Tour Operator Success Strategies – Tips From My 22 Years in the Tour Business with Todd Kersey

Todd Kersey of iOutdoors.com sat down with Tourpreneur Host Shane Whaley, and shares some tips from his 22 years as a tour operator and reveals some success strategies on how you can grow your tour operator business.

There are a lot of inspiration and tips for tour operators in this one. Todd Kersey started his tour business, 22 years ago and now manages tours in 5 states and in 240 locations. Todd employees 280 people and he shares with us his tips for managing tour operator staff.

We get 74% of all our business from natural SEO listings, no PPC or nothing. It’s incredible, right?

Todd Kersey, iOutdoors

Talking of Success Strategies for Tour Operators, Todd reveals that 74% of all his business comes via Search Engine Optimization and less than 2% of his tours are booked via OTAs! He has agreed to come back on the show and share more about how he taught himself SEO and how he implemented SEO in his tour business.

About iOutdoors

iOutdoor was founded by avid Outdoorsmen and women who love to hunt, fish, boat and enjoy the great outdoors! While cruising the inter-coastal near Cocoa Beach on a gorgeous summer night; we were fondly recalling the many fishing and hunting trips we’ve taken- rehashing the “big one that got away”.

At that moment, we realized how lucky we were to experience so many wonderful outdoor adventures. Together, the birth of a lifetime worth of fine memories. We asked ourselves… why were we so fortunate to experience and appreciate all of natures wonders?! EVERYONE should enjoy these same experiences…but how can they?

Soon after, the concept of iOutdoor was underway.

iOutdoor recognizes that personal touch, attention to detail, state of the art equipment and safety are imperative to a successful and memorable adventure. iOutdoor strives to offer the most reasonably-priced and safe adventures while providing maximum worry-free fun! Because life is about adventure- living and experiencing all that the great outdoors has to offer!


Full Transcript

Speaker 1:            Today’s episode 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:                    Welcome to Tourpreneur at Arival, presented by Checkfront. We’re joined today by Todd Kersey of iOutdoors. How are you, sir?

Todd:                       Wonderful, Shane. Glad to be here.

Shane:                    Fantastic. Tell us about iOutdoors.

Todd:                       Wow. It’s a dream that came true, right? iOutdoors is an outdoor adventure company. We mainly are in the boating, water-type sports. We do everything from fishing charters, we do inshore, offshore, fresh water. We do boating tours. We do especially pontoon tours. We do, for the bachelors and bachelorettes, we do special tours for them. We do sandbar tours, so if you’ve got a bikini you want to put on, we’ve got a tour for you.

Shane:                    Right. You said the magic word, fishing. I love fishing. I don’t get to do it as often as I used to. Is that all-around Florida that you’re running the tours?

Todd:                       We’re in five states, and 240 locations. It sounds a lot, but we’re talking about cities here. I don’t want everybody to think I’m all over the world, but yeah, every city. Orlando here is a big hub for us but we’re all the way up to Pennsylvania on magical Lake Erie, one of the greatest fisheries. It’s really fantastic and absolutely beautiful, too, and then it goes all over, so whether you’re in the Florida Keys or you’re in the Panhandle in Destin in the summertime with your family, we can hook you up.

Shane:                    I understand you took Peter Syme out Sunday?

Todd:                       Yeah, we took Peter and all the guys from Checkfront, right, and a bunch of great people here. Yeah, it was a good time, got them the sunrise and see what Florida is all about.

Shane:                    Yeah. Yeah, I saw his photos at 6:00 AM, he was on the boat. I was like, “Wow, fantastic.” When did you get started?

Todd:                       Probably 22 years ago, it started, but it was a part time thing. I think, like a lot of people in this industry, you don’t know what you’ve got, what you don’t. I’ve never hired a fishing charter in my life, didn’t know really they existed. My grandfather and my uncle fish, so that’s where the addiction came from.

Todd:                       I’d fish and see these captains out there and one thing led to another and here we go. Of course, it’s been slow, steady growth. You can’t compare what we have today to the road we traveled to get here. Just like every small entrepreneur, you’re working out of your bedroom, you’re digging in the weekends, you’re working Sunday night to make your dream come true.

Shane:                    I’d love to invite you back on the show because this is a 10 minute espresso shot and we can’t get [crosstalk 00:02:58].

Todd:                       [crosstalk 00:02:58].

Shane:                    No, no, we can’t cover 22 years in 10 minutes, when, really, I have a lot of questions I’d like to ask you about that. In terms of being operational in all the locations, how does that work, then? You’ve worked with the local skippers and you have a network? How does that work for you?

Todd:                       Everybody is employees. We call them employees, and it’s really about people. I’ve had some people here at the conference ask me, “How’d you get your growth? What’s the magic?” Everybody wants that magic, right? Honest to God, I’ve heard people my entire life, you read the success books and all that, and they always talk about people, people. I’m like, “Yeah, okay, yeah, you just won’t want to give me the good stuff.”

Shane:                    No, no, they want you to pay 10 grand to go to their seminar.

Todd:                       I didn’t know. What happens when you grow it and you get good people you realize it truly is about people. 22 years, we’ve got about 275, pushing 280, people. We’ve only had three people leave the company.

Shane:                    Wow.

Todd:                       We love our people, we support our people. We realize people are humans. We realize that people, including ourselves, have up and down days. We have learning curves. We have drastic things that happen in our lives. Maybe it’s a divorce, a loss. We’re there for our people. We don’t discard them.

Shane:                    Fantastic. Well, got lots of lessons for us there in a future episode. Over the 22 years, what would you say has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your business?

Todd:                       There’s multiple, but a couple little quick ones. One is, and I think it’s the same thing a lot of small entrepreneurs are struggling with, is how do they step away? I was the guy on the phone. Every person that called wanted to talk to me. I’m like, “We’re going to go out of business if I don’t answer the phone.”

