This is the first in our series showcasing real stories from those who’ve lived and breathed the tours & activities world (and have the scars to show it!).

In this first episode we learn the remarkable story of Auður who started an Icelandic travel blog and spun it into a thriving tour business generating millions of dollars in the process.

If you’re looking for information on how to start a tour business this is a MUST read, even the most seasoned tours & experience operators stand to pick up some actionable tips.

Over to Auður…

Auður Ösp headshot

In 2011 I started a travel blog

Back then I had been working for a few years as a web-and marketing expert at a travel agency in Reykjavík. One of my main responsibilities was attracting new customers to the agency’s website using Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Birth of an idea

SEO was in many ways still in its infancy and not a lot of Icelandic travel companies knew how to use it to their advantage. I did, however, and pitched to my boss that I wanted to start a blog to reach a wider audience.

We were currently ranking for keywords connecting our brand and products, but the essence of my idea was to reach those who didn’t know us already and convince them to trust us for their Iceland adventure.

I talked about soft sell and feeling somewhat smug, I leaned back in the chair, thinking I had hit a home run. To make a long story short, my boss didn’t agree. I was asked to drop it.

Sometimes no means you do it yourself

I had spent some time developing the concept and I had a gut feeling that I was on to something good. What you should probably know about me is that I’m very stubborn and that, mixed with my ADHD superpower of hyperfocus, was not about to let it go.

I was going to show my boss that I was right, and he was wrong. So, I didn’t let it go and I Heart Reykjavík, my blog and later travel agency, came to be.

I know I should probably not admit having started my company out of spite to show someone the error of their ways, but I tend to tell it as it is. Honesty and integrity is part of my DNA, which, incidentally, became a part of my brand success.

The early days

The concept was simple in the beginning. I was going to build an online travel guide written from the viewpoint of a local tourism expert.

The guide was to answer all the questions a traveller to Iceland might have, in an honest and “at least a semi entertaining way”. That last bit, word for word, was my tagline in the very beginning.

Because I had been working in Icelandic tourism and because I was very active in the Couchsurfing community here in Reykjavík (I was the city’s ambassador – heyo!), not to mention the fact that I had spent my early twenties travelling the world, I had pretty good instincts about what questions my audience needed answers to.

I Heart Reykjavik logo

If at first, you don’t succeed, try again

I did all kinds of experiments in the beginning. Some were successful. Others, not so much. One thing I remember spending a lot of time on was a time-lapse video of a girl getting her hair cut in cooperation with a local salon.

My pitch to travellers was that they should get their hair cut while in Reykjavík. “Why?”, you may ask. Well, your guess is as good as mine, I just wanted to make a cool video.

What I didn’t know at the time is that I was basically doing what social media influencers would later turn into an art form. I was, in some ways, the OG Icelandic influencer. Except I had no influence in Iceland, just outside of it.

Content is king

The first years were all about content. I wrote at least 1-2 blog posts a week, took photos and videos for my social media accounts and did what I could to promote the blog. It quickly grew in popularity and soon it was outperforming most travel websites in Iceland.

I had some posts go viral, which helped me reach an ever-bigger audience, and before long I was getting thousands of unique visits a day.

Meanwhile, I had quit my job at the travel agency and was pursuing a business degree at the University of Iceland. The summer of 2013 I had applied for a summer job with every travel agency and tour operator in Reykjavík and did not get a single offer.

In fact, with all my experience I only got one interview. I ended up working that summer at a camping gear rental place, owned by an avid reader of the blog. I spent the summer cleaning wet and dirty tents and vacuuming questionable materials out of sleeping bags. I hated it.

Transforming a passion into income

The summer of 2014 I was not going to have another summer like the previous year with no job prospects. If the Icelandic tourism industry didn’t want me, I’d just have to create my own summer job. You may be picking up on a theme here.

I had thousands of people visiting my blog every day. I had written about local tour companies and their tours and was generating a lot of bookings for them, without getting any revenue myself.

I knew the answer was to monetize the blog and I knew I didn’t want to sell ads and jeopardise the reputation as an independent guide that I had built. I also knew I wanted to spend more time outside in the fresh air and in January 2014 the answer finally came to me: I would offer a Reykjavík Walking Tour based on the same principles as my blog. So that’s what I did.

First time business owner

I didn’t realise in the beginning what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know if anyone would book the tour, especially since the only walking tours on offer in Reykjavík at the time were donation based Free Tours and I intended to charge $45 for my small group tour.

Although I had to get a permit and insurance and sign up for a VAT number, it didn’t really register with me that I was fundamentally starting a sole proprietor business. If I had realised, I probably wouldn’t have found the courage to take the plunge. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

The I Heart Reykjavik walking tour

I announced the tour at the beginning of March and that the first one was to take place in April. By the time April came around, I had already done a few tours because supportive readers had encouraged me to start earlier.

