

Wow. I’m not sure that that’s a question that I can really answer, but I think that you have to look for partners. Good partners won’t fall in your lap necessarily. I’m a firm believer that people create their own luck and their own opportunities. The more that you’re out there and the more that you’re creating a chance for something positive to happen. As I said, go on one of your own trips. If you’re a tour operator, go on one of your own trips and just watch your customers or just go on one of your trips whether it’s a day trip or three or four or five days or whatever you can afford to invest.

I might suggest the shorter trips. A couple shorter trips will allow you to see more people, but just ask your customers how you’re doing. I mean, we all send out evaluations and things like that and then we try to find the time to read them, but really and truly just one-on-one with your customer is so important. I take a dozen or so tours a year still. I’ve been in this business forever. Most people stop doing this going out on tour long before this, but I find that going out on tour I can sit down with my customers face-to-face.

I can sit with six or eight with them at a dinner table, and we can have a conversation where I can tell them about things that are coming up and see what their reaction is. I can ask them, “What do we do that you don’t like? What drives you crazy that we do?” Most of the times you don’t get any answer at all, but every once in a while you’ll get an answer that’s really enlightening. I love to talk. You probably noticed that, but you have to also be a good listener. You have to listen to your clients. Sometimes you just can’t listen to them, but you have to ask them specifically. How are we doing? What do you like? Ask them in a circumstance that doesn’t make them feel intimidated. If you’re sitting at a table with them and you’re having a meal and you’re honestly asking them, you’re very likely to get some very honest answers.

I think that is fabulous advice. It seems like that’s been a pretty big theme for this whole conversation is being a good listener and listening to your customers. I like what you said, ask. Ask them. Sometimes you know the most obvious things, right, we don’t think of.

I really appreciate you spending your time with us today. I’ve learned a lot. I know our listeners have learned a lot. Thank you again very much for being with me, Mark.

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