In 2007, during my first visit to Berlin, I went on a free walking tour. Even though it was advertised as free, if at the end you thought the guide did a good job and you enjoyed the tour, you tip them what you thought it was worth. The idea was that you shouldn’t have to pay for a service before you know what you’re getting, and that regardless of budget, everyone would be able to see the city through the eyes of an experienced guide; nobody should be priced out of getting to explore a city by guided tours that run 50€ or more.
This model also encourages the tour guides to be the best they can, since their pay is directly tied to how much their customers enjoy themselves. And it worked – the free walking tour of Berlin was the best tour I’d ever been on. Our guide was energetic and funny, she knew all about the history and quirkiness of Berlin, and she appeared to be having fun. And it looked like fun to me, too. In the back of my mind I thought, “I could do that someday.”
Fast-forward six years, when Erin and I packed up our lives in Richmond and moved to Freiburg, Germany. When we prepared to move, and thought about what we would do for work here, I was hopeful that there would be a tour company I could work for.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. The only English-speaking tours in the city occurred only once per week, and they already had a guide. I put that dream aside and took a job as a freelance English teacher – a job that pays well enough, and is right in my area of expertise, being from the US.
It wasn’t until 6 months after arriving in Germany that I gave it any more thought. On a trip to Málaga, we found another free walking tour, but this one was unaffiliated with any tour company I had heard of. Afterwards, I asked the guide how he came into the job, and he told me that he previously worked for a tour company in Italy before starting his own in Spain.
Started his own? How had this thought never occurred to me?!?
On the flight home, I really started to think about whether starting a tour company was something I wanted to do, or even could do. Then I remembered the tour in Berlin, and how I felt about it then, and realized the internal debate was over before it began – of course I was going to try to start a tour company. I couldn’t come this close and not even try.
So, Freiburg Free Walking Tour was born.
It hasn’t been easy though. First, I had to research the city’s history, and write 90-minutes worth of interesting facts, stories, and jokes (actually the jokes aren’t interesting; they’re just bad). Then I had to memorize it, and get comfortable with the idea of reciting it to groups of people in an entertaining way. And once I was ready to actually give tours, I had to wait for people to show up. Finding people interested in an unknown tour in a small city in the middle of the winter isn’t exactly a recipe for exponential growth.
But I kept at it, placing flyers in large hostels, regularly posting to a myriad of social networking sites, maintaining a website, and cultivating TripAdvisor reviews from the few guests I did have. Slowly, people have begun to find me (just google “walking tours in Freiburg”).
I’m proud to say that just 10 weeks after starting my company, my tour is ranked #2 for activities in Freiburg by Trip Advisor and I have customers more often than I don’t (though there are still days when nobody shows up – it is still a new tour, after all).
I’ve got some ideas to grow the business even more that I’ll be working on soon, and my goal is to average 5 or more customers per day this summer. Having spoken to people who have started similar businesses in other cities throughout Europe, this feels like a challenging, yet achievable goal.
I’m really excited that I decided to try this; I’d have been mad at myself forever if I hadn’t. My tour company may or may not ultimately succeed, but not trying would have been the worst kind of failure possible. And in the meantime, I get to spend an hour and a half every day showing off one of Germany’s coolest cities!
It is impossible to live without failing, unless you live so cautiously you might as well not have lived at all. In which case you fail by default.
I don’t know if that quote is really relevant, but I read it recently and enjoyed it.
Do you have any suggestions for my walking tour? Planning a trip to Freiburg soon? Let me know in the comments!