Published on April 16th, 20114
So You Wanna Be an Int’l Tour Operator, Huh? Part IV (the FINAL!)
No small feat to collapse 20 years of a wanderlust career into a handful of blog posts. But we’re (blessedly?) nearing the finish line here on this “So You Wanna Be…” historical marathon. I promised this would be the last installment, and so it shall. But it’s the longest yet, so kick off your shoes, grab a cuppa whatever, and settle in for a goodly read.Those first few years of my little “Imagine Travel Alternatives” endeavor were clearly a stuggle, but by the early 90’s Belize and Costa Rica were both swiftly becoming the newest “in” destinations, and I had managed to catch the leading tip of the wave.
Still, like most every entrepreneur, there was rarely a day that I could exhale, confident that I would somehow “make-ends-meet” each month – or even by the end of the year. Indeed, specializing in travel to such a seasonal region (Belize and Costa Rica have but two seasons: wet and dry) meant that the vast majority of my income came in a bountiful gob from December through March (when most folks here in the north sought an escape to the sunny tropics.) Thus income for the other 8 months was far more meager, and I had to learn to eke out my funds to last til the next boom season come winter. I also felt it wise to try to diversify by offering additional destinations, as well as specialty trips.
And in that spirit, in addition to enjoying a variety of great “fam” trips (“familiarization” tours offered cheaply to those in the travel industry by hotels and other tour operators as a marketing tool) to China, the Azores Islands, etc., I did my own research in both Honduras and Panama (ah, the idyllic San Blas Islands!) with the intent to possibly offer Imagine tours there as well.
I also contracted with a lad in Thailand to run a group trip there. I had the U.S. marketing infrastructure (and a growing mailing list of happy Imagine trip vets who jumped at the chance to join an Imagine trip to a new destination.) My Thai contact handled all the operations in Asia nailing down the transport and hotel reservations (I insisted the latter be small, locally-owned properties including an overnight in rustic “tree-houses” in the Asian jungle), and I went along as guide.
In those days too, I became very interested in photography (naturally, as an off-shoot of doing slide presentations, trade shows, teaching travel classes, etc.) and had always dreamed of personally joining a “Photo Safari” that I read about in photography magazines. But these were breathtakingly expensive and thus out of my budget til… it suddenly dawned on me that – why, I could simply RUN MY OWN photography tour to Costa Rica! I advertized the tour in those same photo mags I’d been drooling over, signed up a dozen eager trip participants from across the U.S., hired a professional photographer as the photo instructor, and I went along as the tour guide. To say that Costa Rica is photogenic is a gross understatement. Billed as a photo tour for “serious amateurs”, our little band of Art Wolfe-wannabees had great fun, learned a bunch (it was my first time traveling with a tripod and oh my, how my photos improved!), and all together the group took more than THIRTY-SIX THOUSAND photos!
And then there were the many other perks that I enjoyed as the owner of an international tour company. One of my Belize vendors (a dive company) offered to certify me for SCUBA and I was able to dive the legendary “Blue Hole” in Belize – a 400 ft. deep vertical cavern near the center of Lighthouse Reef. Even more memorable – while practicing my descents (one has to learn to descend swiftly when diviing to 130 ft.!) off St. George’s Caye in prep for the Blue Hole dive, a huge (but of course harmless) manatee appeared out of the “blue” (literally!) and (after recovering from my heart attack when I first spotted her) I, and the rest of my dive buddies experienced the rare joy of swimming with her for nearly an hour.
I also fondly remember my first (of many) after dark excursion at Playa Tamarindo in Costa Rica to witness the extraordinary sight of giant Leatherback sea turtles emerging from the sea like huge boulders, slowly making their way up the beach to lay their precious eggs in the sand. And another night on the beach, as I sat quietly under the stars – being suddenly startled by a cluster of newly hatched baby turtles emerging from their sandy nest (right under my feet!) as they scrambled to the safety of the sea.
And a likewise magical night of wonder while I was visiting Gale’s Point in Belize (researching the possibility of homestays for my Imagine tours.) I hopped into a rickety boat with a local fisherman to explore the “River of Fire”. We glided in the dark through a tunnel of mangrove that eventually opened up into a lagoon verily SHIMMERING with phosphorescence – the likes of which I’d never seen: glittering fish like bars of silver swimming beneath our oars, then jumping all around us sparkling like fireworks in the dark!
