How I Started a Small Tour Company

How I Started A Small Tour Company

Derek Personal Stuff, Perspectives 77 Comments

How I Started a Small Tour Company

Not a single thing did I know about organizing or leading tours. However, back in 2012, after receiving several requests from readers, I decided to offer a tour to India anyway, taking on the project with the exact same approach with which I’ve taken on just about every other project I’ve started in my life.

I’ll figure it out somehow.

So, I sat down and got to work.

Fast forward to today and I’m staring at a spreadsheet on my computer screen, trying to decide how many tours I’ll be offering next year, and to which regions of the world. Somehow, I figured it out.

When I decided to offer that first tour to India, I was ready to do anything and everything possible to ensure that it was a success. I didn’t care if that one tour would lead to more tours down the road. All I cared about was pulling this one tour off, turning that little spark of an idea, the idea that a travel blogger could offer, organize and lead a rewarding tour, and that people would actually want to join such a tour, into reality. I made a general plan, studied potential itineraries, calculated expenses, got in touch with local contacts, researched rules and laws, studied every destination, imagined every potential obstacle…and then repeated it all over and over and over and over again until I felt completely confident in the tour that I had created.

And then, before I really even had time to think about what was happening, the India tour took place, it went ever so smoothly, and I soon found myself organizing trips to Mexico, Istanbul, Romania & Moldova and another one to India. The tours were announced, they sold out and off we went…five tours have now been completed, with more to come, and just like that, a small tour company was started.

Back to my spreadsheet for next year…I already know that I’ll be offering a third trip to India (March) and a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan (May) as well. At the moment, there are two spots left on the India trip and two on the Iraqi Kurdistan adventure, so if you’re interested, please send me an email and I’ll forward you the details. Other trips I hope to run in 2014 include Southeast Asia, another trip to Mexico and perhaps a trip to Romania and Bulgaria or maybe around the Balkans.

Just writing about these tours gets me excited. I’m excited because I get to organize and lead more tours, which I love to do, I get to meet and travel with more of you in person and admittedly, I’m also excited at the fact that I managed to figure it all out.

How You Can Figure Things Out Too

I had an idea. Actually, you, my wonderful readers, had the idea. I took the idea (to lead tours), focused on it and piece by piece, tried to build something larger. It took a lot of effort, plenty of experimentation and a good amount of time but for not one second did I ever think I would not achieve my goal. It is that undying belief, that pure determination to succeed, that drove me forward each time I sat down to work on this project.

And once that first tour to India had come to an end and I announced a couple of more trips, that belief carried over, and once again, I couldn’t imagine anything but that next set of tours being a success as well.

Think about this…when you sit down to work on something or you set your mind towards a particular goal, do you believe in yourself, do you fully believe in your ability to achieve whatever you are working towards?

Last week, I received an email from someone who wants to travel more than anything. Long-term, indefinite travel has been his goal for many years and as he inches closer towards the potential start of such a journey, he is feeling unsure that he will be able to make it happen. In fact, he is feeling more than unsure. He admitted that he is downright pessimistic about his ability to achieve his travel goals and he really doesn’t think long-term travel is actually possible for him.

When I replied to his message, the first thing I told him was this: “If you already believe you’re going to fail before you’ve even started, you might as well not even start. You will fail. When you find a goal that gets you so excited that you know you are going to achieve it, that’s something worth working towards.

If I had started my Wandering Earl Tours project thinking that it wouldn’t work, or even doubting that it would work, the chances of it actually succeeding would have been incredibly slim. But as soon as I began entertaining the idea of offering such tours, I checked in with myself first. Did I believe I could make it happen? Hell yeah I did. And only because I believed so wholeheartedly in the concept, in the benefits that it would hopefully give those who participated and in my ability to somehow figure it out, did I move forward with the idea.

Of course, there are other factors involved with whether or not an idea will work. First, you need to have a good idea, one that makes sense – logistically, financially, etc. – an idea that shows all the signs of being a solid success if everything does fall into place. But assuming that you do have a solid idea, having a foundation built of determination and belief is going to give you the support you’ll need to turn that idea into something substantial, to achieve that end goal.

