Ep. 36 — From Free Walking Tour Guide to Building My Own Tour Business (with Arnaud Azoulay, CEO of Babylon Tours)

10 mins with Arnaud Azoulay of Babylon Tours. Arnaud sat down with Tourpreneur Podcast Host Shane Whaley and revealed how built his tour company, Babylon Tours.

He also shares with us insights and tips for other tour operators including which booking platform they work with and how they work remotely and how they hire tour guides.

This episode and interview of Tourpreneur@Arival is presented by Checkfront. The booking platform trusted by over 5,000 tour and activity operators around the world. You can start your own free 21 day trial over at Checkfront.com.

Babylon Tours – At a Glance.

Links and Resources Mentioned on This Episode of Tourpreneur – the podcast for tour operators.

Interview with Arnaud Azoulay of Babylon Tours Transcript.

Shane:                    Welcome to TourPreneur at Arival, presented by Checkfront. We’re joined by Arnaud Azoulay. How are you Arnaud?

Arnaud:                  I’m doing well. How are you?

Shane:                    Fantastic. What is the name of your tour?

Arnaud:                  We run Babylon Tours.

Shane:                    Babylon Tours. How many tours do you run?

Arnaud:                  We have almost 10 cities. We’ll be having 10 by the end of the year, and between 10 to 20 tours in each city, depending on how far along they are.

Shane:                    Wow. And, when did you guys get started?

Arnaud:                  Oh, 2000. Really, I started running my own tours, unofficially as Babylon came later, but 2013, I started doing my own Louvre museum tours. And, formed, officially, Babylon in 2014.

Shane:                    Great. So, how did you get started out in tours?

Arnaud:                  So, I was actually a free walking tour guide for Sandemans in New York and Paris. I lived in Paris six years. So, I started giving tours with them, and then, slowly got interested more and more in giving tours, and a little bit more ambitious, perhaps, than a lot of the guys, and thought, is there a future here? And, because a lot of my background is in art, art and music, but I thought a lot of people are very overwhelmed by the museums and they don’t know how to approach it.

Arnaud:                  And, a lot of the questions I would get would be, not just how to get in, but when we get in there, what do we do to make the most of our time? And so, I just tried to figure out the best way to maybe create my own tour of that.

Arnaud:                  And, I would start by just taking guests from my free tour and just say, “Hey, pay for your entry and I’ll take you on a tour. And, if at the end you like it, just leave me a review and that would be great.”

Arnaud:                  And so, I thought I’d maybe build something like that. So, it ended up being really successful and I think I climbed to the top 10 on TripAdvisor within, I don’t know, maybe, four or five months just from that. And then, I realized that not am I just that high on TripAdvisor, but I’m also the number one museum tour, and so, I started adding the Orsay museum.

Arnaud:                  And, I think the big sales pitch to get to working with OTAs, which is where we really became very serious, is that I said, “Well, if I can combine it with the Orsay, the two most famous museums in Paris, maybe on earth, and make it one afternoon, Hop. And, that became super-successful. And, after months of pushing, maybe about three months, I was able to successfully, at that time, sell it to Viator, now TripAdvisor.

Shane:                    So, how long did it take to get it working with Viator?

Arnaud:                  It was a lot of emails and a lot of, I’m selling myself as one guy, and not a company really fully-formed. But, I was very, very motivated and pushy and I went through a lot of people and different emails and finally, they couldn’t deny the success of the tours and the reviews were stellar. So, in the end I’m like, “Look, what do you have to lose?”

Arnaud:                  And, the second they accepted, and added it, and we got it on fairly quickly, I remember I was on a vacation with my wife, and all of a sudden these emails just started coming in, and I was like, “Oh, my goodness, this is something going to be big and getting serious.”

Arnaud:                  And, with the help of my partner Dario, we took it on a different level. We made our own website, which at the time was very amateur. But, it was something and we’d get some online bookings, but TripAdvisor really, or Viator, rather then, really set us in a good direction to get very serious, hire other guides, perfect the tours and the experiences.

Shane:                    Sure. What do you find the most rewarding aspect about being a tourpreneur, about running your own tours? What’s the most rewarding aspect?

Arnaud:                  Rewarding is really when I meet my guides and I see how they love working with us, because they’re all freelance so they can tell us how it is with everyone else. It feels good to talk to them and see how happy they are, and making them happy, and listening to their concerns, or stories.

