Tips for Starting a Tour Company That Will Succeed

Tips for Starting a Tour Company That Will Succeed

Whether as a side-gig or full-time project, being a free tour provider is a multi-rewarding endeavour; there’s the financial income, of course, but setting up a free tour also offers the joy of creating something unique, the opportunity to meet new people every day, to indulge your passion for sharing your knowledge & insight to the place you call home, and the freedom to work for yourself.

If you’re thinking about creating a free tour or have already started and want to up your game, be it as an independent guide or creating a free tour brand with a team of local guides, there is some fundamental wisdom you’d do well to listen to.

We spoke to the three 2019 award winners in the Best Tour Company Worldwide category to get some expert tips and advice for succeeding as a free tour company; we hope their stories & insights will inspire you on your journey as a top-quality tour provider too.


Believe in what you do and persevere

When you start a new business on your own, you must set your attitude to work hard persistently. No matter how many failed attempts you make, it’s perseverance and determination that ultimately pays off. The more you do, the better you will get at your job.

This is the lesson learned from DonkeyTours Barcelona, a team of nine tour guides offering three very successful free tours in Barcelona; Old Town historical tour, Gaudi and Modernism tour, and Forbidden Barcelona - a myths and legends free tour.

This year they were selected as one of the Best Tour Companies worldwide, according to our users' ratings, reviews, and feedback.

walking tour of barcelona

A free walking tour of Barcelona. Source:


Donkey Tours started out as two friends, a lawyer and a hotel reception manager, who were both dissatisfied with their jobs and decided to try their hand at providing free tours in Barcelona instead; but their idea wasn’t an overnight success.

“We started doing some research, did many of the tours already in the city and visited a lot of touristic places in Barcelona to start the design of our own tour. A funny thing is that the first trial tour of the Old town we did for some of our friends was more than five hours long… so we had to stop and, of course, redesign the tour”, says Facundo Falcon, one of the founders.

Having persevered for three months, attending to the meeting point twice a day without a day off, and often returning home without doing a tour, they eventually began to see consistent success with visitors arriving to join them.

“I can tell you that the most important thing is to believe in what you are doing, even when there’s no-one showing up for your tours in the early days. Believe and work hard; if you work hard, do a good job, be constant and applied - go to the meeting point every day, even if there are no bookings, do the tours in sun, rain, and snow - you will succeed”, proclaims Falcon.

Indeed, belief and perseverance were key to success for Zippy Tour Comuna 13 too. The idea for a free tour in Medellin’s once notorious Comuna 13 (Colombia) came about among a few locals who were part of an English language class in the area as a way of using their new English language skills to make their barrio, and their story, more accessible to potential visitors.

comuna 13 free walking tour

A free walking tour of Zippy Tour Comuna 13. Source:


“We created a group of three guides, made a flyer with information about the tour and went to hostels and hotels to distribute them. In the beginning, it wasn't easy - there are still many people who stigmatize our neighborhood due to its violent past, and many thought it wasn't a good idea”, says Laura, one of the founding guides of Zippy Tour Comuna 13.

“Then we decided to look for other options such as virtual platforms and social networks. We sent a request to list our tour on TripAdvisor, which was denied four times. Then we found which focuses on the kind of tours we wanted to create, and the bookings rapidly increased so we invited another guide, the fourth, to join our team…and three more guides will be joining us soon.”

Their resilience to obstacles and setbacks has paid off - not only have their tours become a success and won awards in the previous two years, the number of visitors they bring to the area has dramatically increased while they have also received recognition from local government.

“We also decided to enter a competition for entrepreneurs, organized by the local government, and we were chosen as one of the best entrepreneurship projects; this gave us more momentum in the city…[and] other local businesses have also benefited from our tours since Comuna 13 has become much more popular”, explained Laura.


Listen to your customer feedback

In an age when we can so readily get real-time feedback about experiences from users, it is fundamental to actively listen to this feedback and utilize it, where you can, to improve that experience. This is where reviews from verified users who have done your tours on the ground are so valuable, both as a means of seeing what customers like and don’t like about your tour or service and as a valuable source for other potential customers who trust the credibility factor inherent in verified peer reviews.

Discover Lisbon knows it well. They're a huge free tour company in the Portuguese capital, counting more than thirty people among their team of guides, admin, and management personnel. They offer a variety of different tours in a market that has seen tour providers, and therefore competition, increase dramatically in recent years.


free tour of lisbon

A free walking tour of Lisbon. Source:


“The easiest part was bringing a new product to the market, we had very little competition (in 2016). The hardest part is the competition that exists nowadays; with the competition, we needed to differentiate…customer feedback helped a lot, to create the structure that we have nowadays. Online reviews and ratings have helped us's the core of the business - feedback is truly important for us!”,  says Catarina Santos, Operations Manager at Discover Lisbon - Tours & Crawls.

“People trust reviews over advertisements; it is more like getting a personal recommendation from a friend. This increases the likelihood that people will trust that the content and quality of our tours will fulfill their expectations and, therefore, the probability that they book a tour”, proclaims Santos.

The importance of customer feedback and the power of customer word of mouth is not lost on Zippy Tour Comuna 13 either.

“Sometimes we have made mistakes and we noticed through a review, and that is part of the learning process which helps us improve and achieve better results. Each review is motivation for us, knowing that someone had a pleasant experience thanks to our work gives us satisfaction”, proclaims Laura of the Zippy team.

“To everyone who wants to start a tourism project, never forget that each person you meet in your business is important, regardless of the number of people; always do your best, even when it is difficult at the beginning, always keep the same motivation, like when you started the project, and learn from everything - especially your mistakes.”


Use both offline and online customer sources

The power of word of mouth is not confined to online reviews, but through people’s own social networks too - both online and offline. It’s important to harness the potential of this as well - if you provide a really great service and tour experience for people, surpassing their expectations, they will be happy to act almost like advocates and ambassadors for your brand afterward. It’s something the Zippy team has realized from the beginning as essential to helping them achieve their ambitions, as Laura explains:

“At the end of the tour, we always tell visitors that they will become our voices around the world, those voices that will make sure to talk about the real side of the country, the positive things that our country has to offer, a country which many are still afraid to travel to… in the future we would like to create new experiences, have more guides and offer more opportunities - each year we set higher goals, no matter how crazy and difficult they may seem, we aim to have a great influence in our country”.

On the other side, partnering with local accommodation providers offline is invaluable for free tour operators. Establishing and maintaining a great relationship with hotels and hostels especially, as a customer source, is really important as the vast majority of tour users will research, find, and book a tour or activity in destination rather than before arrival – so having their hotel or hostel receptionist recommend your service at check-in, and providing your well designed & informative flyer or promo material, is a great advantage.

That said, however, these days more and more travelers are by-passing the ‘front-desk’ promoted activities in favor of conducting their own online research, most often on mobile – so, not only is having an active and well maintained online presence (your own mobile-optimised website, social media presence, digital marketing efforts, positive reviews etc.) important, but making sure you’re listed on tour booking platforms that host free tour listings is vital for maximum visibility and the best return on investment.

This is one of the recommendations from Facundo at Donkey Tours Barcelona who counts “being promoted in many websites” as one of the most important ingredients for a successful free tour company and says that, if they were starting all over again,“…the only thing [we] would do differently is to connect with more free tour websites before starting”.

We hope getting some insight into the knowledge and expertise of some of the best free tour companies in the world helps you achieve your goals. If you haven’t done so already, be sure to register your tours on our platform, and the Free Tour app, to start receiving more bookings, keep up to speed on the free tour industry, and be a part of the vibrant free tour community.

Happy touring, folks!  
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