Some personal thoughts on the practicalities and potential pit-falls of running your own photographic tours and courses
By Paul Harcourt Davies | September 05, 2013
It's in the detail - Italy is full of a myriad small details away from the obvious architectural and scenic imagery: drinking fountain spout (Norcia, Umbria); theater mask (Ostia Antica, Rome), door knocker (Orvieto, Umbria)
As a freelancer you learn, of necessity, to become a juggler able to keep seven balls aloft simultaneously. Unfortunately, two of those ‘orbiting spheroids’ often begin to feel they are an integral part of your anatomy - freelancers everywhere will know exactly what I mean.
After a few years as a freelancer you realize that, as far as a ‘steady’ job goes, you are now unemployable because your independence is too important to you. In order to survive, the name of the game becomes the seizing of opportunities. Maybe you have given some thought to running your own specialist tours as part of the portfolio of activities? Read on to discover if it is a viable course for you.
From the number of advertisements in specialist photography and natural history magazines a surprising number of people seem to think that leading tours abroad is a “breeze". You honor people with your presence and expertise and then get a free holiday into the bargain. Mistake number one.
After leading over dozens of tours for “name" companies (and often being let down by in-house administration) I decided that I wanted to do better. So, I scrutinized every brochure I could find - examining them with minute care.
With the advent of travel review sites (e.g. TripAdviser) anyone running trips must accept that they are putting themselves on the line in a very public manner. It is not just a case of constructing an advertisement and booking the tickets for there is a minefield of rules and regulations that may seem petty but could spell ruination for you if things went awry.
For example, in Europe, a 1992 EC ruling has made it necessary for any small operator to have bonding. The sums involved would buy a small house (or at least keep you in champagne for life) and it is a ruling that seems to legislate against small organizations. However, I have found it possible to run tours safely with support from a larger well-established agency for a commission levied per person booking.
There's nothing quite like a decorated cathedral front for lens testing - the 'Duomo' in Orvieto, our local city
If you run a night class at a local college, belong to a local photographic society, have a good on-line presence or just have a group of like-minded friends then your local travel agent can put together a package for you. Even with a free place for you, the leader, this approach can offer distinctly advantageous prices at group rates. The client payment is made directly to the agent and the group is fully covered by the agent’s bonding if they also book flights through them. However, play safe and make sure that you, the leader and any co-workers, carry adequate personal liability insurance and that clients either take the insurance policy offered by the agent or have one of their own as a booking condition.
Flushed with success of this trial run, you might wish to expand and make a healthier profit in successive years. For this you will need a bigger list of clients from whom to draw and getting that might entail advertising or capitalizing on any “street cred" you might have through writing books, articles or giving talks.
There are also practical decisions such as whether to rent a minibus and drive the group yourself, or hire a driver plus vehicle locally. Within the EC and other countries there are very strict rules governing this and, without a PSV license, you might find the size of the group allowed too small to give a good margin for a profit. Indeed, local legislation designed to protect the vested interests of taxi drivers might make it impossible for you to drive the group yourself. And then there are some countries where you just would not want to do the driving yourself and need a local familiar with the driving habits.
If you feel that you can get a group together then talk to an accredited agent who might be prepared to cooperate. Agents do not have to provide large sums up front to secure plane tickets and accommodation – whereas you, as an individual, might have to. Do the sums carefully - numbers matter and if one person drops out you can find group rates change. Your profit rises steadily as the number of clients increases but then, if you need to hire another vehicle they drop… only picking up again with a few extra clients.
Things to do on a rainy day...it is important, even for nature photographers, to have places to escape - a Sicilian mosaic (Piazza Armerina)
With low numbers you run the risk of becoming a charity almost paying for the holiday of others – which was, I hope, not your original idea. Get estimates for different numbers of clients, so that you can decide upon a minimum number which makes it worth your while and, at the same time with a cost that is reasonable for your clients.
Legislation in most countries demands that you give adequate notice (often eight weeks) if a tour is at risk of cancellation. Be open and honest with your clients and tell them things are in the balance to find out what they would like to do.