Let’s stop for a second and all ask ourselves these questions. Do you believe in what you are trying to achieve right now? Can you envision anything but success?

The answers to those very questions might help you determine whether or not your current projects/goals are a good match for you at this point in your life and whether or not you will be able to actually figure it out in the end.

So, how did you answer those questions? Please do share below.

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Comments 77

  1. Hi, Bianca, your idea is very interesting. Could you share more info about your first tour guiding experiences since May? Are you planning more trips for your fellow students in Cape?

    I also want to start a small tour business on the side, so am very curious!

    Thank you, and good luck!!!

  2. Hi Derek,

    When you say that the idea of a tour company has to make sense, logically and financially.. I assume you also consider safety, infrastructure, political stability, quality of services (hotels, restaurants, banks, hospitals etc), hygiene, etc.
    Would you (and even your customers, if you know), with your experience start a tour company/travel in a country where those things are not necessary developed up to western standards?

    My idea is taking place in a country with a (mostly misunderstood) low image.. but beautiful (and challenging.. lets be honest) sights and destinations.
    I truly believe it can work and more people seem to look for adventurous travel with real and raw experiences.. also if that means getting stuck in the mud while driving to a remote village…
    Will I be able to do it, Hell yeah (if I leave all my fears and insecurities aside and find ways to work through cultural barriers :)).
    Will people buy it, Yes. Will I make enough money to live a good life, thats where I doubt most….
    But maybe I should try to focus on the first one.. get it done, get the confidence, maybe make only a tiny bit of money.. and work from there..

    Most people in my network don’t believe it can work and want me to stick to the safe side.. so I would really appreciate your honest answer to the above 🙂

    Thanks so much for writing this..really inspiring.. getting the spark back 🙂


    1. Post

      Hey Marileen – Thanks for the message. First, I wouldn’t start a tour company in a country that’s not my own. That’s just my personal decision but I know the rules/laws/etc in my own country and don’t want to get tangled up with any legal/business issues in a foreign country that I don’t know 100% how things work. As for taking people to a country that you described, I have led tours to several under-developed countries and without any issues. You can’t throw people, or yourself, into a dangerous situation though. It takes a ton of research and time to get things right and to ensure that what you offer is safe, organized properly and something that is interesting for others.

  3. Hi Earl,

    I’m thinking of starting up my own bus tour company here in South Australia. I would like however to conduct the tours in German, Japanese and Mandarin as I believe this would set me apart from the other bus operators. ( I speak German and I’m currently learning Japanese).

    Could you please tell me how I would go about attracting customers ie., Travel Agents etc. ? I know I require a Tour Operator’s licence. I currently have a HR (Heavy Rigid) licence. Thank you.

    1. Post

      Hey James – It’s just like any business in the end. You have to figure out where your customers are, who the exact target market might be and then figure out how you can get your tours in front of those people. You can try to partner with travel agents (but they usually partner with established companies) or you can advertise online or simply try to make connections with people in those countries who might be interested in organizing a tour (student groups, etc.).

  4. Hi , Earl thank you for sharing this wonderful motivating fact and encouraging others startup ideas leading to success in life,,,,, jethro from uganda looking forward to seeing you in uganda one time as we got a lot of wonderful nature’s to see in this east African country

  5. Wow. THANK YOU for sharing your truth. I love that you didn’t give step by step instructions or answers. I know I have a good idea and I am so incredibly passionate about the place I want to travel to and share with other people. I am so certain and this was just the read I needed in this moment to push through and persevere. I am that sure. Now comes the work, the real work of logistics, cost, insurance etc. The insurances for the tours are what I am having the hardest time with right now but I have reached out to a friend living in France (where I want to give tours) for a little help. I have only read this from you but now plan to dive into reading more about you and your travels. Congrats on building the life you want and thank you for sharing.

  6. Dear Earl. What an interesting story..Wow!..As a personal assistant for a well known University in Cape South Africa, I have decide to start my own business on the side. Connect365 Tour Planners.(Connecting you to Cape Town) My market is 1st year international undergrads. I have done my research and currently there is a need for Tour Planners when it comes to the International students visiting Cape Town or studying here for more than 3years. My first group tour is planned for May..I cannot wait.! I will now be approaching all Universities within our city and see how it goes. I saw the need and I acted!

