How We Moved to the Caribbean and Built a Boat Tour Business from Scratch

Ellen Mannaert left her corporate job in Holland to start up a boat tour operator in Punta Cana.

In this candid interview, Ellen of Breakers Boat Trips Punta Cana shares her lessons on not just setting up a tour business, but being a tour operator in a foreign country.

We also talk about boat trips marketing, how Ellen sells tours through hotels and how most of her OTA bookings for her tours are coming via Bookit.

Ellen also shares why she decided to attend Arival for the first time and why it is important to follow our passion.

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

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

Interview with Ellen Mannaert of Boat Trips Punta Cana – Full transcript.

Speaker 1:            Today’s episode is brought to you 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

Speaker 2:            Welcome to the Tourpreneur podcast. Travel industry veteran, Shane Whaley, will take you on a journey with fellow tourpreneurs sharing their tips, ideas, insights and success stories to inspire you to make your tour business the best it can be. And now please welcome your host, Shane.

Shane:                    And welcome to Tourpreneur at Arival presented by Checkfront. We are joined today by Ellen Mannaert of… what’s your tour company?

Ellen:                       Breakers Boat Trips Punta Cana.

Shane:                    Fantastic. So when did you guys start out?

Ellen:                       So we started out five years ago in Punta Cana and we moved actually to Punta Cana five years ago. So at the same time we started our business there.

Shane:                    Fantastic. And tell us a bit more about your tour, what you guys do, what activities you have.

Ellen:                       So we offer eco-friendly boat tours. So that includes snorkeling, inshore fishing, but also really get to know with the species on the water, so we have a guide on board that guides our guests for one hour and really learn about the underwater world, about the species, but also about the coral, the water, how to keep them safe, what kind of products you use when you snorkel in the Caribbean, so think about sunscreen, try to not to get any plastic on board. So yeah, it’s like educational, but a lot of fun as well.

Shane:                    Absolutely. So when you started out in Punta Cana, I imagine there was a lot of competition, right?

Ellen:                       Yes. Well actually I think as a lot of entrepreneurs we really didn’t think it thoroughly, and we didn’t really think about all the competition.

Shane:                    Thanks for your honesty.

Ellen:                       Yes, I’m going to be very honest. So we were a little bit blank, a little bit naive and further out of process we figured out like how the business really works. And then of course all the struggles started to occur.

Shane:                    How did you know there’d be a demand for the eco side? So sustainability today is something that’s very popular and we talk about, but five years ago wasn’t talked about as much as it is today.

Ellen:                       No, no, that is true. So why we started a business actually because we moved there. We came from corporate business, myself, my husband and myself for almost 20 years and we wanted something different.

Ellen:                       So we sold our business and went to Punta Cana. I think this is a common story of a lot of experts going to a different country and then starting something totally different, what they have, not a lot of [inaudible 00:02:48], but we were always passionate about the nature of our ecosystem. So yeah, that’s something that we really wanted to add in our tours and in anything else that we wanted to do just to add more value in the business and the branch that we are going to work in.

Shane:                    Where did you move from?

Ellen:                       We moved from Holland.

Shane:                    Oh wow.  Which part of Holland were you in?

Ellen:                       I was born in Amsterdam, but we live in [Barraca 00:03:15] and it’s like a small city near to the cheese city, what’s called [inaudible 00:03:19] and yeah, great.

Shane:                    Fantastic. What’s been the biggest challenge for your business that you’ve had to overcome?

Ellen:                       The biggest challenge definitely is our mindset. So we have a Western European mindset and then working in a Caribbean with a different mentality, I think that’s our biggest struggle until now, and we are adjusting very well, I can say. So you know, growing into the business and being a few years apart, but that was definitely, yeah, the biggest struggle. Just the communication with your employees or with the government or you know, so yeah, that kind of things.

Shane:                    So what advice would you give to… there may be other tourpreneurs listening to the show who’ve just moved to a new destination and there are cultural differences. What would be your top tip for someone who’s dealing with that today?

Ellen:                       Now that’s a very good question because if you hear my story, I think you will think that I will say make a… how do you say it? So be more educated about what you’re going to do.

Ellen:                       You know, learn more about the country, about the brands that you’re going to work with, but also on the same time, if you do that, then maybe sometimes it will scare you and you won’t do it at all. So I get asked that question many times like why did you do it? And even after all these struggles, you are still passionate about what you are doing. I say, yeah, maybe that’s the thing that you follow your passion more than all of the facts and all the things and you know, along the way you will learn if you are passionate enough in what you’re doing and then all the problems will solve by itself.

Shane:                    So what does your distribution mix look like right now? So how are you… what channels are you using to sell your tours?

Ellen:                       We work with OTAs but we also work with, I call them land travel agencies, so big travel agencies that they have their office on our destination. So think about TUI, OnStar. But also with hotels we have some spots in different kinds of resorts and hotels as well. And we have our own online vendors and we have our own website as well.

