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Electric-bike tour company must energize sales

Pedal or Not in Santa Monica has found it tough to get word out to tourists and is operating at 30% of capacity.

April 25, 2011|By Cyndia Zwahlen
  • Barb Wittels and husband Stephen own Pedal or Not, which offers guided tours on pedal-optional bicycles. Business has been running at only 30% of capacity.
Barb Wittels and husband Stephen own Pedal or Not, which offers guided tours… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Pedal or Not Inc. in Santa Monica offers local bicycle tours for people who might not want to pedal the whole way.

The company has a fleet of brightly colored bikes, each of which packs a book-size battery that can silently power the bike, moped-style, up hills or whenever a rider wants a bit of help.

Once people take the three-hour tour, which costs $59 and winds along the beach bike path from Santa Monica to the Venice canals, they love the experience, based on dozens of reviews on the travel website TripAdvisor. But getting word out to tourists has been tough, owners Barb and Stephen Wittels said.

They've tried to get local hotels to recommend the service to their guests, but concierges seem to persist in thinking of it as just another bicycle rental shop.

"No one knows what an electric bike is," said Barb Wittels, company president and tour guide.

The family business, which offers three tours daily, is operating at only 30% capacity, Wittels said. Sales last year, based on the nine months Pedal or Not's tours were running, were $16,000. This year, the company expects to hit that level by the end of May, before the busy summer season even starts. Yet it is struggling to find new and consistent sources of customers, aside from the popular travel website.

The Wittels have made some headway with overseas travel agencies and wholesale tour operators that bring tourists in from Europe and Australia, but not enough to create the volume of customers they need.

"They did their homework," said Teresa F. Stamoulis, a hospitality marketing specialist and principal of Stamoulis Group in Long Beach. But, she said, the owners need to be more consistent, assertive and proactive in pitching their tours.

Here are her main recommendations for the small business:

• Create a marketing strategy calendar. Think through the rest of the year and decide which marketing steps to do each month. Regularly schedule sales calls, at least quarterly, to wholesale tour company offices. Touch base with local hotel concierges and sales staff at least twice a month. Include follow-ups.

"If they schedule things, it might make it easier for them" to follow through, Stamoulis said.

• Gear up public relations. The company has several great stories to tell, the consultant said. The concept is unusual, fun and "on trend," Stamoulis said, with the demand for hands-on experiences. It's green, family-friendly and educational. And the bikes are from a local company, Irvine-based Pedego Electric Bikes.

Promote all that when talking up the business to local and regional media with snappy news releases and great photos. Consider offering the tour as a giveaway for their readers and viewers. And work with area visitors bureaus to meet visiting travel journalists.

• Leverage trade shows. The Wittels are spending several thousand dollars to go to the International Pow Wow travel show in San Francisco next month. But to make the most of the event, they should take action before the opening of the show.

They can send company brochures, perhaps accompanied by handwritten notes, to select wholesale tour companies and travel planners, she said. Include a simple fact sheet with the packages that contains booking policies, cancellation penalties and pricing.

Pedal or Not could also offer free tours to the travel professionals who will be in Los Angeles before or after the trade show.

• Boost marketing to wholesale tour operators. These are key to creating a pipeline of international tourists, but "they need to know that you are in it for the long haul," Stamoulis said. Contact them consistently and include updates on company news and offerings.

• Sharpen the focus on local hotels. Contact concierges again to better explain what the company offers, and don't forget to reinforce the service's commission payment policy.

Contact hotels' group sales managers too. Pedal or Not could be included in activities for spouses at conferences, for example, Stamoulis said.

"You can't abdicate your responsibility to follow up," Stamoulis said. "To be successful, you have to keep going back and keep touching base."

If your small business could benefit from a free Business Makeover in the Los Angeles Times, please email smallbiz@latimes.com.

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