  7. Hi. Thanks for sharing this! So encouraging. How did you market it? Who did you sell it to? I tried tons of marketing for kids tours last year spending money but not being very successful. I want to try a different tour niche now. I just need advice on how and who to advertise. Thx

  8. Hi Earl, I love positive attitude!!
    I’m original from Ukraine, living in England for a wile, this year I want to start doing tours in Ukraine for British people, I’ve got all ready a group of 10 people, tour start in august, everything pland and sorted, it would be a good fun!! only I’m worrying about ligal papper work, what do I need to be fully protected? Where do I need to start with papper work to be covered?
    Thank you and sorry for my English 🙂

    1. Post
  9. hey Earl, I would like to do the same! do you need to have some certifications in order to operate tours around the world? like insurance, tour guiding certification, etc.? thank you for the motivation!

    1. Post

      Hey Brit – There are so many different rules depending on where you’re from and where you plan to operate tours and how you st up those tours that it’s impossible for me to generalize. But overall, yes, you need certain important aspects in order to run tours.

  10. Hi Earl, I’m a travel agent that wants to start selling small group tours. I book a lot of travel to Italy and Spain and travel there myself a lot. Should I work with the tour guides I book abroad to get this started? I have so many itineraries in mind I just don’t know what the “laws” are…. Any feedback will be helpful!
    Thank you!

    1. Post

      Hey Claudia – That’s hard for me to answer as there are so many questions you need to ask yourself – who your audience is, what style of tour you want to offer, budget, etc. You really need to figure out what you want to offer and to whom before you can move forward.

    2. HI Claudia,

      I took love Italy and want to travel and take people, friends and family on tours. I have been to Italy 8 times in the past 13 years!
      Would really like to talk with you about getting this started, as you are a travel agent, good place to start.

      Linda Panozzo

  11. Hi Earl I too decided to take the bull by the horns and start a small tour company, it has been 16 months of hard slog, worry, stress, am I advertising in the right places, ready to give up several times, but now very happy to say I am now to embark on my first tour with a small group to Cuba, I am excited, and already have bookings for my second tour. Glad I never gave up, and believe this is the beginning of something wonderful for us. Wish I had found your page 16 months ago, for the inspiration, but I got there just the same………..I was just inspired!.

    1. Hi Tracy,

      I realize you made this post over a year ago. I’ve been trying to find out how to run tours in the same location granted my interest is more in the Oriente (Holguin and surrounding areas)

      What sort of approval and work was required on the Cuban side. I’m flying down a couple weeks from now and going to meet with a lawyer down their to get the ball rolling.

      I’d greatly appreciate it if you could e-mail me because finding any sort of information online in regard to doing this in Cuba has not been fruitful.

      I’d appreciate it if you could e-mail me at [email protected]

  12. Hi Earl,
    Great advice. I’m in the process of developing a business plan focusing on small group trips. One question I’m struggling to answer is whether the company would be required to register in the country the tour is occurring in or just the country your business is based in. Obviously, registering in every country or finding a partner in every country would present many added costs. Thanks for your advice!

    1. Hey Anne – It’s hard to give a general answer to that but in short, yes, you would need to figure out how to operate officially in each country and using a local partner/agent is usually the main way to do so. You generally can’t just show up in a country and lead a tour as if you were visiting as a tourist.

    2. like for us in Uganda east Africa you are required to work in hand with the existing tour companies available in my country

  13. Hi Earl,

    I can’t believe that I found such an encouraging site at the beginning of the New Year! I plan to start a tour-ish business and just Googled, and there you were!I love your sense of belief and confidence. You have such a great attitude and I am certain that you’ve touched many lives.

  14. Hi Derek

    I want to start a tour company doing escorted travel internationally but I would love to read something specific about different ways to make money doing this. Is there something that you can recommend that I read or would you be able to answer these questions through Plansify?

  15. I like that you believed in yourself toward your small company. I want to start my own tour co. But i just don’t know where and how to start it. Need serious help.