Arnaud:                  And so, we just came off the trip visiting a lot of our guides because we’re all over and I work completely remotely. I’m not near any of my cities right now. I’m in Los Angeles and we don’t do tours there. So, when I do check in with them, that’s the most rewarding, is seeing how their experiences is, because that used to be me there and I want to make sure it’s keeping up the same way, the same feeling I would get with those customers.

Shane:                    So, when you are hiring tour guides, what are you looking for?

Arnaud:                  Really, it’s mostly enthusiasm. I think a lot of, whether it’s history or art, a lot of stuff that can be taught or learned, if you have a passion for it. It’s really about being good with people, and that’s what I learned very well on early on. Guiding is more about reading your audience.

Shane:                    Yes.

Arnaud:                  And, since we only do small, very small, semi-private tours, eight or less guests, or private tours, it’s a lot easier for them to do so, and a without the use of headsets, unless we have a large group for some reason that have booked, you find it’s just really like a conversation and a real experience that you’re sharing with someone at the time, not just like a lecture on feet. That’s always been our policy.

Shane:                    So, when you’re interviewing, this is a question we got a lot from our listeners is, interviewing is a very tricky skill isn’t it? And, you’re interviewing a tour guide, not for academic pieces of paper and qualifications, but to assess for passion. How do you go about, because in an interview everyone can say they’re passionate, and be a bit passionate.

Shane:                    Do you have any tips on how you really find out how passionate they are?

Arnaud:                  I’m going to pass the mic to my associate here, Dario, because he really is more handling today and he’s more on the ground, so he can do face-to-face, whereas I’ll do Skype, and maybe he’ll follow up, so-

Shane:                    No problem. Welcome, Dario.

Dario:                      Hi Shane. How are you doing?

Shane:                    Good.

Dario:                      Thank you. So, regarding the interviews and that particular question, there’s a lot that is done over the phone. It’s really difficult to gauge the quality of the guy that you’re talking to, and the passion, I think, you get it through a few tricky questions you can ask.

Shane:                    Yes.

Dario:                      They’re all freelancers, so they all work with different companies. First of all, ask them which companies, and you have already an idea what that company wants and what they are striving for. So, if it’s a good company… I tend to throw out a couple of jokes in the middle and see if they laugh or they react to it, if they follow it up a little bit to see how good they are interacting with people.

Dario:                      Always, I tell them that I forget their CV and their emails, so give me a reminder of how the whole experience went. So, they tell me their story, they tell me their story right, and they can basically give it to [inaudible 00:06:40].

Dario:                      Then, after that, it’s a 50/50 chance, or more of an experienced part of just hearing the voice, if it sounds clear or not. If they pronounce well. Ask them a couple of questions about one tour, if they know some of the history and if they go on and tell you more of their story, even if they don’t have to, that they’re passionate about telling you that story.

Dario:                      It’s a few tricks there that I do automatically, I think, because of doing so many interviews, I used to have a list of questions. Right now they’re just burned in my brain. I just ask them without even thinking, really.

Shane:                    Yeah. Fantastic. Thank you for sharing that with us.

Dario:                      No problem.

Shane:                    Looking at your distribution mix, what percentage of your business is OTA versus direct? Where are you getting most of your business from?

Arnaud:                  So, definitely OTAs, the majority, which a lot of people maybe complain about or have reservations with, but like I said, they made us who we are, so I’m totally happy about that, and not really against working with any of them as long as they can work with API, because we’re so busy and have so many markets and tours that if it’s not connected automatically, it’s more and more difficult, and so, some will give some chance to test out manually if we have to to start. But, that’s the key.

Arnaud:                  Website’s picking up. There’s ups and downs. Today, on the way here, I was just very surprised. Most of our bookings were on the website. I’m like, that’s great. It is picking up, but then, all those blanks get filled in with the OTAs and we couldn’t do it without their help.

Shane:                    Which booking platform are you guys using?

Arnaud:                  We started with Peek.

Shane:                    Yep.

Arnaud:                  Originally, I think it was one of their first. Their first, for sure, in Paris, maybe Europe, and was so happy and loved them very much. But, in the end, for what we did and our needs at the time, and it’s funny enough, when we first met, I don’t know if you remember, was at the first arrival?

