Every so often we try to arrange interviews with inspiring travel startups from all around the world. Our industry is colourful and diverse and these type of pieces are a great way to explore that diversity. Having said that, many of the challenges and pitfalls faced by travel startups are the same across the board.
Our deep dives are a chance to learn from the experiences of others working in travel. We hope they're interesting and insightful, too!
This week we're featuring Viktoria Barsony, co-founder of Wheels of Morocco. As the name hints at, Wheels of Morocco offer motorcycle tours around Morocco, giving intrepid travellers the chance to explore the country on a two-wheeled adventure.
The company launched in January 2016 and only started taking bookings in March last year, so it's still very early days for this adventure startup. But that doesn't mean we can't take a closer look at the how and why behind the way things are progressing.
The key to Wheels of Morocco is the destination. Although motorcycle adventures will appeal to a certain audience no matter the location, Morocco is a country that ticks all of the scenic boxes. As Viktoria explains, it's an amazing country that has everything you'd need for an incredible motorbike tour: beach, mountains, desert, forests, all of which you can visit in the space of 10-14 days.
This setting makes for an ideal motorbike tour. It allows riders to really feel like they've travelled as the landscape around them changes dramatically and in quick succession.
As we've written about before, a growing trend in the industry is that tourists are looking for more immersive trips than before. They want to genuinely experience a country and culture, not just lay on a beach and top up their sun tan.
Just as food tourism offers an authentic travel experience - which we explored in a separate in-depth interview with Foodie & Tours - There's something equally liberating about hitting the open road, not knowing exactly what or who you'll be coming across.
Setting up a niche travel / tourism service isn't easy. To genuinely appeal to travellers you need to show that the experience, knowledge and passion you have for what you do is unparalleled - especially when you've only just started operating.
It's fair to say the Viktoria and her partner Greg have this in abundance. "We had been living in Morocco for about 3 years when my husband's expat contract came to an end last year. We had the choice of moving to another country, but the whole family wanted to stay in Morocco," she says.
"As we have travelled extensively [around Morocco] in those 3 years, we knew this amazing country and thought that other people would love it too, especially on a motorbike. We started the pre-work in January 2016 and got our first bike and client in March 2016."
Travellers need to be convinced to part with their money. That's always been the case, especially when an adventure or excursion is involved. The fact that Wheels of Morocco has already got its business off the ground says a lot about the strength of its appeal. Effectively portraying knowledge and expertise alongside the product has been vital in that progression.
There's no doubt that Wheels of Morocco has successfully found a niche to cater for. But the company has cleverly selected products that are niche in terms of the expertise you need to run them without being unappealing to the majority. For example, it takes a lot of local knowledge, logistical skills and specific qualifications (Greg, Viktoria's husband, got his BMW ITA Certification last April) to get a business like this off the ground. It's not something everyone could do. But the result is a range of tours that many, many travellers will find appealing.
Considering setting up your own travel business? We've written extensively on finding a niche for your travel marketplace.
The widespread appeal Wheels of Morocco has is there to be seen in the diversity of its clients. "We've had many English, American, Canadian, Israelis, Australian, Swiss, Turkish, German, Italian and Hungarian clients, so I guess it doesn’t depend on nationality. It's more about the passion for travelling motorbiking. We have touring clients from the age of 28 to 68, said Viktoria.
The challenge of running tours built on a two-wheeled adventure is the number of things that can go wrong. "The biggest challenge," Viktoria says, "is when a tour is on the road. Because no matter how amazing and well-prepared the tour guide is (he is trained in first aid, can change tyres on the spot and repair the bikes) there might be unpredictable problems. An accident, (replacing an imported side-pannier in the middle of the desert is no mean feat); crossing the most amazing passes in the Atlas mountains above 3000 meters but 40 cm snow has just fallen the day before..."
When the unexpected happens, Viktoria and Greg need to re-plan the remaining days, in terms of hotels and the itinerary.
Thinking on your feet and dealing with whatever comes adds to the sense of adventure, and is probably one element that motorbike enthusiasts enjoy with a tour of Morocco. But it's still important that the team has backup plans in place.
You might think that small travel startups struggle to compete with major operators. And that the big travel businesses dominate online traffic. You'd be right. But it's still possible to cut through the noise, especially if you are targeting a niche market and localising your content.
Viktoria admits that Wheels of Morocco's marketing efforts have been varied so far, "testing different channels, print media, online banners, PPC advertising, Facebook and Instagram ads. We are having promotional offers, email newsletters, and we are in collaboration with travel journalists."
As with all startups, it will be a case of refining the marketing strategy to focus on the channels that are most effective. Something the company can definitely rely on though, is positive reviews. As well as leading to repeat business, a bunch of 5-star ratings and positive feedback is incredibly effective at pushing new sales over the line.
Because we approach things from the marketplace mindset, we couldn't help but ask Viktoria whether or not there were plans to expand the company's products to include tours outside of Morocco.
The answer, understandably, was no. Expansion at this stage would risk the loss of what makes Wheels of Morocco such an appealing prospect for tourists: local knowledge, expertise and a family-run business. "As we are living here, we have specialised Morocco knowledge and I think that the best thing to do is to keep on offering this unparalleled expertise and knowledge of this country. We are offering tours that no other motorbike touring companies are doing in Morocco and that's only possible because we are here all year, know the actual road and weather conditions and have tested all the hidden passes and roads."
Inspired to go on a motorbike tour of Morocco? Visit the Wheels of Morocco website to find out more.