Tour Operator Patrick van Rosendaal talks marketing for tour operators with Shane Whaley. He reveals how BE NY grew from nothing and how creating a content factory saved 2020
BY BEN FINCH
“It was really niche,” Patrick van Rosendaal says. “Like nobody did it before. Building a business just with that idea. Since then I’ve been building on it, and building on it, and building on it. Year after year, year after year.”
Patrick is the founder of BE NY, a tour operator focused on showing Belgians all the excitement and stories of New York. After careers in banking and diamonds, he started as a guide in New York with Gray Line and Bike and Roll, before setting up his own operation. 10 years later, he’s welcomed 10,000 visitors to the city.
He talked to Shane on Episode 133 of the Tourpreneur podcast about marketing for tour operators, the importance of creating a content factory, making a success of virtual tours, growing his business, and how the Covid crisis affected him and his family when urgent medical attention was required.
“Keep building your content library and it’s like a snowball effect”
Any business that has a social profile is now a media company. It brings the need to continually create content, post video and pictures, and engage — all to grow a following and drive new business. “It’s a full time job,” Patrick says. “Especially over the last 10 months, it’s been a full time job. It’s constant.”
Also, he says, invest in a good CRM and make sure to capture the emails of the clients on the tour. After the tour, send the client a picture from the tour. “I ask them to share it on Facebook and on Instagram and whatever, and that helps generate more activity towards your own Facebook page.”
Patrick believes that the content he produces is what makes his brand so strong. He’s written three books, produced podcasts and videos, as well as all the pictures for social media. “Once you’re a content factory, you build a content library, and once you have that big content library, you become the reference. People will see you as the reference and it’s like a snowball effect.
“Find your niche and keep building the content library. A podcast every week, doing videos, going live. Find whatever you’re good at, whatever you feel comfortable with, and do it.”
Shane – here is a good example of content marketing for tour operators. Patrick shares some great spots for taking selfies in NYC.
And do check out BE NY’s Instagram Reels – how to eat a NY Slice attracted over 10,000 views.
Growing a social following in the midst of a pandemic
However, last year Covid made this impossible. But Patrick continued to grow his pages throughout. “I forced myself also to go out and forced myself to capture things and to make [Instagram] Reels. It’s a positive reaction if people like it, it motivates you even more so. It makes me keep going.
“During the pandemic, I saw people were missing New York so much that I found it my role to give them New York in one way or another through live streaming to videos to pictures.
“I was very shocked when I put my iPhone in my car and I just went around for a ride of an hour. I said: ‘Okay, where shall we go?’
“People loved it. I’m so shocked that people love it but they love just seeing the streets of New York. Then I put on a New York radio station and they comment about which radio station it is and thank me for bringing good memories.”
Completing a pivot to virtual under the BE NY brand
This led to a pivot to virtual tours for corporate clients, a segment who already formed a large part of BE NY’s customer base. Patrick’s currently working on a virtual experience where clients will make the perfect Manhattan cocktail. Over Christmas one set of three oversubscribed virtual tours brought in $6,000 in tips through Buy Me A Coffee.
Patrick prefers to use his own brand to promote these, rather than work with OTAs, Amazon or Facebook. When Airbnb began work on virtual tours they contacted him. “And I said no because I don’t want to be an Airbnb experience. They can replace you whenever they want.
“I don’t want to be an Amazon experience — I want to be a BE New York experience together with Amazon.”
Making a tour operation look easy
Patrick began his career as head of marketing for a French bank before moving into diamonds during the 2008 financial crisis. This led him to travel the world, and to fall in love with an American woman. Throwing caution to the wind and ignoring his parents’ advice, he married and moved to New York. After a year, he was separated.
Out of cash but determined to make it in the States, he began working in the restaurant industry and then started showing people the city. The moment that changed his life was when he went to take his tour guide exam and was told he was the first licensed Belgian tour guide in the city.
Immediately, he fired off press releases to all the Belgian press and the story got picked up. As it turned out, he wasn’t the first but “the rest is history. I started creating my business, and from then on it went uphill,” he says. “I finally found my purpose in life.”
After working hard to differentiate himself from the other guides in New York with adventure and food tours, Patrick woke up one morning with his big idea. “It was very simple,” he says. “It’s me being from Belgium and living in New York. That’s how the whole idea of BE NY came along — New York for Belgians by Belgians living in the city.”
After finding a good accountant and a marketing agency — who persuaded him to wear yellow, one of the most recognisable aspects of his brand — Patrick heavily invested in social media and became the content factory. He worked with journalists to build the brand and made sure he was always available for questions.
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“They were my sales engine right off the bat”
Selling himself as knowing exactly what Belgian travellers wanted, Patrick made contact with the largest outbound operator in Belgium. “I said: ‘Okay, listen, everyone can buy a flight, but not everyone can buy a cool experience. And I want to be your unique selling point.
“They were my sales engine right off the bat.”
Patrick signed an exclusive deal with the operator that included a minimum for the number of tours they sold every year, as well as promotion on their part. “I knew that I was in a niche, he says. “I knew that I had something amazing in front of me, and I knew that people were waiting for it. With that, I didn’t have too much of a problem.”
By Easter 2020, BE NY had 800 bookings over 10 days.
Then the pandemic hit.
When Covid hit New York, Patrick’s son required serious surgery
“My audience is what really saved last year. It was a traumatic experience like everyone. 2020 was going to be the best year ever. But all of a sudden, everything was cancelled, Patrick says.
Patrick’s youngest child was due to go into hospital for a course of five operations. With no money coming in, he had to move fast. He and his wife were terrified they couldn’t pay the medical bills.
Both BE NY and the van Rosendaals went through a round of extreme cost cutting. Everyone was laid off and placed on unemployment, and all the luxuries the family had grown used to disappeared.
The years of work Patrick had put into social came to his rescue. “The community that I’ve built over the years, all of us came together.
“A friend of mine started a GoFundMe because he saw the stress that I had in my eyes with all the medical bills and everything. That I was panicking.”
All eyes were on New York at the time. The city had become the epicentre of the pandemic after the initial outbreak of Covid in China, and then Italy. “Everyone remembers what New York went through in March,” Patrick says. “We even had a hospital ship coming. I, very quickly, had to find another way to make a certain living.”
“We became stronger as a family”
Mrs van Rosendaal came up with the idea — reach out to the Belgian media. Soon, Patrick was working as a stringer for the largest newspaper in the country. He scooted about town on his Vespa searching for positive news to create videos. Patrick’s stories ended up reaching more than a million people.
“It was a crazy amount of work, he says. “But we went on such high energy and we had to … I mean we had our son that needed the medical attention so then, all of a sudden, you make it work.”
When Patrick’s son went for pre-surgical testing, they discovered he’d caught the virus even though him and his wife were negative. “But he’s a real New Yorker, he just powered through.” After five operations, he’s doing great.
“I’m proud of it,” He says. “We managed to do it and it was real teamwork between me and my wife. My wife never had done video editing before and she worked day and night.
“It was real teamwork — and we became stronger together as a family, for sure.”
Patrick is working on a new book to come out next year, and with travel beginning to return, BE NY is sure to continue its growth after a rough year. Soon Patrick will be able to return to making people happy.
“I always say that we are in the making people happy business. That’s my main goal.
“When I was guiding people around, I really had the impression that I was making an impact in people’s life. It’s so rewarding.
“I’m a person that likes to give. I like to give more than I receive, and it makes me happy to be able to give. It’s the most beautiful job in the world.”
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