Shane:                    Yes.

Arnaud:                  And I said, oh, what’s her name, the head of Peek?

Shane:                    Ruzwana?

Arnaud:                  There you go. And, I said, “You guys have to talk.” Because they weren’t, at the time, connecting with GetYourGuide, and we were getting so many bookings that, in the end, it was actually that that was the choice that we made to move to FareHarbor because, at that time, Peek was only with Viator, and FareHarbor was so many other OTAs, and we just needed that right away. We were pulling our hair out doing manual bookings.

Arnaud:                  So now, everyone’s working with everyone. But, at the time it was a need for us. So, we were very comfortable and I don’t think I’d ever change again. It would be very difficult just because it was such a process that was really trying and I grew a lot of gray hairs, certainly, from that experience.

Shane:                    Sure. What keeps you awake at night?

Arnaud:                  That would be different, probably, for both of us.

Dario:                      The phone.

Arnaud:                  Yeah. Probably the phone. We’re in different time zones. So, the phone gets tricky.

Shane:                    What worries you? Looking at your business.

Arnaud:                  I’m beyond worry. It’s really, I get caught up in better systems. We talk a lot about systems, and I think people understand that, is we have a very small organization, very big, as far as numbers, and cities, and tours. But, we really, besides Dario and me, we have a few interns. I have an assistant but we keep it small.

Arnaud:                  So, I really want to make things most efficient. And, we learned that efficiency is the key to not spending where you don’t need to spend or wasting time. So, we think of new systems all the time, and every time we’re together, which is not that often, we talk on the phone every day probably, but face-to-face, we get these ideas bounced different ways of being more efficient. And, that what keeps me up and, for him, I’m sure it’s something else, but…

Dario:                      No, no it’s the same thing. But, as well, I run the operations with the tickets, and tickets is yet not integrated to any sort of system.

Arnaud:                  Right.

Dario:                      And, when you get a booking at four a.m. for a Louvre tour at 10 a.m., and you know how those tickets go. They need a name, they need a date, they need, a time and you need to send them to a guide. And, those are things that I wake up in a bit of stress when I am in high season.

Arnaud:                  Yes.

Dario:                      Here in Orlando, I wake up at five a.m. every day because I have calls that are 10 a.m. in Paris, those kinds of things. But, I guess it comes out to the same thing, which is the systems. I wish the market would go towards what airlines have as technology, not only for pricing but integration for different systems where life is much easier in those interactions with the customer, and with the time zones, as well.

Arnaud:                  Yes.

Dario:                      Right now, I think we’re bounded on LA and Paris. We have that nine hour difference, which is great for us because we do the 24-hour clock, the two of us, but at the same time, if we move from the cities, we need to think about time zones.

Arnaud:                  Yes.

Dario:                      There’s not much of if it’s a beach. It’s like, “Where am I going to get the calls and what time.”

Shane:                    See, I’m loving these espresso interviews, but now I want to go deeper, so would you to be interested in coming back on the show. We can have a deep dive on your business, because I’ve got so many questions to ask you.

Arnaud:                  I’ve been looking forward to it. You have yet to reach out.

Shane:                    Fantastic. I will do. I will do.

Arnaud:                  I know you will. I enjoy your show very much, and I can’t wait to be a part of it. I think it’s a great thing you have going-

Shane:                    I appreciate that.

Arnaud:                  … and very professional.

Shane:                    Thank you.

Arnaud:                  Which a lot that I hear are not, and I like it. When it comes down to even the sound quality, and it bothers me, as an avid podcast listener. So I really appreciate what you’re doing and it’s wonderful for our group here, which is growing.

Shane:                    Well, I’m very lucky to have a good editor called Carrie, who be editing this episode, and she works very hard on making it sound sweet.

Arnaud:                  Well done. It’s appreciated.

Shane:                    And where can people find your tours?

Arnaud:                  babylontours.com.

Shane:                    Fantastic. Merci beaucoup.

Dario:                      Thank you.

Arnaud:                  Thank you.

Speaker 2:            Thanks for listening to the TourPreneur podcast. Be sure to visit tourpreneur.com to join the conversation and access the show notes, including links to the resources mentioned on today’s episode. This is TourPreneur.