Running heritage tours by bike
John Warland started Mind The Gap Tours, a tour company that guides visitors by bike to London heritage attractions. He shares how the idea began and his top 3 insights for running heritage tours.
Finding a niche in the market
“I work by ‘build it, build it well and people will come'."
John Warland founded Mind The Gap Tours after working in Morocco as an Intrepid Travel guide. He discovered that people valued a great travelling experience in addition to a great guided tour around a venue.
“I saw that travellers are now looking for more authentic experiences. I wanted to offer access to cultural heritage, in a way that allowed travellers to get off the beaten track.”
Mind the Gap Tours visits historical heritage sites like Hampton Court and Windsor Palace, travelling by bike down the Thames in groups of no more than 12 participants.
Travelling by bike was the most "unique and innovative way of arriving at these destinations". John sees his company as “filling the niche between mass tourism providers and expensive private guide experiences."
Getting tour guide experience
John started out in business. After gaining a Real Estate, Finance and Investment degree at Cass Business School, John changed career to hospitality and travelling.
"I wanted to offer access to cultural heritage, in a way that allowed travellers to get off the beaten track.”
“I found that I didn’t thrive in an office setting. At 18, I had a gap year at Wentworth Gold Golf Club, learning about professional service. Guests might have arrived for the golf, but it was definitely all about creating a whole experience of their day.
“I did an Intrepid Travel tour in South East Asia to see the local area, and I loved the culture. I decided to stay and volunteer in local schools.
Joining Intrepid Travel’s tour guide team in Morocco shortly after, he guided “small groups around the country to see the real spirit of the country”.
Starting a small business
In 2010, John started his company and applied his transferable business skills, which he learnt while working at Intrepid Travel.
“As a small company, you have to do almost everything. This includes:
- guiding tours,
- dealing with reservation requests,
- managing passengers,
- monitoring feedback
- and building the business.”
He keeps the tour groups small, as “overcrowding the route reduces the visitor’s enjoyment of a historical site”.
3 insights for running heritage tours
1. High attendance
“I work by the phrase ‘build it, build it well and people will come'. Get the product out there and see how it goes. If your product is a good one, you’ll get positivity. If it doesn't, make the product better.
“Within tourism, London has so great things to do, so you’re already in competition. I partnered with Lastminute.com and Expedia.com to sell my tours on my behalf – nationally and internationally – for a portion of the sale cost.
“As you get more bookings, you could negotiate the commission you pay. You could also negotiate group bookings and discounts at the venues you attend.”
2. Open communication about costs
“It’s important that customers understand why you price a product the way you do, and what value they get. They might be put off by the cost otherwise.
“For example, a half-day tour is £69, but this cost covers charges for travelling, bike rental, attraction entry fees and the guide's fees.
“When charges changes, you do think 'I’m losing money'. But see it from the customer's point of view and give them some value back – it does make a difference."
3. Good marketing for products
“I struggled with marketing at the beginning. I didn’t have any marketing budget, so I was 100 per cent dependent on word-of-mouth."
John encouraged this sort of marketing by encouraging feedback by Twitter, and offered trips to tourism bloggers and journalists to promote the company.
“Now, I have more budget so I can send leaflets and printed information to hotels and tour providers.
“The best piece of advice I learnt was to treat people like your friends and put your trust in them. They’re more likely to trust you back if you have a good relationship.”
What do you think of John’s approach? How would you bring audiences to a heritage tour?