Branching out; are cycle tours the answer?

Finding new profitable avenues in the cycling industry can be a risky and arduous process, but what does diversifying your offering actually entail? Admittedly, adding greater dimensions to your portfolio is easier said than done. Very little can be achieved without some form

of financial investment and when the chips are down, every penny must be stretched. When attending The Bike Place show last month, a dealer told us: “If you think that I can sit back and run my business as I always have, you’re dead wrong. I have to be out there persuading people in, making sure they know we’re keen to take their business. Of course, the workshop does well and we have the benefit of being one of the only shops in the area but really, it’s the advantage that we take of being in a holiday destination that keeps us afloat. We needed to offer more than your standard bike shop and for us, taking visitors to the breathtaking areas on our doorstep has demanded more and more of our time.”

Bike rental is far from a new idea; in a recent poll 70 per cent of BikeBiz readers confirmed in no uncertain terms that profits from bike rental make up just a small fraction of their overall margin. For some businesses bike rental was simply a launchpad that lead to a more profitable venture; one such business is The London Bicycle Tours Company. I recently sat down with the company’s head of PR Rob Binns to discuss its history, and how they are carving a profitable niche in the market.

Can you tell us about the humble beginnings of the brand?

“We started in 1991 with the aim of being one of the first bicycle tour companies in the world. There really wasn’t very much money behind it at the time; essentially it was one guy in a shack operating the whole thing. We wanted to offer engaging cycling experiences and being in London, it made sense to take customers around the city to see major iconic landmarks, but equally as important is seeing the east end, seeing all of these great historical places like the docks and the trendy neighbourhoods. We now have eight full-time employees and 35-40 freelance tour guides around the city. Over the years we’ve progressed and built up a strong offering. In a few weeks we’re expanding to a new office, and fingers crossed it will continue to grow at a steady rate.

What’s the biggest demographic of people that seek you out?

I’d say that the biggest demographic is the 35-60 bracket. We get a lot of 18 to 35s as well, but families with children are our day-to-day bread and butter. The majority are tourists; we have a lot of customers from Amsterdam as obviously cycling is simply their way of life over there, so it makes sense to see the capital through the medium of cycling. A large per cent of our customers are English too, but live nowhere near London.

How do people discover the company?

We do currently have a store front, so if you were simply out for a day in London and fancied a ride we’re reachable that way, but we’re well placed on Google and other search engines. We heavily rely on reviews on Facebook, Tripadvisor, Yelp and other social media. That really boosts our search engine optimisation. From there, people can call us directly or book into an online system that updates with availability.

How do you ensure that people’s experiences are up to company standard?

We have a very strict screening process for all tour guides. We need to know that they are confident cyclists who know the rules of the road, we need to know that the know the city very well, and we need to know that they are effective communicators as not all of our customers are fluent English speakers. We can actually offer tours in seven different languages for those who don’t speak English, so that’s something else that sets us apart from the competition. After we’re sure a guide can perform to the level that we need acceptable, we have extensive training. They only meet customer when we’re confident that they’re representing the brand in its best form.

How about maintenance, do you have a team on hand?

Maintenance is absolutely key to the success of the business. We have multiple mechanics on hand whose sole job is keeping the bikes in top condition. Even something like a flat can be disastrous if we can’t get the bike back on the road quickly.

Given the different mobility requirements of your customers, could you ever see e-bikes playing a part in the future of the company?

I think they’re interesting, and I’m sure it would be a benefit for the majority of our older customers, but given the price of each unit now, plus the maintenance costs, I can’t see it happening any time soon. Right now, I don’t even know anyone who rides an e-bike so we’re quite a way away from them being available at a price that would justify the spend.

Would you say that the majority of custom is seasonal?

We’re definitely busier in the summer months but our peak season is really April to September, so there are only really a few months out of the year where business is slow, and we still have a regular stream of business. In the winter we offset our normal business by offering seasonal special tours such as Christmas and Halloween rides.

Do you think that a business model such as this is suitable for shops that may be looking to branch out?

That’s a hard one. If you have the means at your disposal – a surplus of dormant bikes, storage solutions and the free time – it can be a great way of building a side business. From a position such as mine, I believe that it’s more of a full-time deal. You have to have the right attitude and personality to gel with your customers and make sure they’re having an enjoyable time. We’re doing well because we’ve slowly built to where we are by thinking though each step as it has arisen. 

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