This week the OWL has spoken to Emma Parker, owner and founder of Coutours, a company that organizes tailor-made tours of London
In November 2007, Emma, a successful London PR executive, found herself stuck in a sand dune in the Jordanian desert due to the incompetence of her tour guide. Having recently left her job, Emma watched as the guide went from disaster to disaster until she had the thought, ‘if he can do this, then I can do tours of London.’
As a tour-guide, Emma would be able to combine her eye for stories (‘in PR we’re always looking for the story’) with her passion for her city, and with the London Olympics coming up the timing too seemed right.
Back in London, Emma, who has a degree in history, started researching the tourist industry and making a map of London according to stories and creative tour ideas. Knowing she was entering a crowded market, Emma held onto a specific vision. ‘I wanted to specialize in bespoke tours, walking tours with small groups of people, with quirky, original twists making them stand out from other tours on offer.’
Over the next three years, Emma continued to work freelance to support herself alongside writing her tours and setting up her company. The business was originally marketed through voucher companies such as Groupon, and in 2011 Emma took her first group of tourists around Central London. ‘The voucher companies provided a great way of getting volume and test the tours on real customers other than friends or family,’ says Emma. Since then, she has developed the more lucrative, bespoke side of the business and in addition to individual groups and families, Coutours now caters for the corporate world, organizing ice breakers, alternative office parties and seasonal tours. Tours include the Secret History of Street Food, The History of London in Four Drinks (tea, coffee, gin and beer) and The Highclass/Lowlifes’ tour of Mayfair/Soho.
In 2012, Coutours were awarded the Tripadvisor certificate of excellence, a prize they have won every year since, and Emma, who employs four freelance tour guides, is now in the process of hiring an administrator to deal with the increasing amount of paperwork and website administration. The internet and modern communications have played an important role in the development of Coutours. ‘Twenty years ago, I would have relied on developing relationships with holiday professionals and concierges across town,’ says Emma, ‘but now, via social media, and particularly Tripadvisor, I can have a direct relationship with clients without going through middlemen.’
Plans for the future include a Coutours book of London and possibly a film.
Asked her advice for new femmetrepreneurs, Emma says: ‘Just keep at it. If you have a down day, try to do something, no matter how small, to keep you moving ahead. Have a vision for your business but don’t be surprised if you take lots of diversions on your way.’