“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” –Robert F. Kennedy
I know it’s cliché to begin any article in our field with such a well-known and inspirational quote. But that quote has special meaning to me. Not just because Bobby Kennedy is a personal hero of mine. No, I read and walk by those words every week because they are etched into the stone across from his grave. He rests in our country’s most hallowed ground, Arlington National Cemetery, and it’s my job to walk those hills.
Lisa Ann Maurer and I founded and run a social enterprise in Washington, D.C. called Tours for Humanity. That famous RFK quote sums up both our purpose and our philosophy: Tiny ripples of hope slowly improving lives and the world while building momentum with other social good causes. We provide walking tours of D.C., in person and via a mobile app, then donate a portion of profits towards charities fighting ignorance, poverty, and disease. We lead tours from Capitol Hill to the National Mall, from Arlington Cemetery to the fan-favorite Drinking History adventure.
We are using moving stories of history to help people. Tales about the heroes of yesteryear generate not only inspiration for travelers but funds for the charities we support: the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Ashoka, and Honor Flight. We also donate tours to nonprofits and causes as fundraising tools, all the while moving towards our goal of B-Corp certification. The idea is to transform travel into a force for good. We know that even with scaling we are still small actors on a very large stage. That’s why one of our mottoes is “a tour won’t save the world, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
We have been in operation for over a year. Our journey began with an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign through which we raised roughly $20,000 in start-up capital. Indiegogo, and platforms like it, are essential for entrepreneurs just starting out. As of now we have two independent contractor guides working for us in the busy season. We were not in the red last year but neither are we driving a Tesla. No one said this would be easy.
Progress is too slow. I know most of us feel that way in our various fields. But scaling a traditional tour company is incredibly labor-intensive with hiring independent contractors and training new recruits, not to mention scheduling and managing multiple tours while you’re also out in the field. Tours for Humanity (TFH) will maintain this slow and steady path, on the one hand. In-person tours will never disappear and we want our guides to double as brand ambassadors for other social good companies. That’s why our guide on the standard tour is wearing TOMS shoes, a FEED bag on his shoulder, and has on a t-shirt made by Freeset. And you’ll never find me without my LSTN headphones. All these products improve the world in their own ways.
On the other hand, we are pursuing a digital strategy with a mobile app of audio tours. Think of it as a tour in your pocket. Currently we have three tours available in D.C. with two more under production. Each of these tours has over an hour of story content for customers. We are proving our value with a freemium model where the app and National Mall tour are free and additional tours are $3.99 each. This is a huge savings to, say, a family of four when compared with a traditional tour.
Digitizing your services comes with many benefits. I know that the quality of the content is assured and I don’t have to be out in the field myself. New guides don’t have to be hired, trained, and managed as often. This leaves a wider reach and more profits to be sent to our charity partners.
TFH, working with our software development partner PearCircuit, can scale the app much more quickly than a traditional guide-on-the-ground company can. The strategy we are pursuing is unique at the moment, a hybrid model featuring part in-person guides and part mobile app sales. There are tours and revenue that the app may cannibalize and others it could not possibly replace. For instance, the Drinking History tour (our favorite) is far better face-to-face in a group. The social camaraderie and group dynamic are why folks book this experience. As for the app cannibalizing customers from more profitable in-person tours, well, if the atom bomb is possible then it’s better to develop it first. The chance of disruption exists and therefore we intend to be the disruptors.
Currently there are the traditional by-foot walking tours that only have in-person guides and the all-digital, all-app companies. We believe the two to be complementary and synergistic. The plan is simple: expand to other cities with the app first. Then we follow up with boots on the ground and establish Drinking History tours. These in-person outings and the app advertise and support one another. At this stage even modest investment could be leveraged for rapid expansion.
To build on this foundation, our guides and app will act as a gateway to other social good companies and causes. Our people are brand ambassadors leading travellers through monuments and memorials. They are walking billboards for conscious companies that meet and interact with dozens of tourists every day. On the app side, these same companies have the opportunity to sponsor individual tours, like a podcast advertiser, or even entire cities.
We took a small step in this direction when LSTN headphones sponsored our app launch party. Their products were sold alongside people toasting our app (TFH events are almost always in Irish pubs). All of us know we make a greater impact when we stand together. That is why we are pursuing and in talks with multiple companies for partnerships.
We started this company so we could continually give back to and promote causes we believe in. This whole endeavor began in the neighborhood bar on a bleary New Year’s Day. That’s where I met my business partner and girlfriend. Little did she know she had met her caretaker and I didn’t know she’d battle through cancer. That brush with disease and darkness is why we started this enterprise. Now every day we work so that the next day will be a bit better. Through our app, pursuing partnerships, and the power of story, we are sending forth our tiny ripples of hope.
Bo Hammond has been a summer camp counselor, civic educator, and a tour guide. He founded and leads Tours for Humanity (TFH) with his partner Lisa Maurer. They started they started with a successful crowdfunding campaign and are now in year two of operation. TFH is a social enterprise walking tour company based in Washington, DC.