Central America

Published on February 23rd, 2011


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


The lad (on left) who put Imagine on the map.

Thanks to a few licked stamps (and a boat-load of serendipity) my little “Imagine…Belize” tour biz got off to a most amazing start that first season.  That the travel editor of one of Seattle’s largest newspapers booked my first trip – and then (despite cold showers and jungle drug busts) came home to wax glowingly about his many adventures amid the islands and jungles of Belize, and heap praise on my little fledgling tour company was HUGE!

Verily put Imagine on the map, it did.  And filled up all three of my planned departures that winter (plus happily forced me to scurry to add 2 more.)  But that first season wasn’t a slam dunk on the road to success by any means, as selling a nation on the idea that vacationing amid the (allegedly deep, dark, dangerous) region of Central America (where machine-gun-toting Nicaraguan “Contras” were after all – uh, truly toting great big ol’ machine-guns!) was… decidedly an uphill marketing battle to say the least.

Nonetheless, I persisted – investing a portion of the profits from that first year in my very own desktop computer (no more pecking brochures and press releases at the library – yay!), and planning 3 more trips for the following winter.  Only trouble was… while at that point I was encouraged that I could eventually make the biz a full-time profitable endeavor, my part-time job in Human Resources didn’t allow me enough time to make that happen.  Indeed, the ol’ not enough money/yet not enough time dilemma.  Tough to take that leap into dumping a secure paycheck and jumping with both feet into building the business full time.

And then… the dilemma was solved (albeit at the time, most alarmingly) for me, when my part-time position in HRM was dissolved and I was suddenly layed-off. Yikes!  No income and only the proverbial “seat-of-my-pants” to somehow repeat the magic that had brought me such success that first season.  Like it or not, it was sink or swim time.

So I did what any passionate wanderlust with a newly discovered gob of entrepreneurial DNA streaming through her veins would do:  I channeled my inner-Michael Phelps and dog-paddled madly for the next several years.


An early intrepid Imagine group

In the early years I personally guided each and every trip of course.  And though the folks were all great, guiding was one of the hardest jobs I ever had.  My Imagine trips ranged from seven days to three weeks and let me tell ya – being “on” 24/7 for three solid weeks can be quite the marathon indeed.Not only ensuring that all accommodations, transport, and activities were all in place (often without benefit of even a confirmation fax), and coordinating the logistics of physically moving 12-16 folks from islands to jungles to beaches to cloud forests (more often than not on pot-holed dirt roads and/or suspiciously rickety boats), but making sure that each was safe, reasonably comfortable, and deliriously enchanted by each wondrous locale we visited.

Ah yes, there was simply no end to the fun and games of being a tour guide, and the challenges kept me anxious and on my tippy-toes most every blessed minute

Among the many “interesting” mishaps in those early days as a tour guide, I fondly remember…

Waking to the shaking of my bed on the 4th floor of our hotel in San Jose – OMG an earthquake! – with my group of 14 lodged hither and yon the hotel!  Racing to each of their rooms and shooing them down to the lobby (w/ frantic instructions to grab their shoes AND their passports). Happily, it turned out to be but a bitty quake (by Costa Rican standards) and… we found the Ticos in the hotel cafe – calmly sipping their morning coffee, not the least bit alarmed.

The lass who broke her wrist whilst hiking in Monteverde, and had to be evacuated 60 miles down the mountain to the nearest clinic (in Puntarenas) by the only transport availabile – the village soda pop truck!

Our battered bus (a bright yellow school bus with seats sized for 7 year-olds) breaking down on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere (en-route to Placencia in the far south of Belize). Alas it was a shredded fan belt that caused the bus to overheat (in the already blistering tropical sunshine), and… our clever bus-driver used a strap from one of the backpacks to mend it!

And when I wasn’t guiding trips, I was down in the tropics scouting out new hotels and researching new itineraries. So I was out of the country most the year, leaving uh, nobody back at the “office” (my bedroom) to keep up with the nitty-gritty of marketing, paperwork and actually selling trips. I’d also added Costa Rica to Imagine’s menu of “Soft Adventures”. So between guiding trips and whizzing to ‘n fro the tropics in the off-season, I was necessarily out of the country a LOT those first few years.