The bookings were steadily flowing in and I was doing tours every day, sometimes twice a day. Most tours were only half full but that was fine by me.

The first tours were horrendous. My guests enjoyed them, but I gave them so many factual errors about Icelandic history that I was utterly mortified when I found out. So much for integrity.

I wanted to send them all an email and right my wrongs but thankfully decided not to. Slowly I got better and little by little I eliminated the bad content on the tour and added more of the good stuff.

The whole experience was very personal to me. I remember the first time someone walked out of the tour without telling me. I cried. I still had some guests on the tour that I had to make sure had a good time, but I couldn’t hide the tears.

Being myself, I just told them it was the first time that had happened and that I was feeling somewhat hurt. Five minutes later we were all laughing about it.

Walking tour

Unexpected allies

In early spring 2014, I got an email from a journalist who had been following the blog and wanted to know more about my tours. I was used to dealing with media requests that mostly led to little more than work for me, so I hesitantly answered her questions.

She didn’t tell me which publication she was associated with but one of the rules I had set for myself in the beginning was that I would always help journalists in any way I could.

Later in May the piece came out. My tour had been recommended by the New York Times in the travel section of the Sunday print edition. To say my business exploded would be an understatement. For solid four weeks (and even longer) every day folks joined my tour with a clipping of that NYT piece that they wanted to give me in case I didn’t know I had been there. Oh, I knew.

The start of an empire

I did two to three tours a day for the entire summer of 2014. Most of them were fully booked. I ended up losing 20 pounds and walking myself into an injury. On top of doing all these tours I was also answering every inquiry from potential and former customers over email and social media on top of keeping up with my content creation schedule.

Not to mention the fact that I made and maintained the website myself along with taking and editing every single picture on the blog. Mayhem is probably the most accurate word to describe that first summer.

I had started offering the tour thinking I was creating a summer job for myself. I didn’t know if it would be successful, and I certainly didn’t think I could carry on offering it through the fall and the winter. I could. I ended up having to put my degree on hold and was walking 1-2 tours a day all winter long.

The secret of my success

In hindsight, it would be tempting to say that my venture was this successful solely based on my abilities. I am smart and have good instincts, but I was also just the right person at the right time doing the right thing.

Before I knew what a customer journey was, I was using the journey mapping methodology to create my products and content. I realised early on that most of my readers were coming from the US, and Iceland was growing rapidly as a travel destination in the US at the time.

Flights from the States all landed around five or six in the morning and most of the time, travellers couldn’t check into their hotels until the afternoon.

Online I found endless questions from Americans about what to do on their first day so the first smart thing I did was to sync the start time of my morning tour with the arrival of those flights.

The start time gave the guests just enough time to get to their hotel, get rid of their bags and grab breakfast before they joined my tour.

I marketed the tour as the perfect first day activity to beat the jetlag and kill some time before you could check in.

The second smart thing I did was to create content around that story. As an example, I wrote a post titled something along the lines of “How to survive your 5 am flight into Reykjavík” giving detailed and timed instructions on how to optimise your first day. Naturally I included my tour there but only as an option, I included other alternatives too that you didn’t have to pay for.

American airlines plane

A little bit of luck

Luck also played a role. I became an expert in SEO at the right time, just before every travel agency tried to replicate what I did. Because I was so generous with journalists, as well as travel bloggers, I got a lot of important backlinks which gave my website more authority.

Every piece of content I wrote I made sure to first and foremost focus on the traveller ,but the search engines were always on my mind too. Although many more publications would end up writing about my tour, the New York Times is what accelerated my growth. I was also featured on a bunch of travel shows and made most of the guidebooks.

It wasn’t just luck though. The product was also good. I made sure I leveraged review sites like Tripadvisor and gave my guests a cute tangible and helpful souvenir at the end of each tour that doubled as a business card. That business card got passed along a lot.

It also didn’t hurt that people found me quite funny and endearing, both as a writer and a tour guide, so I had a lot of goodwill with my customers. I was somewhat of a celebrity to many of them. A business degree later I now know that I did a really good job building the brand.

Expanding the empire

In 2015 I hired my first staff member. I expanded the business into selling tours for other tour companies which the Bókun software made possible. Before Bókun, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did.

The technology wasn’t available. For a while there I was outselling OTAs like Viator for many of my partners. For some of my smaller partners, every seat on their buses day after day was occupied by guests that booked through my site. That’s something I’m quite proud of, I was able to help a lot of small companies get a lot more business while becoming more successful myself.

