I had a eureka moment at the LA Times Travel Show in 2009. I turned up expecting to plan my next holiday, and heard an interview with a man who ran a school for tour guides. My ears pricked up and I was instantly excited at the idea of becoming a tour guide myself. I followed the man around until he was by himself, gave him my card and that was that. Shortly afterwards I did a two-week program in San Francisco and became a certified tour guide in May 2009.
When I started out, I worked for as many tour companies as possible. I ran student tours, senior citizen tours, and even did ‘human arrow’ tours where you direct large numbers of people from planes to buses. I had so much enthusiasm for people and guiding, and my husband suggested that I put that energy into representing my own company rather than everyone else’s. It certainly didn’t happen overnight and it took a lot of planning, but there was no going back after the seed was planted. We did our research and found that over 10 million visitors a year wanted to see the Walk of Fame, so Hollywood seemed like the ideal location to start out.
Can you give us a quick run down of what TOURific Escapes is all about?
Sure thing! We are all about introducing people to the sights and tastes of Hollywood. LA can be overwhelming, and there’s so much to see. We want to take people to the landmarks so they can get up close and personal with the main attractions. We also want them to experience the best eat outs, which they might not have found otherwise. Our main focus is sightseeing and food tours, but British journalist Sandro Monetti runs our Celebrity Insider tours. They are a creation of his own and take a behind the scenes look into the A-list life.
I love to eat, I love experimenting with new restaurants, and I get excited about sampling cuisine when I visit a new place. It’s a great way to get to know a city. Sightseeing is an essential part of any tour, but we thought it would be more fun for guests to break up hours of sightseeing with food tasting. That’s how TOURific Escapes was born. Our very first tour, Hollywood Sites & Bites, kicked off in August 2010 and is still one of our most popular tours today.
Tours energize me, but my biggest joy comes after the tour when guests write lovely reviews or send me a personal message. I literally cry when I read some of these emails because I think my work and effort has paid off.
We’ve created and shaped our tours by listening to guest requests. If they ask for tours under four hours or without food, it’s up to us to deliver. We also need to be mindful to offer unique experiences. Actually, that played a large part in our decision to partner with Sandro Monetti. He approached us about adding his own tour to our portfolio and we agreed it was a niche that people wanted. It’s shorter, there’s no food aspect and Sandro holds the reins for each and every tour.
We’re also putting the final touches on a new chocolate indulgence tour which will run on Saturdays. We’ve been running a chocolate tour for three years but the chocolatiers we currently use aren’t open on Saturdays. I received so many requests from customers who couldn’t take time off work during the week, so I’ve created a completely new tour in a different part of town with new chocolatiers and tastes.
TOURific Escapes is still a work in progress. Our vision initially was to start small in Hollywood, develop a name and brand for ourselves, and then eventually lead tours overseas. I would love to partner up with professionals in other countries and we have plans for a European chocolate tour in the fall. We are constantly evolving, whether it’s adding more tours in LA or expanding our outreach and going into other countries. I don’t think operating a tour business is ever a finished product. But it is a labor of love, that’s for sure.
As a business owner who makes a living from tour guiding, what elements do you think are essential to running a great tour?
First and foremost it’s making sure that your clients know what they’re in for. But that being said, customer service is also crucial. Guests want to feel as though they are the most important person on the tour and they want your undivided attention for the entire tour. That involves a lot of behind-the-scenes planning with restaurants and vendors to ensure the timing is right so that the guest’s time is not being wasted. I also take the time to learn my guests’ names before they come on the tour. It’s all about being consumer focused because, ultimately, they are at the heart of the day.
One day we had a customer walk onto the bus with a dog, and my husband and I looked at each other as if to say “did you know about this”? We were certainly not expecting it, but it turns out the dog (Henry) was the most adorable and loveable guest on the tour. At the end of the day I thought, “Hang on. Maybe we’re on to something? Maybe we should do a tour with guests and their pets.”
How about odd requests?
We get a lot of interesting dietary requests thanks to a growing number of fad diets. We’ve had customers who are vegan, gluten free and dairy free – simultaneously. Over the years, we’ve figured that the best approach is to tell people with extreme dietary restrictions that they may be better off booking another tour. While we love our customers and hate to lose business, we don’t want people to be upset or disappointed because they feel they are missing out. If they insist on coming along, I suggest they bring their own snacks.
Every tour is unique in its own way, but my favourites are when the guests become friends. I once had six guests from Scotland, England and Florida who really hit it off, and were busy planning their next venture by the end of the tour. They exchanged email addresses and met up for dinner that night, posted pictures on our Facebook page and have stayed in touch ever since. If they hadn’t met on our small tour, they never would have crossed paths. I love connecting people and helping them to forge new friendships.
There are days when I wake up and I think I’ve got so much to do, it would be easier to stay in the office. But the minute I open my mouth and start the introductions, I’m transported to this whole new world and think about nothing else but the tour and my guests for the next four hours. It’s a special joy. Tours energize me, but my biggest joy comes after the tour when guests write lovely reviews or send me a personal message. I literally cry when I read some of these messages because I think my work and effort has paid off.
I would choose four fabulous Hollywood females; Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, Shirley Temple (as a little girl at the height of her career) and Mary Pickford. I am inspired by their careers in a mostly male-dominated industry, and the marks they individually left on Hollywood.
I would take them to a few outstanding Hollywood restaurants, such as Greenblatt’s Deli. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio used to have lunch dates there, and it would be fun for Marilyn to see how the deli has grown. I would stop at Musso & Frank Grill, the oldest restaurant in Hollywood dating back to 1919. Children weren’t allowed to dine there in the early days, so Shirley never got a chance to try their chicken pot pie. I’d also take them to a celebrity chef pizzeria, Pizzeria Mozza. I’m pretty sure Jean Harlow and Mary Pickford did not eat much pizza to keep their movie-star figures, so it would be fun to see them enjoy this amazing thin-crust pizza. Lastly we would stop at Mashti Malone’s Ice Cream Parlor, in business since the early 80’s. Ice cream makes everyone happy!