How to start a walking tour business

Tour Operator Steve Chapman talks to Tourpreneur Host Shane Whaley sharing lessons he has learned about starting a walking tour business in a small historic town with zero tourism experience. This is the story behind Salida Walking Tours.

Steve Chapman was a founder of his own strategic marketing consulting company and decided to sell his business in 2018.

He needed a new career and turned to his hometown of Salida, which is Colorado’s largest national historic district, to start his walking tour business.

“We have 136 buildings preserved from 1880 to 1910. It’s a tourist town. I always wondered why no one promotes the heritage and history. So after selling my company. I started exploring walking tours with zero background in the tour business.”

Steve Chapman, Salida Walking Tours

Steve found a gap in the tourism industry of his hometown – walking tours.

He decided to take a shot and began experimenting in 2018. He wondered why no one had started a walking tour company in this historic district.

“I’ve taken similar tours, and what it boiled down to was no one had thought to do such a business.”

Even though the town has a small population of 5,200 people, Salida is a tourist Mecca. “Unlike a big city where tours are common, Salida is a relatively new tourist town about the last ten years.”

When Starting a Walking Tour Business, Do Your Homework!

Steve did much homework amongst locals, museums, and businesses in the area. “This looked like a solid opportunity, and I just decided to take a shot.”

Even though initially there was some skepticism in his small town, his company caught on very quickly when locals realized the intention was to honor the history.

“The other thing we did was to fully immerse ourselves in helping nonprofit organizations, schools, and the local economy.”

Steve Chapman, Salida Walking Tours

Find a Mentor For Your Tour Business

A gentleman by the name of Jack Chivvis is a local historian who supported Steve. “He’s the guy that knows a lot of the information, particularly things that are not recorded in history books, the backstories.”

When Steve approached Jack, he was incredibly gracious. Jack gave his knowledge and suggestions on how to organize and run the business. “He’s become a solid mentor for me.”


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Locking in Your First Walking Tour

Steve remembers being terrified about his first walking tour. “We ran Facebook; we had a terrible website. We went to local businesses, hotels and told them about the tours.”

Another successful move, which Steve says works well on a small community, was starting a program of giving away a tour once a month for nonprofits and the exchange was, we will give 100% of the tour proceeds back to the nonprofit.”

Steves’s Biggest Walking Tour Marketing Takeaway

“One the things I learned in my years as a marketing consultant was that inherently people want to be nice, and inherently people do not want to be the bad guy, but when they are in a safe environment where they’re not going to feel threatened or feel defensive, they’ll talk very candidly.”

Steve Chapman, Salida Walking Tours

At the end of the tour, Steve’s tour guides ask clients to let them know if they had an enjoyable experience, asks them how we can improve. “If you have, you’re going to get a survey request, and we hope you can write a review.

This opens the door, and about 50% of the time, guests will hang out, fill out the survey and talk.” Steve’s guides are taught to weave into the conversation feedback requests from clients casually.

The #1 Characteristic Which Contributes to Steve’s Walking Tour Business Success

When asked what the #1 characteristic which lends to Steve’s success is, he rightly omits to be willing to make changes. “You have to be fearless. The market changes too fast. You have to be fast.”

Listen to the latest episode of the Tourpreneur Podcast to find out how Steve learned to engage, how to pace, and how to present walking tours to his clients.

Includes Steve’s opinion on taking improve lessons to improve his presentation and why adopting electronic waivers has been a game-changer for his business.

Learn what Steve looks for when he hires guides and what’s moved the needle most for him in his new business venture! Find Salida Walking Tours here.