Shane:                    Sure. And how much of your business would you say comes from OTAs?

Ellen:                       Let’s say 25 until 30% yeah.

Shane:                    And is there one OTA in particular that’s very strong for you?

Ellen:                       Well actually that is one of the newest one. It’s not so popular yet. And they are Bookit, and we receive a lot of clients from Bookit.

Shane:                    From Bookit? Okay. Fantastic. What about the online booking platform? Who do you use for your technology?

Ellen:                       So actually that’s why this is the first time attending to arrival. And we came here actually with this specifying of goal to find exactly.

Shane:                    Good for you.

Ellen:                       And we had a great chat with Peek, with FareHarbor as well. But we find, yeah, we love to work with Peek. So yeah.

Shane:                 So what is it about Peek that you guys like?

Ellen:                       Clearly the combination and how they explain things that it’s so clear and it just fits our business model and our company and also our team and everything that what we stand for and who we are. So yeah.

Shane:                    Great. You mentioned that you had had some deals with or relationships with hotels that are selling your product. We’ve got a lot of people who listen to Tourpreneur who are struggling to forge relationships with hotels.

Shane:                    What would be your top tip for our listeners who want to sell tours through hotels?

Ellen:                       So the thing is that we have quite a few deals with hotels and it’s quite difficult because they also charge a big… I think they charge even more than OTAs or our land tour operators because some might ask 50% commission. So, that’s huge. But as a-

Shane:                    Huge. That’s robbery.

Ellen:                       Yeah, exactly.

Shane:                    Where I come from-

Ellen:                       That is like even worse than Texas.

Shane:                    … mugging you.

Ellen:                       Exactly. Now that is bad for a starting operator. It could be helpful sometime just to have your brand out there. So you have to give a little to get a little back. So it depends, and when you are a little bit further, then you can always skip them or you know, do something else. But for starter tour operator, I will definitely advise to put your network as broad as possible to make sure that your brand is known and yeah, and your business is known as well.

Shane:                    So how are you using social media to promote your tours?

Ellen:                       Oh, that is a love/hate relationship, because social media is the thing that everybody’s telling you that you need it. But it doesn’t really work for us yet. But that’s a good upcoming arival as well because we met a few companies here that fit our brand, as well, and we are excited to work with them, as well. But we tried a few companies before and didn’t work at all. Why? I think the main thing was the most companies that offer social media are not from the tourism business. So it’s so difficult to add a value to a company if you don’t have any knowledge about that. And that’s also something that we learned out through the process.

Shane:                    Please do me a favor. If you work with an agency and they do a really good job for you, please email us and let us know because it’s a big-

Ellen:                       Okay. Perfect.

Shane:                    … it’s a big headache because it’s a minefield out there because there are so many people who say they are experts.

Ellen:                       Correct.

Shane:                    But, they don’t speak our language of tours and activities.

Ellen:                       Yes, Exactly.

Shane:                    So I want to provide a directory on where you know you could go to and say, “Oh, those two operators recommend Jane Smith-

Ellen:                       Exactly.

Shane:                    … agency.” So, do let us know.

Ellen:                       I will for sure. Yeah.

Shane:                    What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you when it comes to running your own business?

Ellen:                       To talk about entrepreneurs doing the same business in the same business lane as what you are. And I think that’s so important because most of the times, a lot of companies see each other as competition and they are like, “Oh, I’m not talking to you, because you are doing the same and you are my competition.” But I think people need to get over that and then create a big hub of… and create a nice social network for everybody in the business, because that’s also the only way to keep this great business going and to make sure that we are providing the best as possible service that we can for all our travelers. So yeah.

Shane:                    Absolutely. So my final question, it’s your first arival. We got another day to go tomorrow, we go half a day. What’s been your biggest learning since you’ve been here?

Ellen:                       Oh, wow, I have to say a lot. I cannot even, it’s been so refreshing coming to this event and before we were… we visit a lot of events and all the events it was like, Hey, we went, you know, we did a few things, but, and then at the end of the day, at the end of a few days you were like, Oh, you know, it was not really what we expected. But with Arival from day one, it was exactly what we expected, and it’s so intimate and so one-on-one and everybody here is so open about sharing the good and the bad. And I think that it’s so important for any operating company to have that kind of networking platform. And so yeah, I’m very grateful for arrival.

Shane:                    Fantastic. Could you share with our listeners where they can find your tours online?

Ellen:                       Yes. They can find us at www.boattripspunatcana.comSo whenever in Punta Cana, please visit us for a fine and very nice boat tour.

Shane:                    Thank you, Ellen.

Speaker 2:            Thanks for listening to the Tourpreneur podcast. Be sure to visits to join the conversation, have access the show notes, including links to the resources mentioned on today’s episode. This is Tourpreneur.