  16. You know, I’ve been getting follow up emails for comments on your “42 Ways You Can Make Money and Travel the World” blog entry. For some reason I felt like I really needed to visit your blog again and explore. I can’t help but notice that I feel that child-like-almost-an-adult-entering-the-real-world-Confidence I use to have reading your posts. I haven’t felt this in a long time and I think my new found direction in life is leading me into a self-sufficient way of life and this blog really spoke to me. Yes I have lots of dreams, many dreams, some very big dreams – and I feel like it’s time to really start. But with a balance. I ‘really needed to read this’ is a common momentary-fiery of excitement that gets thrown around all the time, I myself have done it. But I revisited that blog today, reading it again I began to feel inspired, a little exploring through your posts and surfing across this one really did lead me to feel that ‘I really needed to read this.’ A final send off to start my peaceful journey and living a bloody dream in a lifestyle that suits me. With the only reward desired to be happiness, spontaneity and making a difference in other peoples lives. Thank you wandering Earl. 🙂

  17. I’m glad I made the decision to read this before getting started on my work today 🙂 I’m trying to make the move toward freelance copywriting and digital strategy/marketing, ideally focused on the travel industry. But even just getting that first client seems like an insurmountable task somedays. It’s good to have reminders that continued belief and lots of hard work do tend to pay off!

  18. Being a ‘global citizen’ sounds like a wonderful idea. I am sick of borders and the thought that people are ‘illegal’. The world should belong to all of us. Oh well, that was not supposed to be the topic of my comment. I can’t make traveling my new life style, I have to watch after my three-year old. But I would love to join a community that didn’t turn into robots, if you know what I mean 🙂
    I had have my share of unpredictible adventures, and I experienced that anything is possible. Right now I am challenged not to turn into a zombie while being settled in a German City. Germany is tough. All the paper work, the attitudes, the struggles, the narrow-minded society, stupid rules, confusing politics, all together: just a nightmare. Well, but I am not running away. I am trying to find new ways here that also might help others to do things differently, and to change the life for next generations to come. If all (good) people just wonder of, nothing will change here. Who knows, maybe I will give up that idea one day and wonder of, too. Germany is not a bad country, but a lot of people turned bitter and angry, still suffering old wounds. I figured, if people could be moved to open their hearts again and feel what they are actually doing, then they would do something to change the way of life. ‘Feeling from the heart’ has been a whole new experience. I am not talking about emotions created by the mind that keep on misleading people. Well, to make it short, I discovered a whole new traveling inside myself (hard to find an expression to describe it). It takes on a journey through our own illusions. Till now, I came far this way. So, for those people who can’t go and wander through the world , there are other options, other great adventures and battlefields who need to be taken on. And it doesn’t take any less courage to speak out to change things around an office or even within the family. Sometimes we need to stay in order for things to get better.
    Of course, one day I would love to explore the beauty of the world.
    I wish you all the best mastering life, and doing the best you can.
    Earl, thank you so much for sharing.


  19. Do you believe in what you are trying to achieve right now? Can you envision anything but success?

    Absolutely! I have to. I’ve tried more ideas than I care to admit and probably spent more time and money on them then I should have but, I was trying. I know that I wouldn’t be happy or satisfied with myself unless I gave it my and at least gave it a shot.

    I’m SO SO SO happy for you. So happy you are still on the road doing what you do best. Congrats on your tours and here’s to many more years!

    1. Thank you for that Adam and trust me, I’ve worked on dozens of ideas myself. Eventually, something sticks and it all starts to work out!

  20. I can oh so relate Earl, as I too started with a smidge of a (decidedly crazy in those days) idea to start my own small adventure tour company – waaaaay back when there was NO INTERNET, nor cell phones, nor even fax machines. Not only was I a bit nuts to try running small group tours to Belize (at the time, few had even HEARD of that country, not to mention there was a civil war going on in nearby Nicaragua and the 6 o’clock news was RIFE with pics of machine-gun toting “contras”)

    Nonetheless, I forged blithely ahead, utterly oblivious to the fact that I’d never done such before and knew absolutely zip how to do it (there were most certainly no “how-to” books on it, nor but a precious few peers doing anything remotely similar). I just had a dream – and yes, confidence in myself that whatever it took – I’d make it happen!