Icelandic tour bus

Want to grow your tour business like Auður? Sign-up to Bókun’s 14 day Free Trial to discover how we can help manage your business and help generate more bookings.

Not yet started your business? In part two (coming July 2023) Auður will reveal the exact steps to take if you want to start a tour business. Until then let’s carry on….

The organic reach

I never worked much with travel agencies, although I got a booking here and there. My website was generating enough bookings on its own. The whole nine years that the blog was active I never spent any money on advertising. I didn’t have a brochure. I didn’t boost any posts on Facebook. I relied on Google, social media and word of mouth.

As a result, I got most of the money I was making and very little of it went to commissions. The first years I worked out of my home with virtually no overhead although later I rented a small office and paid salaries.

That’s another thing I’m proud of, come to think of it. Although I couldn’t afford crazy high salaries, I paid much better salaries than most travel companies at the time. Hours wise my staff was working a 4-hour work week with a full salary.

Tough but no regrets

At the height of my business, I had six staff members, including my husband, and for a while we had a great time. It all became a bit much in 2018 and I decided to scale down. I laid off all my staff, except my husband, and focused entirely on the travel agency and doing private tours, to make our schedule more manageable.

I had been working for up to sixteen hours every day for five years at that point, never being fully able to switch off. By the time Covid hit us, we were ready to close this chapter of our lives . In September 2020 I closed I Heart Reykjavík and went back to school to finish my degree.

Looking back, I wouldn’t have done anything differently because that period of my life was the most valuable learning experience of my life. The money I made also gave me the financial independence to live the life that I want to.

I paid off our mortgage at the age of 38, three years after I bought our apartment on a 40-year loan. Although I’m still working through some stuff associated with almost burning out and a late ADHD diagnosis, I was 30 when I embarked on this journey.

I had little to no education or experience, and I was running a business that generated revenue in millions. I think I deserve to give myself some grace.

Although looking back I wouldn’t change anything, if I were to do it all again here’s 10 rules I’d follow:

1. Start a business with a partner and one not connected to family

The stress of having to make every decision on my own and never being able to fully switch off wreaked havoc on my mental and physical health. Because I didn’t have a partner, I didn’t have to share the profits, but it came at a high price.

2. Don’t allow the business to become the north star of your life and all it is

There’s more to life than work and if you neglect your wellbeing, judgement day will come sooner than you think.

3. Do well by your staff

I didn’t mistreat anyone, but my inexperience was evident, and I made a lot of mistakes. Your staff is your most valuable resource, and they deserve your professionalism. If you don’t know how to do that well yourself, find someone who knows how.

4. Think about the exit strategy from the very beginning

When I closed the business, I got a lot of offers from big companies wanting to buy my business, content and effective search engine positions for many high-value search phrases. I had been very personal in all my content and basically gave it my heart and soul.

It didn’t feel right to sell it and I ended up saying no to a lot of money. I don’t regret walking away from that money, even though it would have made my life even more comfortable than it already is, but I would go into the next venture with a different strategy.

5. Spend more time networking with other founders.

Since I closed the business, I became a part of a big workplace and business associations where I really learnt the value of having someone to talk to who is going through similar things as you are. I often felt very alone in my journey and think it would have been very helpful to have had more support.

6. Have more faith in yourself

I’m not talking about arrogance but there were a lot of moments where I wasn’t sure I was on the right path because I was doing things differently and unconventionally. Believe in your vision and follow your gut, you know what’s best for you.

7. Make it my priority to be really involved with the financial side

I had outside accounting, which was the right thing at the time, but I relied too much on that person in my decision making. I should have known more about my KPIs and the financial health of the company.

8. Delegate more

Sure, it’s great that you can do everything yourself but that doesn’t mean you should. Delegate and outsource what makes sense so you can focus on the important stuff.

9. Plan more and follow those plans

What was my saving grace was that I had a very strong vision and mission for my company, so I never went off track, but sometimes things became a bit chaotic. You can’t plan for every little thing, of course, but having a basic operation and marketing plan really helps.

10. Do my best to enjoy it more

Founding and running I Heart Reykjavík was the best experience of my life but often I was too worried and stressed to allow myself to enjoy it. Running your own business is a wild fantastic ride and life is too short not to enjoy it.

Auður Ösp headshot

What a story! Thank-you Auður for kindly opening up and telling us how you started and grew. I admire your tenacity and in part two (coming July 2023) Auður will reveal the exact steps to take if you want to start your own tour business.

Unsure who we are? Bókun offers Tour Operator Software designed to help tour and activity providers like Auður more easily manage their business and grow bookings . Sign-up to our 14 day Free Trial (no cc required) to discover more .