Central America

Published on February 4th, 2011


So You Wanna Be an Int’l Tour Operator, Huh? Part II

There was no internet in those days of course. Even desk-top computers were somewhat rare and new to the scene. I surely didn’t own one. Heck, I didn’t even own a typewriter. Indeed, I typed my very first “Imagine… Belize” brochure on a Selectric at the LIBRARY!

(Errr… this is beginning to sound like the dodderin’ old fogey’s boastful lament: “Why when I was a kid I trudged 30 miles in a blizzard – BAREFOOT – to get to school!”)

But seriously. That’s how it was. No internet, no email, no twitter, no cell phones.

(I know what you’re thinking: “Good grief – in those dark days – how on earth did the globe manage to even SPIN?”)

And likewise no guidebook whatsoever on the pristine little nation of  “used-to-be British Honduras” Belize. (Actually, one of my greatest regrets was that I had to turn down a rather lucrative offer to write one ‘cuz at the time I was too busy building my own little int’l tour biz.)

In short, not only had few travelers even HEARD of Belize, but marketing a wee upstart travel business like mine – without benefit of today’s digital freebies – surely called for some mighty creative marketing techniques.  Clearly if I was to get my fledgling “Imagine…Belize” biz off the tarmac, I needed to (literally) think-outside-the-box (i.e. those little – and ever littler computer boxes that we all peck on today.)

So I did the only sensible thing a delusional wannabe int’l travel czar with an advertising budget of zip would do: I took a $30 class in writing press releases, licked a few dozen .22 stamps (yep, first class stamps were less than a quarter), and snail-mailed a boatload of press releases to key newspapers across the country.

And the result of my $37.92 investment? The LA Times gave me 8 inches of editorial (worth about $800 at the time), the Denver Post and a handful of other newspapers printed brief shout-outs, and the Seattle P.I.?  Not only did the travel editor of my local newspaper publish a nice blurb on my forthcoming Belize trips, but the paper PAID to have him JOIN MY 1ST TRIP!!!

Woo-hoo!  A struggling start-up tour operator’s DREAM-COME-TRUE, yes?

Errr… but uh, I still hadn’t yet even guided a group to Belize!  Needless to say this most fortuitous development filled me with a good bit of ambivalence.  The thought of having the travel editor of one of Seattle’s biggest newspapers along on my first group trip, scribbling notes at every turn made me a bit weak in the knees.  I was thrilled at the potential publicity of course, while at the same time terrified that I really didn’t have a clue, and had no business presuming to be an international tour operator.

SoYouWannaPart2-Airport350x225Nonetheless I managed to pull my shredded nerves together, and by Febrary 1986, I’d filled my 1st trip with a group of 12 intrepids hailing from all across the country.  And after rendezvousing in Houston (in those days no U.S. air carriers served Belize so we necessarily flew TACA, the Salvadorian airline), we all tumbled out into the tropical sunshine at Belize International Airport (see pic, not a heck of a lot of security there with uh, folks waving on the roof!)

SoYouWannaPart2-Road350x239I could fill quite a few posts here on the bountiful adventures we shared on that first trip (like… the travel editor of one of Seattle’s biggest newpapers standing up amid the blue Caribbean on a snorkeling excursion screaming “Sh-sh-SHARK!“; the sweet lass from Denver who sashayed up to check-in at the Houston airport like Ginger Grant from Gilligan’s Island – juggling no less than 3 suitcases filled with an assortment of stylish HIIGH HEELS; the young lad who’d never before been out of the U.S. yet bravely signed up for an adventure to a country he’d never even heard of; the cold water outdoor showers in the jungle; the ghastly muddy road to Tikal; oh and did I mention… the gun-toting Belize border guards that arrived at our secluded jungle lodge set along the border with Guatemala one morning, searching for drug smugglers?)

Ah but despite such deliciously daring anecdotes, the truth is that I managed to get the whole crew safely back home (with all appendages intact).  And (miraculously!) all reported that they’d had their most wondrous travel experience yet.

Indeed, I believe I introduced them all to a wholly new style of travel.  You see in those days, the travel industry pretty much offered but two (vastly disparate) styles of travel.  Your choice, pick one:  A. Luxury cruises and all-inclusive (ala Club Med) resort vacations; else B. hard-core adventures scaling mountains and camping in the bush.

But Imagine trips offered a new style of travel – small group trips that I dubbed “Soft Adventures”.  No camping, nor arduous treks, but also no posh hotels with a/c and room service that insulated you from the authentic local culture of the country you’d traveled so far to see.  A balance. Decidedly off the beaten path, but with a bed, a modicum of plumbing, and with any luck, a trickle of hot water.  Pretty common nowadays.  But back then there were few companies that offered any such tours.

SoYouWannaPart2Tikal350x521Likewise in those days Belize was the next “undiscovered” destination, and Imagine’s “Soft Adventures” were on the leading edge of that wave.  So suffice that upon our return to Seattle, the travel editor of the P.I. reported lavishly on the trip – a full page and a half for two weeks in a row, with lots of pics of Caye Caulker, our jungle adventures (yup, even the drug bust at our jungle lodge) and the magnificent Mayan ruins we visited on a day trip to Tikal in Guatemala.

The result of which… verily put my fledgling little “Imagine Travel Alternatives” enterprise on the MAP!

My phone was ringing off the hook.  Indeed, the P.I. called to say they were fielding complaints that folks couldn’t get through to Imagine for days on end.  Word spread like wildfire, and I’d soon filled all 3 planned departures that winter, plus had to add a 4th and a 5th!

And so it was that I officially became a full-fledged international tour operator – and all because I’d licked a few 22¢ stamps!

~ Tune in next week for the next chapter of this ancient saga: the next 20 years in a nutshell, running small group trips to Belize and Costa Rica (w/ various ‘n sundry tangents along the way).

Check out all in the “So You Wanna Be an Int’l Tour Operator, Huh?” series HERE

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About the Author

Off-the-beaten-path travel is my passion,and I’ve always lived life “like-a-kid-in-a-candy-store” – eager to sample as many flavors as I can. Indeed, my life motto has long been: This ain’t a dress rehearsal, folks!

4 Responses to So You Wanna Be an Int’l Tour Operator, Huh? Part II

  1. TravelnLass says:

    Gosh THANKS Dalene, hopefully I’m on the right track here. gonlyknows what the future will bring in SEA, but it’s bound to be chock full of new adventures!

  2. Dalene says:

    Dyanne – your site is BEAUTIFUL! Love it! And your writing is also fantastic. I’m looking forward to following you along on your journey!

  3. TravelnLass says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Shannon. I must admit, I’m so new at this blogging/twitter/et al digital social stuff – it’s hard to know if my blather is even worth pecking. And of course it doesn’t help that there’s so many great travel bloggers out there – like YOU! 😉

    Nonetheless, peck here I shall – reminiscing my past adventures, and eager for the no doubt many more to come in Asia!

  4. You have such a wonderful voice and story here – really loving your site…have poured through your bio and am intrigued! Can’t wait to see how things shape up for you as you prep for your Asia move 🙂

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