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What will I be doing?

Is your town special? Are there things of interest that visitors to your town or city want to see? Can you show them the sites? A local tour service does just that: It researches, designs, plans, promotes and operates tours of an area. It may focus on a famous historic district or nightclub circuit, or it can offer guided tours of natural scenery. It offers a view of your area that visitors can take home with them without stuffing their luggage. A Reno, Nevada, tour operator offered a special tour for nongamblers that focused on the historical aspects of the town.

What will I need to start?

No matter where you live, there’s probably a site or two of interest in your town or area. If you have a good familiarity with the sites that would appeal to visitors, you’re well on your way to gaining the expertise needed to conduct local tours. If the sites are historical in nature, read up about the buildings, neighborhoods and people. Check the local library as well as old newspaper articles. If your area has some beautiful natural terrain, familiarize yourself with it by walking it, perhaps with someone from an area nature center. Become an expert on your product—your town.

In addition to a thorough knowledge of your community, you will find presentation and creative skills to be an advantage. You must put together a “tour package” that will be interesting and entertaining to visitors. You don’t necessarily need a vehicle for your tour service. You can hire a private bus service to provide transportation, offer walking or bicycle tours or simply hire yourself out to guide other companies’ tours.

In one mid-sized Midwestern city, two women who had given some tours to visitors of their synagogue became familiar with the Jewish history of their city. They included on their historical tour old buildings, neighborhoods and businesses tied to the Jewish community, then later expanded to highlight other ethnic neighborhoods. They ultimately developed a fascinating historical tour of different ethnic communities in the city.

Who will my customers be?

Your ultimate customers will be those who travel to or through your area. They may come for business or pleasure. You may reach them individually, through hotels or through local businesses that may bring in clients or business associates to the city. Your customers will also be tour operators and travel agents who book destinations. Sell them on selling their customers.

A third group of customers will be the people who already live in your area—the locals. They may want to know more about the area or suggest places that visitors can see while in town. Even school groups may be interested in your historic tour of the city or a nature walk through a local state park.

How much should I charge?

The price of your local tour service depends on many factors, the greatest being how well you can promote your business. A low-key tour service may earn just $25 an hour while one that is efficiently managed and marketed can bring the operator $60 an hour or more.

Tours are typically priced by the number of customers or a percentage of the total package. For example, a two-hour tour of local sites for a charter bus company may earn you 50 percent of the ticket price. The bus company gets the other half. If there are other stops on the tour you may have to split the take with them. Of course, you can handle the whole package, hiring the bus or other transportation, selling tickets and finding other tour sites.

How much will I make?

If you operate a small, one-person local tour service from your home, overhead expenses will be less than one-third of your income. Spending a quarter of your time marketing, you may be able to build a tour service that not only offers you an income of $30,000 a year or more, but also employs part-time tour guides so you can spend your time finding more business.

How can I get started?

Start in your own neighborhood. Look for locations, events, sites and other interesting points that you can promote into one or more tours.

Next, look for potential customers who may be interested in visiting these sites. Are there local travel agents who will promote your service? Are there fraternal organizations, professional groups, hobbyists, educators or others who would enjoy your tours?

Finally, set a fair price and start marketing your local tour service. Once you’ve developed some experience, you can make changes in your tours and pricing to ensure profitability while discouraging competition.

Read Upstart Guide to Owning and Managing a Travel Service (Upstart Publishing) by Dan Ramsey. Contact the National Tour Association (800-682-8886) for more information.

The SIC code for tour operators is 4752-01.

How can I use computers to increase profits?

Local tour operators typically use computers to promote their services to the world. Imagine: Some traveler living in Solengen, Germany, or Seoul, Korea, can pop on the Internet and see your website offering specifics on your local tours any time of the day or night. Register a URL (see TOOLS), build a website, and start telling the world why they should visit your area.