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Walking Tour Weathers New York's Worst Winter With Online Booking

Origins

Big Onion Tours started out as a love affair with the past, and nearly a quarter-century later, it still is.

Back in 1991, when Seth Kamil was an American History grad student at Columbia, he started the New York City walking company to help him pay his way through school. After spending more than half of his life in the business, Seth’s first guests are calling him to plan a field trip for their own kids.

Big Onion is a staple in the New York walking tour scene, and the city has taken notice. Kamil traverses every street from Brooklyn Heights, to Harlem, to the East Village, and New York Magazine named him the “Best Walking Tour in New York City.”

What drives Seth, though, is the ability to support young academics and grad students, just like when he began the business. He only hires students pursuing advanced degrees in history, and his ultimate goal for his guides is to “help them get to where they want to go, not stay with Big Onion.”

Challenges

Seth’s forte is looking backward, but he needed help looking ahead, and being able to predict where his business was going. For the majority of its existence, Big Onion didn’t require reservations and operated without a booking system. Instead, Seth would have to estimate the number of people and guides he would need each tour based on past experience.

“The biggest headache is wondering whether I’m going to get one person or 75,” Seth remembers. 

Besides the difficulty of estimating the precise number of guides each day, collecting payments from dozens of walkups was an even bigger menace.

“Working all in cash was always a little unnerving and a booking keeping nightmare,” Seth says, “I used to walk into the bank with $1800 of cash in one dollar bills.”

Kamil tried to update his tour by using Square to swipe credit cards right before a tour. But he found that having one guide run twenty cards delayed the entire group, “causing more problems than anything,” he adds.

In spite of these challenges, Big Onion still managed to cultivate a strong brand among New York’s competitive tourism scene. Yet Kamil knew that he couldn’t be the only one steering the ship forever. All these little bumps in the road were beginning to add up, and Big Onion was operating with less efficiency. He dreamed of expanding the business beyond himself and beyond New York. But with little certainty in his day-to-day tours, Big Onion was on a long and winding road toward growth.

“I paid myself for January, where in the past, I was never paid this early in the year.”

The Bigger Picture

Big Onion was stuck in the past, and Seth was beginning to realize the limits to his one-man enterprise. The lack of predictability was his biggest enemy, but Kamil struggled to find a solution. Predictability directly tied to better customer service, of course. If he could better gague how many people were coming, he could allocate the proper number of guides and everyone would come away feeling more enlightened.

But what he didn’t yet realize was that forecasting future business comes with even bigger implications. If Seth had no reliable estimates for customers and guides on each tour, how could he know whether his business was on an overall path to success or failure?

Not long ago, New York had one of the worst winters the city has ever seen. It was impossible for Seth and his team to guide in sub-freezing, blizzard conditions. With no money coming in, all Kamil could do was hope that his company would last until spring.

A new way

Without an online reservation system that could help book customers months in advance, he had no way of knowing how many guests he might attract once the weather turned. His business could have collapsed then and there, unsure whether it could survive in the off-season. But it didn’t.

Big Onion needed to go from anticipating guests day-by-day, to having longer-term predictability. When winter reared its angry head, Seth needed to know that he had enough booked customers come spring to offset any financial losses. It was time for Big Onion to modernize with a booking system that helped him plan for the future.

Success with Xola

Big Onion made it through that brutal winter in part because of Xola’s real-time availability and advanced scheduling. Customers on the Big Onion website could see a calendar of available tours months in advance. It made all the difference. With Xola’s support, Seth’s guests could easily plan their spring tours ahead of time. In the depths of winter, he knew that greener pastures were on their way.

These benefits of online booking have transformed the way that Seth does business now.

“I paid myself for January, where in the past, I was never paid this early in the year,” Seth exclaims. “I’m already getting a sense for my busiest summer and spring days now, and I can add a guide way in advance,” he adds. That means more efficient business for Seth and better coordinated experiences for his customers.

On top of helping him plan, Big Onion now enjoys “an added level of credibility because the idea of purchasing in advance reassures the customer that the guide is actually going to show up.” Having a system that can safely process online payments ahead of time, and keep track of who’s paying cash at the door, means that Seth no longer worries about running countless credit cards or carrying wads of money through New York’s busy streets. With a robust solution like Xola, Big Onion is primed for additional growth, just like Seth has always hoped.

Seth’s booking software upgrades came with a real partnership too. “Xola made me think about my business in a way that I had never thought about before,” he says. It’s that industry knowledge and dedication to Big Onion that gives Seth the confidence to keep choosing Xola for his business.

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