Ep. 159 — First-hand tips for buying or selling a tour business with Trish Higgins of CapnFish!

Buying and Selling a Tour Business

Trish Higgins bought Cap’n Fish’s cruises in idyllic Boothbay Harbor, Maine: known for its puffins, whale-watching, and picturesque lighthouses. 

So what could go wrong?

For starters, she signed the docs for her new tour business just days before the COVID-19 epidemic shut down most of the country, adding a totally new and unforeseen obstacle to tour operations, planning, and staff communication. 

But needless to say, Trish was determined to make the best of it and help the team at Cap’n Fish – a family-run business that had been around since the 1930’s – to reach their full potential. 

And we’re all about tackling challenges head first, and sharing those experiences when we live to tell the tale. 

So if you’re curious how Trish managed to help Cap’n Fish thrive, even during a pandemic, here are some of her key takeaways. She shared some first-hand tips for anyone who might consider purchasing (or selling) a tour business of their own. 

First up, plan how you’ll introduce yourself to the team. 

Before acquiring Cap’n Fish, Trish and her family had already purchased more than 20 small businesses over the years. 

Even so, there’s one thing that still makes her nervous: the first introduction with existing employees. 

Trish admits that there’s no easy way to break it to the team when a business changes owners. Employees are understandably concerned about whether their schedule, pay, or responsibilities will change. 

And as a new owner, even Trish herself gets nervous going into those first conversations. After all, she wants to retain as many of the employees as she can, and ensure they’re confident going into the next tour season.

So Trish advises planning out how those first few meetings will go. Communicate your own values and philosophy, and your dedication to supporting the business. Do what you can to put their fears at ease, and let them know that you’re on their side. Over time, you’ll be able to demonstrate to your new team that they can trust you. 

Start working with a book keeper if you ever plan to sell. 

If you’d ever consider selling your own tour business, Trish advises that you start working with a reliable Accountant or bookkeeper. Like, today. 

If a potential buyer is evaluating your business, it’s hard for them to justify the purchase if you don’t have your finances in order. 

And as Trish candidly points out, “knowing in your gut” that your business is profitable just isn’t enough when someone else is considering a major investment. 

So be ready with at least 3 years’ worth of financial documentation. If you run personal expenses through your business, then you may have to highlight those in your financial history to prove your profitability. A great bookkeeper or Accountant will help you do that, as well as demonstrate costs and revenue in an organized way. 

It might sound like a monumental task if you’ve been relying on Excel or (perish the thought) pen and paper. But it’s achievable, and keep in mind that these financials will help you back-up a fair selling price for your business. You can even work with an Accountant remotely, like Trish did: a Google search for “part-time CFO” eventually led her to a reliable firm that helps her keep everything in order on an ongoing basis. 

Set up your team for success. 

The first few weeks of training are pivotal when it comes to setting the tone for a recently-acquired company. 

And even though a global pandemic put things on pause, that didn’t keep Trish from sticking to a thorough on-boarding process when she was ready to ramp up tours again. 

She recommends that you set clear expectations with staff, and share your company policies upfront. When tours start running, find the time for on-the-job training – even with employees who have worked with the company for years. 

And as any tourpreneur knows, successful businesses rely on two-way conversation between management and employees. So invite feedback with surveys. Trish sends out surveys to her staff to get a temperature check on how things are going; and while some tough feedback is inevitable, she only focuses her energy on the common threads that are brought up by multiple staff members. 

If you need to hire new talent, start off on the right foot. 

Even the best tour businesses have some turnover. And that’s especially true for seasonal companies. 

When you do need to hire, there are ways that you can attract motivated individuals (and keep them). Trish does her best to pay above average for the geographic area, and is also careful to offer enough hours for the role to be worth it. 

She also is careful to identify candidates in the interview stage who are likely to succeed in the job, and stick with it for more than one season. She always asks potential employees about their goals: “We want people who want to be there, who are self-starters.” She tries to get a sense of their personality, and considers whether they’ll mesh well with the team – and can enjoy the long hours on a boat, even in rough seas. 

Ultimately, Trish is hoping to establish the same thing we all are: a passionate team of individuals who truly appreciate the value her tour company brings. And when she finds the right people for that job, she does her best to let them steer the ship. 

“If you have competent people and they want the ball, then it’s my responsibility to give it to them and see what they can do.” 

Have your own advice to add? Get the conversation going on the Tourpreneur Facebook group. 

Safe sailing, and hopefully this advice helps you run an even tighter ship of your own. 

“If you have competent people and they want the ball, then it’s my responsibility to give it to them and see what they can do.”

Trish Higgins

Today’s episode of Tourpreneur is kindly sponsored by Checkfront

This week on Tourpreneur, the Tour Operator Podcast:

  • What it was like to buy and manage a business at the start of the pandemic
  • How the pandemic allowed Trish to relate with employees as the new owner of Cap’n Fish’s
  • Trish’s approach for building relationships with existing employees
  • Why small businesses need to get their financials in order and other best practices for selling a tour business
  • How to find a virtual bookkeeper and the power of keeping track of your finances
  • Using your financial statement as a tool to help make business decisions
  • What it means to focus on the full employee experience
  • What makes the tour industry’s workforce unique
  • Responding to negative feedback from employees
  • Trish’s advice on retaining staff and interviewing job applicants
  • Understanding the relationship between cost and value
  • Why small business owners should consider hiring other people

More about today’s guest Trish Higgins

Trish Higgins is the CEO of Cap’n Fish’s Cruises, a company that provides premier whale watching tours at Boothbay, Maine. 

While Cap’n Fish’s has been around since 1936, Trish joined in 2020 after the tour business was bought by Chenmark Capital Management, an investment fund where Trish also serves as a partner. 

Over the last six years, Trish has bought over 20 small businesses, from landscaping to tour companies. 

Trish graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Yale University and completed her Master of Business Administration degree at Harvard Business School in 2013.

Resources Mentioned