Lessons for Small Operators From 30 Years of Touring

Lauren Hefferon of Ciclismo Classico on passion, marketing and getting back to basics

Reading Time: 5 minutes 18 seconds

“I was very fortunate at a very young age to have discovered cycling — to have really discovered that it really was my purpose,” Lauren Hefferon says.

Hefferon is the owner and founder of Ciclismo Classico, a multi-day, international cycling tour company. It has now been operating for 32 years, and Hefferon still buzzes with passion to show people the world on her celeste-colored Bianchi.

“It wasn’t fully formed, but what I really discovered when I was in high school is that I love the outdoors,” she says. “I was the kind of kid that went for a bike ride and not only did I want everybody to come with me, but I wanted to share my experiences. So I wrote articles for my local newspaper. I really love this — I love cycling.”

Make sure you have all the bases covered

Lessons for Small Operators From 30 Years of Touring Ciclismo Classico Arival Ben Finch
If you’re starting out, get a business partner to do the work you can’t — Polina Rytova / Unsplash

Ciclismo Classico was set up after Hefferon spent three years leading riding through the hills of Tuscany in central Italy. She returned home, graduated from university for the second time and pushed off into the tours industry. 

“I started small, I started passionate,” she says. “If I were to do it again — literally start from scratch with what I know — I would make sure that I had a business partner.

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“I’m very, very good at the creative. I’m very good at product creation. But the flip side of that is the finance and the operations, which I learned and I did okay, but it wasn’t my strength.

“If you’re going to start a company now, or if you’re five years into your company, make sure that you really have all the bases covered. One way to do that is to have one person in the creative product development, sales and marketing side and then the business partner has the operation and the finance covered.”

Take care with your marketing budget

Lessons for Small Operators From 30 Years of Touring Ciclismo Classico Arival Ben Finch
Make sure you’re getting a return on your marketing budget by directing it properly — Helio Dilolwa / Unsplash

Small operators should concentrate on how they spend their marketing budget to make sure they’re receiving a good return. Ciclismo Classico goes down the guerilla marketing route rather than spending on performance, such as through Google Ads.

“I think the travel industry got a little drunk on growth,” she says. “We started spending a lot of money on heavy-duty marketing.

“I was always a big fan of guerilla marketing. I’m very much a high touch marketer. I believe in staying in touch with customers. I’ve had a lot of high touch marketing and that served me very well.

“Spending a lot of money on marketing and Google Ads that really doesn’t get the return isn’t for us. Big — huge — companies can more easily afford it. But for a small company we just never saw the results.”

While Hefferon thinks that it’s not the sort of career that you go into for the money, she feels that discounting can backfire. She sees it as a trap that leads to prices that aren’t solid.

“Covid stretched me back into operations”

Lessons for Small Operators From 30 Years of Touring Ciclismo Classico Arival Ben Finch
Ciclismo Classico pivoted to offering domestic trips in the U.S. during the pandemic — Lachlan Cruickshank / Unsplash

As the pandemic hit, international travel collapsed. Tours from the French Alps to the Riviera or along the Dalmatia coast were no longer possible. However, outdoor activities saw a small boom. It left Ciclismo Classico in a tough position.

“Within a month [of the pandemic starting] I almost had a heart attack about what’s going on with my company,” Hefferon says. She needed to pivot.

“I realized that I live in a very beautiful part of the world and I love to cycle. It’s really not a stretch for me to develop domestic trips. I was lucky to have one of my colleagues who felt the same way, so together we very quickly put together some domestic programs.”

At first, pushing outdoors was still a hard sell. There was still huge uncertainty about what was and wasn’t safe. “We didn’t push it — it was very delicate,” she says.

“But by August we offered one trip in the Finger Lakes. By the fall we offered several in New Hampshire. People were still reluctant — not so much because of the cycling, but because of the other activities like being in restaurants.

“It came naturally but it also stretched me beyond my comfort zone. It got me back to doing the domestic trips. It stretched me into the operations that I hadn’t been involved in.

“Covid forced me to reconnect very tightly with my team. We started something called the Ciclismo Show. We utilized zoom in a really positive way and started doing these Friday afternoon shows about cooking and bicycling.

“It allowed me to get back to the front line in a lot of ways. What I learned is that what I do is what I love. It’s still my purpose — it didn’t go away.”

“Cycling puts us in tune with the fabric of our humanity”

Hefferon believes that cycling is an activity that helps us reconnect with nature — Dawid Łabno / Unsplash

Cycling has seen huge growth since the world shut down. As everyone sat indoors for months on end, many people realized they wanted to reconnect with nature. Less traffic on the roads brought sudden increases in safety with it. Group rides became one way to see friends safely. Within months, it was impossible to buy a new bike.

“I believe it’s on the up and up,” Hefferon says. “I really believe that it’s an activity that strengthens relationships with your friends. It really strengthens our relationship with nature. I really believe in it as a long-term activity that people fall in love with. In 32 years, I can’t remember someone saying to me: ‘I’ll never do that kind of trip again’.”

“Cycling puts us in tune with something in our soul — in the fabric of our humanity.

“Everyone remembers when they rode their first bicycle. When they do it again, they feel that — it always dials back in.”

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