As part of my series about the “5 Things, You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Allan Wright.
Allan is the owner of Zephyr Adventures, a small active tour company that runs hiking, biking, and other active tours around the world. Allan started Zephyr in 1997 as the world’s first inline skating tour company but, luckily, expanded to other active tours before the decline in skating popularity. Zephyr Adventures has a sister company, Taste Vacations, that offers food, wine, and beer vacations in culinary destinations around the world. Allan has an MBA in Entrepreneurship from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I actually started Zephyr Adventures as the world’s first inline skating tour company. Back in 1997, I was living in Minneapolis (home of Rollerblade) and inline skating was booming. I wondered why no one was creating vacations for skaters so I quit my job, set up a tour in The Netherlands, and had a grand total of 11 customers that first year.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I have a graduate degree in Entrepreneurial Management, so I had been looking for the right business to start for five years. But I was determined to only start a company doing something I loved. The “aha” moment was when a friend sent me a business plan to review that involves starting a chain of skating specialty stores. I didn’t like that idea but, seeing participation statistics, suggested he start a tour company instead. He didn’t want to do so, so I did.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In my first year, I included alcohol in our tour packages. On the very first tour, with a small group of three, I had two partiers and one teetotaler. One night the partiers hosted us in their hotel room and it was not a good mix. After that, we decided to let people purchase their own drinks!
Zephyr is purposely small with a limited number of staff leading the limited number of annual tours. Is there room for growth in your business model? Or, is the model predicated on being able to pay the bills and live life as you wish?
The adventure travel business is very dispersed. There are a few large companies but no one dominates and most companies are still owner run. This is very likely because the owners all love to do what they do. Yes, we have room for growth but if we grow too much, we’ll all be on our computers more than in the field.
Being small allows you to provide personal attention. But many companies have small-tour groups guided by experienced tour guides. Where do you see the unique benefit that you provide to your clients?
Yes, tour groups can be small regardless of the size of the company. But in our case, our guides are often also office staff — or me, owner. More importantly, if you travel with us once, we’ll remember who you are. You can then call us up and have a real conversation, potentially with the guide you traveled with to Asia or Europe the previous summer. That doesn’t happen with larger companies where office staff is mostly confined to the office.
Is there a commonality among your clients demographically, psychologically, or lifestyle? Is it simply the quality of your service that attracts them, or is there something else that speaks to their outlook on life?
I would say the most common trait is a love of experiencing life. We have teachers and doctors, Democrats and Republicans, solo travelers and couples. But everyone has a desire to live their lives to the fullest and are doing something about it by signing up for one of our tours. That trait produces excellent bonds that transcend other demographics.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven business” is more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My purpose in 1997 was the same as it is now: “To improve the world and have fun doing it.” Are we solving cancer or creating world peace? No. But by providing vacations that are often the single best moment of someone’s year, we feel we are definitely improving the world. And having fun doing it.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
With our employees, we have a motto. “We only engage in activities we love.” As an entrepreneur, I am constantly coming up with new ideas. Any idea that doesn’t meet these criteria automatically gets rejected. With our customers, we communicate — frequently and guilelessly. We will ask our customers their opinions on potential new tours or the design of next year’s t-shirt. We will tell them about milestones among our guides or staff. After the Great Recession of 2008, I even wrote a letter to our alumni telling them how it was impacting our business. We don’t spin the facts with our travelers; we treat them like part of the family.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Happy employees lead to happy customers lead to financial success. I learned this on a competitor’s tour I took before I started Zephyr Adventures. The guides were great … but we’re so busy they didn’t have time to hang out with us, the travelers. I decided when I started my company that our guides needed to be having fun too because that was infectious with our travelers.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I had an indirect connection to an existing tour operator when I started my company. I called him up and asked him for advice. He said “You are a competitor. All I will tell you is that you better have $100,000 or three years of your life to give if you want to start an adventure travel company.” He was right and it took me three years before I made a real salary. I knew I wanted to run my own company and knew this was the industry for me, so I never wavered.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
The adventure travel business is hard. We have been hit by recessions, wars in Iraq, SARS in China, and the attacks of 9–11. Travel funds come from disposal income and are often the first to be cut. In fact, I can generally tell a year in advance when we are going into a recession. I am not in this to make millions of dollars. If I was, I would have exited long ago.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service-based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Keep a database of your customers and potential customers. Too many small businesses start without doing this.
- Survey your customers. Too many businesses fail to do this too.
- Hire excellent people. It is more expensive in the long run if you only hire good people.
- Stick to what you do best. We have expanded to new areas many times but most times we come right back to our core business.
- Whatever you do, do it extremely well. You can’t market or promote your way out of providing bad service.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My first entrepreneurship teacher at Wharton was an older entrepreneur himself. The first day, he told us his goal was to get us to never have a job again and that that was the last time he would use the J word (job). His most valuable lesson was to tell us to write down five things that make us happy each day and then put ourselves in the “corridor of opportunities” that would potentially open doors for us in those areas. I wrote down travel, outdoor activities, international culture, wine tasting, and group bonding. We do all five of those on a regular basis.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would love to create a movement where people of different beliefs sat down with each other. It is easy to hate someone through a windshield or reading about a person in the newspaper. But sitting down with a neighbor, no matter what they believe, usually leads to understanding or at least tolerance. We could use a little — no a lot — of that right now.
How can our readers follow you on social media?