According to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce 2015 Travel Forecast, international travel and tourism to the U.S. is forecasted to increase 3.8 to 4.6 percent by 2020, as part of President Obama’s National Travel and Tourism Strategy. The more than 100 million visitors are expected to spend $250 billion. For tour and activity businesses, this could mean opportunities for expansion and offer a chance to capture market share of a highly competitive industry.
Recently, we spoke with Grace Della, founder of Miami Culinary Tours about the success of her business’ expansion. Grace launched her business in 2010, which started as a food tour in the multicultural neighborhood of Little Havana. Since then, her company has become a favorite among locals and visitors alike—now serving thousands of people monthly, 60 percent of whom are non-locals. She has successfully expanded into Miami’s trendiest neighborhoods including South Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, and abroad, opening in her hometown of Buenos Aires.
Grace, like many small business tour operators, did not rely on the resources of big marketing firms and research teams to guide her decisions to expand into vertical markets. She needed to first build a robust understanding of her local markets, which she did with the help of her local Visitor’s Bureau and by immersing herself within each community and forging relationships with other business owners.
How did you select the restaurants for each tour you offer?
I have a strong team of [eight] local foodies who understand the diversity of food in Miami and are able to communicate their knowledge to large groups. We handpick each restaurant. And, we now use what we call ‘Quick Quality Standards.’ We seek only the best representation for our tour guests in terms of quality and service, so restaurants have to pass our Quick Quality Standards checklist. We not only look for quality food, but for restaurants using authentic ingredients. We’re also checking for a nice ambiance, spaces that are well suited to cater to groups, and good customer service.
What was your first market and how did you first expand into vertical markets?
Little Havana was the first in 2010, followed by South Beach a few months later. After the success of Little Havana, it felt like a natural choice since SoBe is the city’s most popular area and attracts visitors from everywhere. Two years after that, we launched the Wynwood tour, once the area had grown enough. Followed by Fort Lauderdale and Buenos Aires, where I am originally from. Before starting Miami Culinary Tours, I ran my mother’s food tour business in Argentina.
What were some of your key considerations for expansion?
To bring a superior experience of food and culture to Miami. I’m an online marketer. I saw an opportunity because no one was doing anything like this in Miami. I used my online marketing skills to do research, launch my website and my blog, and promote my business. I also created an affiliate program. I now have hundreds of affiliates that help market my business and sell our tours.
What information and/or resources did you have that indicated market demand?
I’m a member of the Visitor’s Bureau, where I have access to critical data and statistical reports for Miami’s emerging neighborhoods. I used that information to generate potential profit reports. I saw where I could make a profit and create a timeline for my expansions. From there, I spent time in each area sampling the cuisines and developing relationships with restaurateurs, while carefully pulling together and training a team of local foodies.
Is there anything you learned from your first expansion that helped during later expansions and anything you wish you had known before?
How to better handle relationships with partners. In the beginning, I did not have the proper systems in place to manage the relationships I have with affiliates, vendors, employees, and restaurants. It’s a lot of paperwork, but it’s important to manage it all properly. Having the right software, creating your own Quick Quality Standards, and anything else that will help streamline your business operations is very important.
Having the right software, creating your own Quick Quality Standards, and anything else that will help streamline your business operations is very important
You’re a popular food blogger. Would you say blogging, a common marketing strategy, helped you as you expanded your business?
The blogging helps to create authority within the industry. Now, I’m frequently invited to judge food events and for television appearances, which gains significant recognition for my business.
On your website, you reference creating a ‘unique experience.’ How do you go about creating that for your local customers?
We go beyond serving food. There is value in learning about different cultures and their uniqueness. I teach guides to communicate the authenticity of the foods, from textures to tastes and smells. We talk about the preparation techniques, the ingredients. Most of the guides are from Miami. Having culturally diverse backgrounds themselves, they inject their own personalities into the tours. We go from five star gourmet restaurants to hole-in-the-wall delicious. And we do not promote the restaurants, our focus is on creating a quality experience
Any best practices or tips?
Understand that customer service is number one. If I call a major company right now, I may be told to send an email. But, if someone calls my company at 6 a.m., I will answer the phone. Not all small business owners will have an intuitive ability for discovering trends nor feel confident acting on them. If you’re considering expansion, seek out the resources of your local Visitor’s and Tourism Bureau. They can help you identify markets and create an action plan.
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