And of course, among the highlights of my travels – witnessing “La Dia de Dos Noches” (The Day of Two Nights) in Costa Rica – a total solar eclipse on a sunny tropical beach at noon – when suddenly the light dimmed, day turned to night and the stars twinkled above – in the middle of the afternoon!
Ah but enough reverie – getting back to business here… Eventually, as the business grew, I moved to a two bedroom apartment overlooking the magnificent Lake Washington so Imagine could finally have an official “office”. And later, I moved again – this time to an island off the coast of Seattle – just ‘cuz I could! After all, I could run the business from most anywhere, so why not an island?
Likewise at that time, I hired an assistant and sent her off to Venezuela to do research and bring back photos in anticipation of expanding Imagine’s tours into South America (needless to say, she complained bitterly – uh, NOT – of the task!) I even considered branching into tours in Alaska as it seemed a good “off-season” option.
Long story short, for various reasons, none of my diversification efforts proved promising. Having started from scratch with Belize and Costa Rica, I knew all too well how much work it takes to get a new destination off the ground. Alaska seemed already pretty well tied-up with big-time “tourism” (mainly ala cruise ships) and thus didn’t tickle my toes. Asia seemed a bit of a stretch unless I wanted to learn Thai and/or rely on experts there for every move. And strangely, neither Honduras, nor Panama nor Venezuela (all three amazing nations with oodles of unique attractions) proved tempting to the traveling public at large. Indeed, I tried offering a couple of week-long trips to the Bay Islands and Mayan ruins at Copan in Honduras, but the response was tepid at best.
Besides, Belize and Costa Rica were keeping me pretty busy by then – Imagine was listed in most all the major guidebooks (you can still Google to find me in the 2001 edition of the Costa Rica “Rough Guide”), and I’d earned a reputation as one of the few “experts” on Belize and Costa Rica. After all, I’d explored most every nook and cranny of both for many years, and quite honestly – I knew Belize and Costa Rica better than I knew my own neighborhood here in Seattle.
I’d also learned that I had strong feelings about how I wanted to run my business. It turns out that – though I most certainly enjoyed making a good income off of doing what I love – I was a tad touchy about compromising the authentic quality of my tours. This became crystal clear to me one day, when a big Japanese company offered to buy into my little Imagine biz. Faced with a dazzling six figure infuse of capital, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t cut out for big biz, and most certainly didn’t want some international behemoth sending me boatloads of Japanese tourists (or any other nationality for that matter) to descend in droves upon the pristine shores of my beloved Belize and Costa Rica.
Bottom line – I had neither the heart nor the ambition to build my little travel company into a huge dynasty. Thus I politely declined the partnership offer and gave up on expanding Imagine into the world’s next Ambercrombie & Kent. Instead, I turned my full attention to doing what I did best: offering the best authentic trips to Belize and Costa Rica that I could.
Ah but up until then, I’d relied solely on offering small group trips, and these have an inherent drawback from a business standpoint. They necessarily have fixed departure dates along with fixed itineraries, and were limited to just 16 participants (any more and I felt that the entire spirit of the trip would be compromised.) Indeed, it seemed that a good chunk of the advertising rubles that I was pumping into glossy magazines like “Islands” was going to waste. I’d get lots of calls interested in my tours, but… “oh, I can’t leave my job til the following week”, and “I can only be gone 12 days but I want to do your ‘Belize & Costa Rica’ trip” (a 15 day group trip), and “The kids are in school, so we can only go in the summer.)
In short, the inflexibility of small group trips was proving difficult, and I needed some way to satisfy the diverse druthers of the many folks who were now clamoring to visit Belize and Costa Rica. Trouble is – it takes pretty much the same amount of work to arrange an itinerary for 2 people as it does for 16. And with 16 the costs of a guide, local transport, etc. can be spread across the group, making the same itinerary far more economical. Thus I needed an efficient way to offer independent itineraries, and cost them to be both economical, as well as worth the trouble for me.
