Ep. 47 — The Story of Key West Food Tours with Founder, Annalise Smith

Annalise Smith is the founder of Key West Food Tours, rated #1 for food tours in Key West on Tripadvisor. Annalise sat down with Tourpreneur Host Shane Whaley, and shared the origin story and mission of Key West Food Tours with us

Annalise reveals that it was her grandmother who inspired her to build an activity around food.

Key West Food Tours was founded in 2014 to offer visitors of Key West a taste of authentic local culinary experiences while providing historical anecdotes

Initially, Annalise wanted to invite people to her Cuban grandmother’s home to enjoy an authentic Cuban family dining experience.

The City said no to Annalise’s tour business idea because of health codes. That lead Annalise to explore the world of food tours. That was the catalyst behind Key West Food Tours.

In this conversation, Annalise shares her marketing strategies with us for her food tours and she reveals how she overcame resistance from restaurants who did not see the benefit of being a part of a food tour.

More about Key West Food Tours

Today, Key West Food Tours offers its signature Southernmost Food Tasting & Cultural Walking Tour, Seafood Lover’s Walking Tour, and its newly launched Craft Cocktail Crawl, consistently receiving #1 in TripAdvisor’s Food and Drink category for Key West, as well as TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence.

Since the company’s start, Key West Food tours has grown from one person to four persons and an annual attendance increase of 70%. Analise enjoys the challenges of managing employees and learning the psychology of sales. She believes in investing in ongoing education and has leveraged outside expertise as well as her strong business sense to increase focus in areas of her business including finance, sales and marketing.

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.

Join the Tourpreneur Insiders Facebook Group and grow your business by learning from other tour operators.

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

Interview with Annalise Smith, Key West Food Tours. 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 checkfront.com.

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. Today we are joined by Annalise Smith of Key West Food Tours in Key West, Florida.

Annalise:              Hi.

Shane:                    How are you, Annalise?

Annalise:              I’m good, how are you?

Shane:                    Fantastic. And how did you get started?

Annalise:              That’s a funny story. I’ll make a long story short. I knew I wanted to do something in tourism. I grew up in Key West, and tourism is the number one economy on the island, so, after college, I kept brainstorming, “What can I do?” And, originally, my grandmother, she’s from Cuba, she came to Key West in the ’50s, and the cutest little lady with a flower in her hair, and I thought, “This would be a really authentic experience if we can get people into our home. In Italy, I think, in Europe, it’s really popular, it’s called Cooking with Nonna, where you cook with the grandmother, the matriarch of the family, so I said, “Oh, man, this would be great.” To make a long story short, first of all, she’s 88 years old, so I know there’d be one day where she’d be like, “Everyone get out of my house,” and I’d be like, “Abuela, we have 10 people booked at 11:00 AM for cooking class and mojito-making class.” Because I was wanting to do Cuban cuisine.

Annalise:              And the city told me no, they said, “No, you have to have a health code certificate,” so they kept saying, it’s a restaurant, you need to go into a restaurant and do this, so they put that idea in my head, of restaurants, so I came up with what I was trying to do in my grandmother’s home, but through restaurants, and I said, “Oh, this is a food tour.” And I thought I was the light bulb that thought of this idea, and then I Googled it, and I was like, “It’s called a food tour and I’m not the first person to come up with this.” Yeah, that’s pretty much how it went. I started this tour called the Southernmost Food Tour, which is basically what I was trying to create in my grandmother’s kitchen, so, Cuban and Caribbean cuisine, fresh seafood, and, of course, key lime pie, which is what the Florida Keys are known for.

Shane:                    Of course. Were there any other food tours in the area when you started up?

Annalise:              There actually wasn’t. There was a lady who had done it about three years before. I think she was overwhelmed with the startup of the whole business, so, at the time, no, but I did meet with her, and I actually bought the domain name from her, KeyWestFoodTours.com, but she wasn’t operating anymore, and I did something completely different than her at the time.

Shane:                    Absolutely. And how did you know there’d be a demand for a food tour?

Annalise:              I think it’s when I actually Googled food tour, and I started seeing all of these food tours pop up, and I said, “Okay, but let me look at the places that are my market.” I found Catalina Island, I found San Juan, Puerto Rico, and I thought, “Man,” and I was looking at their website, I went on TripAdvisor and I saw all these reviews, and I thought, “Well, this is something.” Me and my mom actually drove up to Miami, and we took a food tour in Miami. It’s a three-hour drive north. And it was packed, they had 12 people on this tour, we went out to restaurant to restaurant, and I thought, “Oh, I could do this in Key West.” It’s like, don’t reinvent the wheel. If something is working in another city, and it’s not in my city, and I know my city, I’m from there.

Annalise:              And, of course, when I went to the restaurants, pitched this, they’re like, “What are you talking about?” And I’m like, “It’s really cool. It’s this concept. We’re going to bring people in, we’re going to feed them, they’re going to come back, maybe, for dinner.” And they’re like, “What?” I had to get family and friends to join me and do these mock tours just to give the restaurants an idea, because it was foreign. Of course. Now, five years later, I have restaurants reaching out to me, saying, “Hey, I would love to be a part of your food tour in Key West.” It’s shifted now.

Shane:                    That’s really inspiring. I know we get a lot of listeners who have started food tours, and they’re having difficulties with some of the restaurants, because they want full table value and all that stuff, so I love your story of persistence.

Annalise:              Yes. Yeah, no, that’s basically how I, I just had to get bodies through the door so they could see what it was going to be like, but there was still trust there, that I was saying, “No, I bet you they’re going to come back for dinner,” and now they do. And so, these people are like, not only did they come back, they leave reviews on their own standalone restaurant TripAdvisor page, because it’s this little Cuban neighborhood restaurant in the middle of a residential neighborhood that people would’ve never found on their own, and now they’re actually getting exposure.