    It took a few years to get my little “Imagine Travel Alternatives” biz off the ground, and I didn’t get rich at it. But suffice it fully supported me for 20+ years, and I meanwhile was able to travel the globe.

    In short – as you well know Earl – there a GAZILLION different ways to finance a life of travel. Just a matter of thinking outside the box, taking a bit of a risk, working your butt off, and having the confidence to – just DO IT!

  21. I absolutely believe in what I am doing presently. I could never go back to the 9-5. I can only envision success in living a creative life. Finding people who are really doing what they want to do and making a great life happen is so inspiring. We only get one life. Time to make it count.

  22. Congrats Earl! I am a very goal orientated person and believe that experienced travellers such as yourself should be helping and guiding the way (on tours) to show people how easy it really is. This is also one of my goals as a travel blogger and passionate traveller, to take people travelling and show them that the the travel lifestyle boast endless incredible possibilities where it will uplift them to radiate optimism whilst learning much more than what they could being stuck at home. So I take my hat off to you for getting there and I look forward to the day when I too can lead the way, cheers

  23. Hello Earl,

    The fact that you were essentially able to start a travel company is amazing. The fact that people really connected to the idea is even more astonishing. In the end this just helps further the idea that anything truly is possibly if you are willing to listen to what others want and put in the hard work to make it happen. You always have positive words to those who ask for it and that is exactly why you stand out. Keep up the great work!

  24. Loved this post and completely co-sign! That’s how I felt last year when I was applying to become the next author of a major travel guidebook on Belize. If I didn’t tell myself I could do it, and see anything but success, I wouldn’t have applied in the first place and would have missed out on an amazing opportunity. And it’s great to hear about it in the context of tours, as I’ve thought of doing that as well. Congrats on all your success!

  25. You are so inspiring, Earl. Great post. I am so happy you have a successful tour company now and can only imagine what your future holds. 🙂

    and to answer your question, I do believe in my plans for my near future. I feel like my life is finally getting ready to take a turn in the right direction!

  26. You are so right when you talk about a positive attitude when approaching new projects or changing your lifestyle. I’ve always felt that deciding what you DON’T want is as important as deciding what you do want. Methodically working towards a goal is much easier when you envision a positive outcome. It took us a year to prepare to become long-term travelers but the result has been way more than we ever expected. We’ve been travelling now for 14 months and one of the things I appreciate most about travel is the ANTICIPATION of what each new day will bring.

  27. Thanks again Earl. You articles are inspiring and funny and I’ve only just found them!
    I like the fact that you’re your own person, living, learning and doing. It’s an absolute pleasure to be a part of your success!

  28. Well done, Earl. I’m so glad this thing has taken off an is such a success for you! It’s always exciting to see where you’ll go next with this, and I wish you the best of luck.

  29. Thank you for this post Earl, it really gave me a much-needed morale boost on some things that have been on my mind 🙂

    All the best for your upcoming tours! 🙂

  30. After blogging for over a year, I am now launching a yoga business and am looking to offer my first retreat in 2014 in Bali. I have no idea exactly what to do. It is just a vision, and a list of offerings and potential places to host it. It might fail miserably, but what if it is successful? Wouldn’t that be scary. But, I figure “I’ll figure it out somehow…” Thanks Wandering Earl!!!

    1. Hey Amber,

      I think launching a yoga business is a great idea. Not only is it becoming more and more popular but it also helps improve the lives of others. The fact that you reside in, “I’ll figure it out somehow…” already tells me that you will be successful. Work hard, have fun, and never give up!

  31. I love to see folks coming to Kurdistan. I’ve been living in Sulaymaniyah for just over two months (after coming here twice before for shorter visits), and love the place + the people so much!

    1. Hey Erin – It certainly is a great destination and hopefully more and more people will travel there over the coming years!

  32. Congratulations on this new venture. I have always loved traveling but it is definitely much more enjoyable when you travel with others. If you ever need a tour guide for the Riviera Maya or Cuba, I’m your man. I’ve lived on & off in Playa del Carmen for the last 5 years & have been traveling to Cuba since the year 2000 (wow, time flies). Cheers!

  33. “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe quotes

    So glad to hear that you are on your way!!

