How do you start a tour business in the aftermath of one of the most devastating hurricanes your country has ever seen? How do you build your brand, spread the word, and find that first paying guest? How do you get to the top of your game and still manage to love what you do? In this post, Cindi Richardson takes us through her journey as a tour operator, and how her efforts resulted in her business, French Quarter Phantoms, being named the Number 1 Ghost Tour in the U.S. in 2018. Take it away, Cindi!

My love for New Orleans began as a small child. The city seemed so special – it had a magic to it. I was born and raised in Baton Rouge, so New Orleans was where we went with family and friends for special occasions and family fun.

When I got old enough to move out on my own, there was only one place I was headed – straight to New Orleans. I was so excited to live and thrive in my favorite place on earth.

Fast forward to Hurricane Katrina: The city was devastated – it seemed like everything I had once loved about it was now gone. I heard people asking, “Why do people live there? Why should it even be rebuilt?” It broke my heart that they couldn’t see the magic and beauty of New Orleans that I had seen throughout my life.

Every evening, my neighbor Mike and I would sit on our porch, waiting for the Red Cross to bring us our daily plate of hot food. The city was filled with volunteers from all over the country who had come to lend a helping hand in the wake of the destruction. Mike and I started thinking about what we could do to pay them back. How could we share with them our love for New Orleans, and show others exactly why this incredible city deserved to be rebuilt?

Mike had his tour guide license and my background was in sales and marketing – we were a good fit. I also had a passion for anything scary: Hitchcock, The Twilight Zone, the Anne Rice novels. And so, the idea for French Quarter Phantoms Ghost Tours was born.

Our first year “in business”, most of the tours we did were for free to the many disaster aid workers who were in the city. Every day, Mike would do two tours, while I walked around five miles back and forth across the downtown area, getting the word out and building our reputation.

Eventually, word started to spread, and visitors started coming back. We took on a partner, Drew, who funded our first round of real brochures. We started charging a little for the tours and the business started to grow. This year, 12 years after we started, we were named as the #1 Ghost Tour in the country by USA Today.

The road to success

Our goals today are pretty much the same as they were in the beginning. We want to make a decent living doing something we love. It’s not about getting rich – for our team, what’s important is feeling great about what we’ve done at the end of each day.

There are plenty of lessons we’ve learned along the way, and a few key things I believe are vital to our success as a business. Here are a few pieces of advice I would give to other tour operators on their own journey:

Hire people who love to tell a story

There’s a quote by Theodore Roosevelt that I love and have really taken to heart: “A great manager is someone who hires the right person to do a job and has sense enough to leave them alone while they do it.” I think that this applies perfectly to our hiring and employment practices.

We hire educated, intelligent people with engaging personalities and allow them to craft their tour in the style that best fits their personality. We make sure we give a few guidelines, but we don’t micromanage or script their tours.

Instead, our tour manager, Luke, will regularly walk with each guide to pass along pointers (and compliments!) where needed.

Allowing our guides this creativity gives them a sense of ownership and great job satisfaction. It also ensures all of our tours are the right balance of chills up the spine and good laughs.

The French Quarter Phantoms team – I am so proud of them all!

Our tour guides – or as we call them, our Master Story Tellers – are French Quarter Phantoms’ greatest asset. I am a great salesperson – I can get a hotel concierge or ticket seller to recommend us once. But it’s the post-tour feedback conveyed to that reseller that gets us the 2nd, 3rd and 100th recommendation. Our storytellers are the reason they’ll recommend us again and again.

Think like a customer

I’ve always believed that entertainment value needs to be better than the price of the ticket. That means that after the tour is over, I want you to think you had so much fun that really you would have paid more.

It’s important to provide something that is fun no matter what the age or makeup of your group. Think about college groups, bachelorette parties, family outings – spend time crafting a tour that has something for everybody.  

Give a little Lagniappe – a Louisiana way of saying a little something extra. On our tours, we offer 2 for 1 Hurricanes (our famous New Orleans cocktails) for adult participants, served in a free souvenir cup that they get to take home and keep.

On the rare occasion we do get a complaint, well – remember that old saying about the customer always being right? It may sound cliché, but the truth is: if someone is mad, I am probably not going to get them to change their mind. The best thing I can do is listen, learn and provide them with the best customer service possible. I always try to let customers know their voice has been heard, and try to make it right for them however I can.

Never stop learning

I read our online reviews – and those of our competitors – several times a week. It is important to understand what the customer likes and doesn’t like from both our tours and those of the operators around us.

I then pass pointers along to our guides or office personnel. We never stop asking ourselves what we can do to be more efficient and more entertaining. We want to be one of the reasons that people fall in love with our city as much as we all did.

There is a lot to be learned from your customers, so take time to listen to their feedback

The best advice I can give to another business owner is: never stop listening to your customers. Never stop listening to your competitors’ customers either! There is great value in “hearing” what they have to say.

Plus, when those great reviews roll in, it makes the job even more worthwhile. Here are some of my favorite things that have been said about French Quarter Phantoms:

“French Quarter Phantoms guides are the strangest bunch of real historians you will ever have the pleasure of spending time with.”

“My kids loved the tour so much they didn’t even realize they were learning something!”

This was the world’s best tour guide and tour. I dragged my boyfriend along to this and he hates ghost stuff but by the end of this he was asking all of the questions and wanting more. I’ve never seen this side of this man. I think I will marry him.”

Our dedication, willingness to learn, and passion for what we do is what has kept us going strong more than a decade after we first began in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Mike eventually left the business to follow his calling as a Calvinist minister, leaving Drew and I with the company and my passions. Mike is still my best friend and I will always love what we started together. And I will continue to love what I do, right here in the city I love the most.

For more stories and tips from fellow tour operators, why not check out our latest post from Vantigo owner Erik Hormann, talking about how he created a profitable, popular tour! And if you’re planning a trip to New Orleans, make sure you drop in on Cindi and her team at French Quarter Phantoms Ghost Tours for an unforgettable experience – and to see a top-class tour operator in action!