How to sell a free service

From the Lisbon Chill Out Tours website…

We are a team of creative and free-minded tour guides who work as a part of United Europe’s independent network of free walking tours throughout continental Europe. If you support sustainable tourism or you’re just looking for a tour free of formalities, free of commissions, free of pressure and full of authentic experience – just show up to our meeting point.

There are three magic words in the marketing lexicon – new, you, and free. Despite what we may say, we’re all attracted to something flagged up as ‘new’ and ‘free’. But is it possible to run a viable business by offering a free service? Chill Out Tours seem to have done so – they’ve been operating free walking tours around Lisbon for nine years. Here are some insights into the apparent secret of their success,

Make it free and easy to join The freedom alluded to in the website blurb is not just about not having to pay for the guided walking tour – an important element in their offer – but also the convenience of being able to just turn up at a fixed time and place; no need to book. You can leave the three-hour tour at any stage.

At an accessible central location, the guides are easily identified with bright yellow bags from about 30 minutes before the start time. Importantly, they also advertise their business on their bags as they walk around the city.

Keep your publicity simple Their main publicity tool is a credit-card sized folded leaflet – printed on recycled paper. It’s handed out at the meeting point before the start of the tour, distributed to visitor accommodation (including Airbnb) and given to walkers at the end to distribute any way they can. They could have been handed out on the tour, but our guide didn’t do so.

The leaflet includes essential information in English or Spanish – meeting times and place (with a simple map), membership of different associations, contact details through social media and an invitation to find out more and share feedback. Enticing photos are used to tell the story on their website and through social media – with lots of images on Instagram and short video clips on Facebook.

Establish your credibility There’s fierce competition for your time if not your Euros – Trip Advisor lists 15 walking tours in Lisbon, and a rival provider of free (but sponsored) tours set up in 2013 with the same start time and location. So standing out from the rest is important.

The folk at Chill Out Tours do this by emphasising that all their guides are local to Lisbon and experienced – our guide Rafael had been leading tours for six years. In a veiled reference to the immediate competition, they describe themselves as the ‘original’ free tour company and stress their independence – they are not paid by any of the businesses along the tour route. They also establish their green credentials – see below – and their membership of a European-wide association gives reassurance. Ultimately, they can point to happy customers – on Trip Advisor Chill Out Tours are #29 out of 650 tours in Lisbon, with a 91% rating as ‘excellent’.

 Build your brand The public imagine of the tour company is everything if independent of support from providers of travel and accommodation. For Chill Out Tours their green credentials are important. As their website blurb makes clear, they push walking as sustainable low-impact tourism, their leaflets are printed on recycled paper, and their identifier bags are handmade from waste materials by a local company. Like all good businesses, they encourage their customers to spread the word – on and offline – at every opportunity, knowing that personal recommendation is always the most cost-effective promotion.

Make it personal With a rival company touting for business at the same time and place, it was important that the Chill Out Tour guides were  friendly and forward, without being pushy, from the start. They welcomed people coming especially, tried to attract the odd passer-by (we gained two en route) and informally they kept a check on waiting walkers who had gone to the nearby coffee bar for refreshments before the start.

At a first stop on the tour (in a quiet backstreet) everyone was invited to give their names and countries of origin, sharing a bit about their particular interests in relation to Lisbon and Portuguese culture – our expectations for the tour. Our friendly guide – Rafael – introduced himself with a bit of background (establishing his authority) and explained the plan for the three-hour tour. The tour commentary was informed and informal with references to the interests of the walkers where relevant. In short, we struck up a friendship with our guide and the group very quickly – skilfully orchestrated by Rafael – and the time passed quickly.

Be honest and upfront about the deal Although ‘free’ is the main hook (a selling point in the broadest sense) the website and the guides make clear that walkers are invited to donate what they think the tour is worth at the end. Of course, a dissatisfied customer can choose to pay nothing (but will probably not have stayed to the end – literally voting with their feet!)

The pay-what-it’s-worth principle puts obvious pressure on the guides to impress (and can make decisions about ideal group sizes a bit tricky) but the ratings on Trip Advisor confirm they’re doing a consistently good job. We were told of this payment arrangement at the start, during, and at the end of the tour.

Have a big finish – the reward As we got to the three-hour mark, and with legs getting weary, Rafael urged us on for a final climb (Lisbon is very hilly), promising a reward for our effort. For us that reward was a fine view across the city and a recap on the route we’d taken and the sights and landmarks along the way.

For Rafael the reward was genuine appreciation from the group – reflected in generous donations. Most of the 15 – 20 people in our group seemed to give willingly and without embarrassment. Comparable paid-for tours charge between 12 and 22 Euros per person and I’d estimate this was replicated by the donations on our tour.

And for Rafael, even after six years, one hopes he gets great satisfaction from knowing his obvious passion for the job, for Lisbon, and it’s living history had fired a similar interest in our small, happy, dispersing walking tour group.

Author’s note: These are my personal observations – based on a walking tour in September 2018 – I was neither paid nor encouraged to write this blog post.

Further information https://www.lisbon-chillout-freetour.com and Trip Advisor  https://bit.ly/2Rby6Rj

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