Speaker 5:            Our biggest win, we felt, with Checkfront, is customers being able to book online, and not have to make that phone call to us, and they can just navigate our website, go through your interface, and just book directly with us.

Speaker 6:            Once we get into it, and once they see all the system can do, it’s quite funny, because you see a world open before them, and they’re like, “Oh, my God, and I can send emails, and I can manage how many people come, and I can check them in.”

Speaker 7:            I’d recommend using Checkfront because it’s simple, it’s straightforward, it’s easy to use, and, most importantly, there are never any problems.

Shane:                    What would you say has been the biggest challenge for your business?

Annalise:              I think it’s just the industry as a whole. When I introduce myself to someone, “What do you do for a living?” And I say, “Oh, I run a food tour.” And they’re like, “What is a food tour?” It’s a double-edged sword, because, someone who went to Catalina Island and took a food tour, they have now exposed to a food tour, so now that helps me, right? They come to Key West and they’re actively searching for a food tour. But there’s all these people that have no idea what a food tour is, so there’s still this whole industry awareness that needs to happen with, this is a thing that you do on vacation. Everybody eats, you have limited time, why not let me show you the best eats in three hours. I think that’s still a challenge, is actually getting awareness of the industry.

Shane:                    Yeah, and that’s a good point, because we’re in the bubble, and I’ve learned this with doing the podcast. Sometimes I have people email me saying, “What does an OTA mean?” For instance. And I’m, “Oh, yeah, I’m stuck in the bubble.” And, for me, I think everybody knows what a food tour is. But, you’re right, the vast public, the vast population, they’re still exploring this. And I think the discovery is an interesting thing. What does your distribution mix look like? So in terms of selling your tours right now?

Annalise:              We do about 55% direct and about 45% OTAs. And of that 45%, TripAdvisor is about 80% of those third-party bookings.

Shane:                    Sure. And your direct business, is that through Google AdWords? SEO? What channels are you using?

Annalise:              Yeah, it’s actually just organic. And again, well, I used to do the Google AdWords, but I scaled back on that, looking more at Facebook, Instagram advertising. But the thing with, of course, my company name, Key West Food Tours, and then, if you Google food tour in Key West, if you happen to have gone on another food tour and you’re searching that out, I’m going to pop up. It’s the easy descriptor. Now, of course, that’s another conversation, because then it’s a very generic name, and, yeah.

Shane:                    Yes. Yeah. And what booking platform are you using?

Annalise:              FareHarbor.

Shane:                    And how’s that going for you?

Annalise:              I love FareHarbor. It’s a big company, so, of course, there’s more resources, and I just feel that the support is there. I, of course, have an account manager, but I can call the support line at any time of the day and get someone on the phone to help me out with exactly what I want. If they can’t figure it out, they put me on hold, and, 10 minutes later, they come back, and they figured it out. If they really can’t figure out my pain point, they try and work in software to create what I’m trying to ask for. It’s a really, really awesome partner.

Shane:                    Sure. Quite a lot of people at FareHarbor listen to Tourpreneur, and they’re probably listening to this episode, so what feature would you like them to introduce for your business?

Annalise:              I actually just had my one-on-one with FareHarbor, where we did a whole consultation, on Monday. I really need email integration, so, MailChimp. We use MailChimp, and, right now, we’re actually manually entering in everybody’s email into our email marketing campaigns. They are aware of this. They say they keep getting asked about it. I’m hoping this is going to be happening soon-

Shane:                    They’ll bring that in.

Annalise:              … where they have a integration with MailChimp.

Shane:                    How do you stay up to date with trends in our industry? Great you’re here at Arrival, because there’s so much learning.

Annalise:              Yes.

Shane:                    How else do you keep up-to-date?

Annalise:              Actually, I really do enjoy the Arrival newsletter that they send out. I think that’s a really great snippet of information that’s pertaining more to me. I do subscribe to Skift, but that is very high-level, more travel, and it is nice to skim the titles, and, if something piques my interest, I’ll go ahead and go into it. But I’m also in the opinion that sometimes we’re in information overload right now, so I try to skim down on the content that I am consuming, but I do love podcasts. I actually listened to this before we talked on LinkedIn, but, yeah, I do really love this podcast, and I just like business podcasts in general, so, not necessarily that have to do with the travel industry. Yeah.

Shane:                    Absolutely. What’s your biggest frustration about the industry today?

Annalise:              Well, it’s not so much more of a frustration, it’s just more of a, adapting to change, you know? I love coming to these conferences, and my favorite speakers are always the ones, like yesterday, the Universal guy-

Shane:                    That was Frank, yeah.

Annalise:              That disruption is Universal. I love that nothing is forever and things can change tomorrow. And it could be, last year they had a talk about an app. It’s kind of like, you land in a city, and you’re opening up your app, and you’re going to getting an on-demand tour guide, and whoever’s the next available is the one who’s going to show you that food tour, or market, or wherever you’re going to explore in the city. I guess it’s not so much as a frustration, but always thinking about how things might change, and food tours might not exist in 10 years, and what am I doing today to make sure that I can be ahead of that?

Shane:                    Yeah. Where can people find your tours online?

Annalise:              You can go to KeyWestFoodTours.com.

Shane:                    Yeah. Love it. Super. Fantastic. Well, thanks for coming on the show today.

Annalise:              Thank you.

Shane:                    And I would love to invite you back so we can do a deep dive.

Annalise:              Oh, I would love it.

Shane:                    Because I have so many questions buzzing around my head right now, and I would love to get to those as well.

Annalise:              Thank you so much.

Shane:                    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.