I began running my own tours with trips to Cyprus because I had lived there for three years (1978-81) and my involvement with numerous local projects had given me good contacts and a thorough knowledge of the ‘country off the beaten track’, sufficient to enable me to write and illustrate guidebooks and a flora. Through that continuing association I knew a leading travel agent who specialized in the island and was able to hire 4-wheel drive vehicles locally: the hoteliers I already knew, and friends helped out.
I always look for ways to put something back into the local community - as an operator you do something positive by working with local guides, small hotels and other accommodation: and other avenues open up through reciprocal goodwill. Your clients benefit hugely from their vicarious experience of this – it isn't just altruism: everyone wins. I have tended to work in places such as Cyprus (where I lived) and Italy (now my home) because they are places I have explored, speak the languages and can bring something special through contacts made.
When you have a large enough clientele people will ask you what you can offer for next year - a good sign, especially when their current trip has not ended. With the trips further afield there are many organizations working with local guides whose expertise can be tapped. They will handle all ground arrangements for you and free you up to do what you do best – be the instructor, photo-guru and provide cohesion for the party.
If you see leading tours primarily as a way of getting a free holiday, then think again: clients will recognize it and travel with you just the once. You are going to be busy from dawn until very late keeping folk happy. Never forget that they have paid – it is their hard-earned holiday. Remember, too that this is no time for standing on dignity, you have to be completely accessible and ready to hoist bags when the occasion demands. And when, as often happens with me, someone asks the name of the same plant, for the fiftieth time, I smile and say “it’s not an easy one to remember”.
Poppies and weeds of fallow ground are a must do subject on our early summer trips - we turned down a track in the Abruzzo mountains to find a riot of color: serendipity is a good friend to us. Next year the same field could well be bare.
From year to year, things can change - a brilliant field of poppies one year will, like as not, not appear the next year: that wonderful roadside orchid site can succumb to a road widening scheme. To reduce potential problems we spend several days in the country before clients arrive and, more often than not, a day or more after. This is when I'm free to explore for next year and also to make use of opportunities for bread-and-butter travel shots, natural history pictures and materials for articles and lectures, all useful sidelines. The reality is that, on tour, you will have little time to indulge your photography.
You have to decide exactly what you are going to provide for what you charged, consistent with a reasonable profit. And, moreover, you must be very careful not to promise things that you cannot deliver in any promotional literature. For instance, make it clear that you will do everything in your power to see as much as possible, but reserve the right to change the order of the itinerary and to fine-tune to suit current conditions. That way you can optimize the client experience – of course, you may get one or two who moan that they haven't seen all they expected but other people will soon put them right, without you having to say a word..
"Plagiarize, let no-one elses’ work evade yer eyes" (Tom Lehrer...Lobachevsky)
In the natural history world there are too many operators chasing the same clients. Your clients will pick and choose where they want to go and will travel with others, too - various, clients of mine have often been approached by another company to supply my detailed itinerary. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but it niggles. You just have to be better – not necessarily cheaper, for you will not get the ‘rack-rates’ big companies might. But you can provide better tuition, choose great local places to eat and an-all-round level of care: discerning clients will pay for that. Living in Italy for the past ten years and more we have a vast network of contacts speak the language and know how things operate!
The successful tour or course demands attractive venues where there is something to see every day – and don't, in your excitement, show all the specials on day one. It is easy to get carried away.
Places to stay should be clean and comfortable but never need be luxurious, unless that is a selling point for you. People who go on specialist tours involving aspects of nature or exploration are usually people who appreciate some direct involvement with the country, its people and its cuisine. With smaller family run hotels you quickly become firm friends and, when you visit, the welcome you get makes clients feel they are friends too. Hoteliers have told us time and again that they really like the kind of people we bring and they go out of their way to show it through little extras…Check out whether there is a communal room (away from other guests) for evening talks or gatherings, before or after dinner
We search to find traditional family-run accomodation - this is a renovated farmhouse Puglian style in Italy's far south with the conical "trulli' roof.
You can book hotels on a half-board basis breakfast and dinner in the hotel with lunch out or book on a bed and breakfast basis and use a tour manager to arrange meals and local eateries at group rates. If a small restaurant knows what to buy in for a group they will often offer something to a fixed price – we get great value this way, much different from the à la carte prices (wine included)
Letting people shop for their own food at lunch takes up valuable photographic time, so we provide wholesome salads, cheeses, prosciuttos, salamis, fruit and freshly baked bread bought early in the morning. My partner Lois makes picnics like no-one else and this is a central part of many of our days – nothing beats a spread in a place with a fabulous view high in the mountains, beside a stream or near an ancient ruin…forty winks in the sun (aka siesta) and then back to work!