Seriously. It really WAS a tough job!

All well and good.  I mean after all, “working” amid the splendor of tropical isles and verdant rainforests isn’t exactly drudgery.  And it surely beats toiling in a windowless cubicle 50 weeks per year.But from a business standpoint, I needed to be in the office (I believe I mentioned… bedroom?) answering the phone, dreaming up new marketing schemes, and devising ever more fantastic and adventure-filled itineraries for my schedule of trips  – in order to fill those those trips and keep the Imagine piggy bank chubby each year. So after awhile, I began hiring local guides in Belize and Costa Rica – providing a win-win for all involved:

  • hiring local guides provided jobs in Belize and Costa Rica (where they were sorely needed);
  • local guides would always be far more knowledgeable about the wonders of their native land than I could ever hope to be (and thus my clients enjoyed more intimate cultural exchanges); and I…
  • I was then free to build the business, do slide presentations, participate in travel shows, etc.  plus still got to whiz off to tropical hideaways for research at least a few times each year.

Fast forward a dozen years, and over that time the business grew – not by leaps and bounds, but steadily as Belize and Costa Rica slowly entered the consciousness of mainstream travelers.  Personally I rather hoped that my two beloved tropical treasures would remain “undiscovered” forever.  But of course that notion was blasphemy for a lass who needed to sell trips.

Still… I stayed true to my original philosophy of the “Adventure” in Imagine’s “Soft Adventures” – always using small, locally owned hotels, staying in homestays whenever possible, eating local fare (I once talked the Tico cook at our hotel at Manuel Antonio into sending her son into the rainforest to nab an iguana for the group’s dinner!), and generally encouraging a cultural exchange on all my trips, along with a serious respect for the delicate tropical environment (from early on, I opted to donate 10% of Imagine’s net profits to environmental groups like the Belize Audubon and the Monteverde Conservation League.)

But time marched on, as it so reliably does. Things inevitably changed, and Imagine necessarily changed with them.  And though I know I said this would be the final installment of the “So You Wanna Be an Int’l Tour Operator, Huh?” – this post is already teetering on a tome, so best I save a final, final wrap-up for next time…

~ Tune in for the (seriously, I promise!) final chapter of this 20 year saga: “To Every Time…Turn, Turn, Turn” and how I learned to adapt Imagine to the changing winds of time.

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!

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

  1. Hi, its really a good story as Jeremy said already. But yes i don’t agree with his statement as he said that he can’t do this. In this world, almost everything is possible and everyone has capabilities and skills to make their dream true. All we need the appetency.

    • TravelnLass says:

      Yes, “appetency” is key to succeed in most any endeavor. You must be PASSIONATE about it if you are to succeed, as – if I’ve learned nothing else in being an entrepreneur for 20+ years, it’s that there’s no get-rich-quick about it. No matter how clever/remarkable/ingenious your idea – it ALL takes a ton of W.O.R.K. Not to mention incredible faith and persistence, flexibility – I could go on and on.

      But the point is – you’re absolutely right. Most anything you can dream up – you CAN make happen. Just a matter of how bad you want it, and what you’re willing to do (as in w.o.r.k., sacrificing e.g. lattes, shiny new techno gadgets, cars, et al) to make your dreams a reality.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Thanks! I would gladly do the exact same thing if I can get it going. I figure that being unemployed is the perfect time to try and get it started, and since I’m earning a little money now I can continue to sustain myself while its going until I get a job. We’ll see!

  3. TravelnLass says:

    @Jeremy You can do absolutely ANYTHING you want, and there’s lots of ways to make a living doing what you love (like err… travel) Course there’s always trade-offs, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Shoot I likely would have made 4 times the rubles had I kept climbing that ol’ career ladder, but… No regrets, I chose a simple life (“stuff” wise) and instead spent a lifetime doing what I love.

    btw, congrats on your engagement!

  4. Jeremy says:

    Wow, what an incredible story. Not sure I could do something like that, but as I sit here unemployed working on my websites, I can’t help but feel in the same boat.

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