  34. Interesting that you are doing tours in Iraqi-KRG. I am going for my SPI (single pitch instructor) certification in March and plan to give guided climbing trips in Iraqi-Kurdistan as soon as I know a good amount of Kurdish (Kurmancî/Soranî). I’d love to keep in touch and collaborate with you if we happen to be in Iraq-KRG around the same time. I’ll take you climbing, my treat!

    Have a fantastic week Earl. I’ll shoot you an e-mail in a few months as soon as I get things up and running.

  35. It’s good to read this tonight! It’s very easy to question yourself about your plans and wonder “should I really do it? Or “Should I go back home where it’s safe?”
    In January 2013, I finally took the decision to quit my job in London after 6 years (I became a zombie working like mad behind my desk) and literally took everything back to France after 11 years in England (this actually happened in July). Might not be final goodbyes, but I need a break, try something else.
    I always wanted to tour Italy and learn Italian, so that’s what I’m doing now! I got to Rome a month ago and am trying to settle down for a while. Found a good Italian school, found a nice room to rent in the city centre and have started working a few hours a week in a trilingual school for children. It’s quite scary because I’m learning a new language from scratch, I don’t really know anyone here (yet) and I need to find a proper job to be able to stay here and pay the bills! However, I know this is better than where I was before (emotionally and physically) and at least I have made it happen! I am quite proud of myself and usually believe in what I can achieve, but there are some times it’s still a little…scary.
    Anyway, thanks Earl for all this support! You actually are the one who helped me make my mind up about quitting my job in London… I found out about your E-book “How to work on a cruise ship” and decided to make this the next step! I completely loved it and made me realise that this had to be my next adventure (after Italy).
    Good luck to you all!

    1. Hey Adeline – Wow, congrats on the move to Italy! And believe me, new situations in life can definitely be scary, but the good news is that you can still have confidence in yourself and in your ability to achieve your goals despite any fear that you face. Nothing is easy but with determination, we can progress and turns ideas into reality! You should definitely be proud of yourself 🙂

  36. What a fantastic post! Starting with a good idea is key. Following through with the right attitude and mindset is imperative for success. Any time I’ve thought I could do something I have absolutely accomplished that goal. It’s when I didn’t believe in myself that, like you said, I shouldn’t have even started. Thanks for this great post!

  37. For of all yes: I always to believe in my goals. And the most important thing is not to listen to no one: your friends, your family. They could say to you that you are not that good and that thing, or don’t have the proper english skills for example to write a blog in english. Don’t listen, focus on your goal and you will succeed!

  38. You, my friend, never cease to amaze me. When reading your post it occurred to me that you have exactly the right attitude. Sure, things like leading tours, or even long-term travel are difficult, but that’s not to say they’re impossible.

    The only thing that makes them impossible is the mindset of the individual. When Tom and I decided to travel around the world for four months, visiting seventeen destinations, some may have considered it impossible. I simply took the idea that my husband wanted to go, and did what needed to be done to make it happen.

    That’s all it takes to make your dreams happen, the ability to get in there and make it happen. I, for one, would never want to lead tours. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have another dream. This time, it’s to travel indefinitely. So, that’s exactly what we’re going to do beginning a month from now.

    A few times, Tom has felt that we might be going too far, giving up our lifestyle here in the states and having no permanent home as we travel, but I simply tell him about all the wonderful things we’ll see and the fascinating people we’ll meet and he knows we’re doing the right thing.

    My advice to anybody who attempts to do something they’ve never done before, is to read what you have to say in your blog and learn that anything’s possible if you just do it.

    1. Hey Cheryl – Everyone does have different goals and the important thing is to figure out what we want to accomplish, what truly calls out to us. And whatever that may be, and regardless of whether or not it involves travel, we must believe that it is all possible in order to make progress!

      On a side note, there shall be no shortage of fascinating people to meet on your adventure!

  39. Earl,

    I emailed you a couple of months ago but thank you again for having such a positive impact on me and countless others. You always have a positive attitude, which is a great example to live by. Keep doing what you’re doing man, you inspire more people then you know.

  40. Thanks for this, Earl. This is the exact thing I needed to hear today. About to send a huge project I’ve been pouring my heart into out into the world this week – and needed the reminder that I also need to move forward with confidence.

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