From Panhandling to Profits: The Secrets to Direct Booking Success

How The Tour Guy went from panhandling outside the Colosseum to building a big tours and activities business through direct bookings

Reading Time: 4 minutes 30 seconds

Imagine breaking into a popular tourism destination that’s already oversaturated with tour and activity options. And not only break in, but grow exponentially… through direct bookings. Is that even possible?

Easily the most popular destination in Italy, Rome attracts over 10 million visitors every year. And a quick search reveals over 6,800 Rome tour offerings on Viator alone. So how did Sean Finelli, The Tour Guy, go from panhandling tours outside the colosseum seven days a week to fully booked up and getting over a million web visitors a month?

Finelli squashed many assumptions experience hosts make about direct bookings at Arival 360 | Berlin 2023, when he explained how he grew his business through direct bookings. “Stop thinking about title tags, alt tags, and some scientific explanation for SEO,” advised Finelli. “I am living proof that if you have a really great product, then meta data doesn’t really matter.”

“Google wants you to obsess over your products and the content that supports those products,” Finelli explained. “If you do that, Google will start obsessing over you.”

Finelli shared a few of the ways tour operators can become Google’s “obsession…” and attract more direct bookings to grow their business.

Create a Rockstar Product

Finelli started out by emphasizing the importance of creating “rockstar” experiences. Stop being so nice to yourself about your experience, he advised tour operators: if it’s not a rockstar experience, it’s not worth offering.

After spending a lot of time observing the tour leaders around him, Finelli realized that offering another walking tour of the historical center, competing with hundreds of others offering the same thing, wasn’t going to cut it. “It was easy to replicate,” he observed. “People could go and do it themselves. No one bought it, no one cared.” 

Sean Finelli describes how The Tour Guy’s popularity took off with the addition of a golf cart

A rockstar product is something that’s difficult to replicate and something that everyone wants. For Finelli, the difference between easily replicable and a rockstar experience was a golf cart. When The Tour Guy started taking people around Rome in a golf cart for the right price, with high availability, Google started obsessing over them — and so did guests. Finelli and his team went from struggling to pay their rent to massively expanding. 

Operator Takeaway: What’s one thing you can tweak to create something that people will find irresistible?

Make It Easy to Book Your Rockstar Product

A great “rockstar” product alone wasn’t the only contributor to The Tour Guy’s rapid growth: a streamlined booking process was another key ingredient. 

Finelli and his team have a sharp understanding of the online booking process. They know that high bounce rates can be the kiss of death for many in the in-destination industry. If a potential visitor lands on your website and then immediately clicks away without visiting any other pages, that counts as a bounce. 

And Google doesn’t want to send traffic to websites with high bounce rates.

Operator Takeaway: If you put yourself in the shoes of your ideal guest, what does the booking process look like for them? How many competing experiences and tours is your ideal visitor comparing your experience with? Do you have an online booking system that makes the booking process as easy as possible for your potential guests?

Arival 360 | SAN DIEGO 2024

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Show Off Your Rockstar Product

Beyond having highly desirable experiences and making them easily bookable, Finelli shared another important ingredient to increasing direct bookings:  how you show off that product through descriptions and photos. As Finelli advised:

  • Optimize your tour descriptions. Most people in our industry believe they’ve done a good enough job on their descriptions, but there is always room for improvement. Your description is making a promise and as your guests read, they’re asking themselves: do I trust this? 
  • Use original photos: Your potential guests will be looking for proof around your website that your experience is worth it, and that’s where your imagery comes in. Guests — and Google — want original photos, not stock photos. Your powerful images are living proof that your guides are professionals at eliciting a strong emotional response from visitors.
  • Don’t be afraid to share your opinion: You are a local expert, so consider this your official permission slip to be more opinionated and outspoken. “This is what this industry needs to change,” said Finelli. “Something I did, that changed my entire business. You need to share your opinion.” Get over the fear of people thinking you’re wrong or stupid.
Guests — Google — want original photos (left) over stock photos (right). | Source: The Tour Guy (left), Unsplash / Anna Philine (right)

Learn More about Increasing Direct Bookings from The Tour Guy at Arival

The real secret to increasing direct bookings is simple. As Finelli explained, your description + how it works with your photos = SEO. This, paired with a rockstar product and streamlined online booking process, increases traffic (Google’s obsession!), increases conversion (direct bookings!),  and ultimately your success. 

For more insights from Finelli on increasing direct bookings, Arival Insider Pro Access members can listen to the entire session here: Let’s Get Direct: How The Tour Guy Built a Big Business on Consumer Direct Bookings.

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Header photo: The Tour Guy

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