Todd:                       My wife’s involved, so my wife and I pretty much run the show. She worked for the cruise lines and then came over once we built enough to work with. She’s like, “Listen, I got to get that phone.” I’m like, “These guys aren’t going to want to talk to you.”

Todd:                       Lo and behold, a year later, nobody knew who I was, and you realize that you can step away. I’ve used that as every area in the business now, that you find managers, you find people to maybe even do it better than you did. Yeah, that’s one of the main things.

Shane:                    It’s our baby, right? It’s hard.

Todd:                       Oh, it’s hard. It’s probably one of the number one things most tour providers struggle with.

Shane:                    Yeah. Actually, it’s funny you say that. Today on the daily brief that I send out, I announced I’m having a two week break.

Todd:                       I read it all the time.

Shane:                    Thank you, but you know, I’m like, “No, no, I’ll keep it doing while I’m on holiday,” and people are like, “No, no, you need a break. People will understand.” “No, no, they won’t, they might unsubscribe and …” It’s like you say, it’s really hard to step away, isn’t it?

Todd:                       Yeah, and you know they come in the email, obviously, especially at conferences like this. You don’t have time to read them. I always put them in there, I flag them, and then I go back and you come through them.

Shane:                    Fantastic, thank you.

Shane:                    What does your distribution mix look like in terms of OTAs and different channels?

Todd:                       I started early with SEO, learned it. Entrepreneurs always ask me, or young tour providers always ask me, “What do you do?” I said, “You necessarily don’t have to pay for anything. Everything is free on the internet. Get on there, learn. YouTube will tell you anything and everything you want to know.”

Shane:                    Yes.

Todd:                       I learned SEO, then taught it to more people. We get 74% of all our business from natural SEO listings, no PPC or nothing. It’s incredible, right?

Shane:                    Wow.

Todd:                       We’re only, like, 1.5% OTAs.

Shane:                    1.5%.

Todd:                       Yeah.

Shane:                    There’s a lot of people green with envy listening. I’m hearing here at Arival, 70, 80, 90% of their business …

Todd:                       I think we’re going to grow that side and we’re working on it, but I’m also cautious and I got a lot of tips if we want to go into it one day about how to do those listings on the OTAs and how they don’t conflict with your natural content.

Shane:                    Yes.

Todd:                       I think it’s overlooked. We’re very particular about what we give them, how much we give them, and why we give it to them. I think people forget that we own the business and we should be able to regulate that for our good, not for theirs.

Shane:                    Yes.

Todd:                       Listen, I love the OTAs, I’m not an OTA hater here, but I think what’s good for our business. If we’re going and launching a new area, sure, give them some products because, listen, their dat and everything’s going to help me evaluate the area much quicker. If we have failure, why not let them take half of it?

Shane:                    Yeah, absolutely. What booking platform do you use?

Todd:                       We use Checkfront. That’s an interesting story. Over these years, and I’ll make it really briefly, but we’ve been on seven systems. I know it really well. I know all the technology. I won’t mention them. We have several of them built out, and for one reason or another they didn’t work. I think that’s what’s really important is that each system really works better for one entrepreneur or another based on your resource management or front end or back end.

Todd:                       Checkfront just works, and people ask me why. There’s one word I always come back to, and technology and support of the business is reliability. They are spot on. They never have the slow little circle that you get on your phone when you have a bad … You get a slow … Just never. Three years, I think they’ve been down for, like, a minute and a half.

Shane:                    Wow.

Todd:                       Yeah, so reliability just counts for a lot for me.

Shane:                    What’s the best piece of business advice anyone has ever given you?

Todd:                       There’s a couple. One I always go back to is real simple. A business sales guy told me, “Facts tell, stories sell.” Still today, it’s worked with my employees, it works with the customers. They don’t want to hear a price, they don’t want to hear the name of a tour. They want to hear what the tour’s about, or they want to hear a result.

Todd:                       Somebody asked me how I grow something. I don’t give them an answer. I got to give them a story, because stories impact people and they embed in your brain. There’s something about them that we’re all going to remember.

Shane:                    That’s very good advice, very good advice. What’s your biggest frustration about the industry today?

Todd:                       Wow. I would say, real quickly, everybody at a different level, I think, has one. That’s what I’m seeing, especially at the conference, here. A person with four kayaks has a different frustration than we do and vice versa. For me, I think it’s, for lack of other words, a marketplace. I think at the place we’ve gotten, we could help a lot of small providers, but the connectivity’s not there to share.

Todd:                       Because of the time-consuming, trying to get on the phone and share, it’s just not going to happen, but at the same time, if technology was there when we needed it, everybody could support each other. It would be an incredible system.

Shane:                    Absolutely. How many Arivals have you been to, now?

Todd:                       All of them. I didn’t go to Berlin, I’m sorry.

Shane:                    Okay, yeah. How does this one differ from the other ones you’ve been to, other than it being in the great state of Florida, of course?

Todd:                       Of course, and the weather’s just gorgeous. Yeah, we were just talking about that and I think I’ve been to many conferences. I went to Vegas and I love Vegas, don’t get me wrong, and then Orlando, and it’s just a different atmosphere, right?

Todd:                       People bring their families. I’ve talked to a ton of people that are staying here for the day or another day or two and going to Disney. It’s very family-oriented. There’s tons of food. It’s not the hustle bustle like Vegas, it’s just different. Both are great places.

Shane:                    Absolutely. Thank you for joining us today. Where can people find your tours online?

Todd:                       Yeah. Go to our website, ioutdoors.com.

Shane:                    Fantastic, thank you, great to meet you.

Todd:                       Thank you, Shane, appreciate it.