Walking and mobility
A moderate amount of walking can be an essential element in those trips we lead where flowers and nature are central. We need to get off the beaten track and take only small groups–maximum of a dozen (and preferably less) to minimize impact on the environment. I have watched in horror at the damage to plants done by larger groups (not ours) where everyone gets off the bus, tramples around and troops obediently back on again when the whistle blows. In all promotional accounts we carefully state the fitness level needed and ask people to contact us directly if in doubt: with small groups we can be accommodating if prepared. Remember, whatever you state people see just what they want to. With one company we had made it clear that people should be able to carry their gear for a mile or so in high mountains along trails… hearts sank when two clients arrived, one was in a wheelchair and the other on crutches. That company lied to fill the trip: the problem was ours to solve. By careful deployment of vehicles we managed and as well as accommodating the needs of the less mobile we had to avoid impinging on younger, much fitter clients. Many of our regular flower trips are gentle in their requirements and we make sure that everyone gets to see the things they want.
However well we know a trip we travel several days before to check things out: trails can change. The path above the Lago di Ritorto, Nr Madonna di Campiglio, Dolomites, Italy
A choice: to fly solo or not?
So, what is it to be, to work alone, set up with a partner or work with an established company who want you for your expertise? Be honest with yourself–as a freelancer you will almost certainly be very good at working with people, taking direction, working to a brief, liaising with editors. But just how good are you these days working for, singing that ol’ company song and chanting the mantra? Some companies can begin to absorb you, and suddenly you are back to salaried employment, doomed to perpetuate the company ethic and toe the company line.
There are distinct advantages to working with an established company, not least of which can be the filling of tours if they have a good brochure and large mailing list. Working with an efficient travel organization enables you to forget about ticketing and all those niggling things that might detract from other aspects of your freelance work. The disadvantage is that you sacrifice independence, control and make much less.
Too often, in an association with one company, I set aside weeks, a year in advance, only to find that the trip was pulled at the last minute. As any freelance will know it is not easy to find something at short notice to fill the gap in cash flow. The numbers would certainly have been profitable for me, but not, presumably for a company with large overheads. I want the freedom to decide whether or not to run so I reverted to running my own tours and have not looked back.
As mentioned, we work through an agency, use their booking form and come under their bonding arrangements: in Italy we talk directly with the hotels; elsewhere (France, Greece, Crete for example) they do that and can book flights which is their expertise, not ours. We design the tours work to fill them and keep the punters happy.
If you begin to be successful you inevitably grow and suddenly you are a tour operator and not a photographer: several times I have taken conscious action to limit the number of tours even when it meant reducing income. I like variety but I am a photographer first and foremost.
Picnics utilising local produce are a feature of our trips, much appreciated by clients - Lois is a true master of conjuring up amazing things to eat from the back of a minbus
Working with a manager
The bottom line is that another pair of hands is extremely useful – problems shared. I always work with my partner Lois – in fact, we met when I was running a series of botanical tours and she was the manager the company sent. She provides astounding midday picnics and is great at the logistics with the pair of minibuses we use. Her patience and general unflappability is legendary and when some clients are less mobile than others (or just tired and niggly) she gets them to the next meeting point and makes sure they miss nothing. It is a team…not only do I get to do what I do best but it makes me seem a lot better than I am!
My first foray into leading my own tours began very well with a fellow photographer whom I had known and worked with for some time. He was prepared to take unacceptable risks with clients and (their money) and seemed unable to imagine the consequences. It did not last. I am now working both with Lois where we have bespoke natural history tours and a modest but loyal clientele and locally with a superb photographer, Patrick Nicholas, who has run Camera Etrusca for many years in central Italy, taking people off the beaten track. Patrick’s background is in glamour, advertising and landscape work and thus we offer a different, but complementary and overlapping, skill set. We get on and are not in competition – it is surprising how often petty niggles and rivalries can enter and poison a potentially good venture. Whatever you decide, and however good your friendship, get everything in writing first!
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