Fortunately by then I had excellent relationships with a wide variety of hotels and transport companies in both Belize and Costa Rica. Not only could I negotiate good net rates by working directly with these vendors, but I could count on them to give my clients especially good service. I was also able to streamline the reservation process by setting up magical spreadsheets to cost out “what if” scenarios for all manner of itineraries and excursions with but a few clicks of a mouse.
Indeed, the result was a whole new, year-round branch of Imagine Belize and Costa Rica “Choices” programs for independent travelers. The foundation of each country’s “Choices” was a week-long “Sampler”. In Costa Rica the Sampler included excursions to both the tropical rainforest of Tortuguero (dubbed “The Costa Rican Amazon” for good reason) on the Atlantic coast, as well as the sunny beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific.
And the Belize “Sampler” consisted of a 3 day jungle expedition (including a day trip into Guatemala to the Mayan temples of Tikal), plus 4 days basking in the sun on one of Belize’s off-shore islands. But the best part was you could then add to the Samplers, by choosing from a menu of additional options: extra nights at any of the locales in the Sampler, plus 1-3 nt. excursions to other locales (e.g. Placencia, Half Moon Caye, visiting the Jaguar Reserve and/or a homestay at Gales Point in Belize, and in Costa Rica – the Monteverde cloud forest, Volcan Arenal, Corcovado National Park and/or Playa Tamarindo. And finally, to ensure that Imagine’s programs fit everyone’s druthers, all the components of the “Choices” offered both an “Economy” and a “Superior” version.
Suffice, the new “Choices” proved the best business decision I ever made. With “Choices” I could offer year-round travel programs, and folks loved the way they could mix and match the Belize and Costa Rica options to build their own customized itinerary. I still offered a few group trips each year, along with specialty tours (e.g. a group of 5th graders and their chaperones from a Spanish Immersion school in Oregon – I arranged homestays in Monteverde and they went to school with the local kids for a week, along with bird-watching groups – I was myself, an avid avian at the time.) But it was Imagine’s “Choices” programs that really took off and eventually became the backbone of the company for a good many years.
Needless to say, I was proud of what I’d accomplished – building a viable travel company from scratch that fully supported me for two decades, allowed me a most flexible life style, and most importantly – enabled me to do what I passionately love: travel the globe exploring ever new corners.
Still, after so many years, not surprisingly my enthusiasm for the business began to wane. I mean, doing ANYTHING for 20 years gets a tad stale. The truth is, by then I’d pretty much accomplished what I’d set out to do, and despite the Choices programs success, there was precious little challenge left for me in running Imagine.
Besides, by 2005 I was nearing the blissful age of retirement and was looking to dabble in other sandboxes that interested me. As a true entrepreneur (never happy with building but a single business) I’d already begun whittling websites on a freelance basis (self-taught, hand-coding from the ground up, having built Imagine’s first site back in the early 90’s) and I’ve been bringing in a tidy little passel of rubles from that endeavor for quite awhile now.
So over the past half-dozen years, I’ve slowly allowed Imagine to drift – no longer actively marketing the Choices programs and only doing custom itineraries for friends or specialty groups. I probably should have sold the company when it was at its peak, but again – I was never in it for the money, but only as a means to coincidentally pay the bills while allowing me to explore the world.
Imagine was a great ride, and it enabled me to live a most remarkable life filled with memories many only dream of. I hope that this tome (leastwise for those hardy souls who managed to drag their eyeballs all the way down here!) detailing my experiences as an international tour operator might inspire someone to likewise follow their travel dreams. Though you’ll likely not get rich, trust that there are many ways to earn a decent living while skipping ’round the globe. This story is but one of them.
My days as Imagine’s “Wizard of Oz” behind the curtain (for that’s what it often felt like) are behind me now. And I’m eagerly looking forward to a new challenge: dumping most everything I own, and moving to some g-forsaken rice paddy in Vietnam. Needless to say, I’m both thrilled and a bit anxious about the prospect of beginning a whole new chapter of my life as an expat and EFL teacher on the other side of the world. A completely new path, with no doubt many highs and lows along the trail. But one thing I can be sure of…
It’s sure to be ONE HECK OF AN ADVENTURE! (and I do hope you’ll tag along)
|Check out all in the “So You Wanna Be an Int’l Tour Operator, Huh?” series HERE|