Susan Robinson didn't set out to get into the tour business.
But a client's request led to a growing side business for Robinson that, in turn, has helped people learn more about the Sarasota area and its restaurant scene.
Robinson also took some culinary tours during her own travels to Miami and Portland, Maine. Those tours combined local history with local eats. “By then I was really convinced this was something that could work well in Sarasota,” she says. Especially where her office was located: tourist-rich St. Armands Circle.
“I see day in and day out all of the people who get off hotel buses and walk around the circle looking for something to do,” she says. “This is a perfect place for this kind of thing.”
Robinson's business, Key Culinary Tours, kicked off in October 2015, offering lunchtime and happy-hour walking tours of St. Armands Circle. By the end of this winter season, it will offer 11 local tours visiting more than 30 restaurants. She now has 12 tour guides on staff.
The clientele is about 50% local and 50% out-of-town visitors. The business has tripled the number of people it has taken out on tours year over year, says Robinson. She declines to disclose specific revenue figures.
What's driving the growth? The new hotel rooms and condos being built in Sarasota haven't hurt. Travelers are also looking for more experiences during vacations — a big hospitality trend. Another plus: Robinson seized an unexpected expansion opportunity when Key Culinary Tours was just starting out, buying out another outfit based in South Carolina that did sporadic food tours of downtown Sarasota.
She added a chef-led tour of the Sarasota Farmers Market. This season, the company will introduce culinary tours in Venice and Lakewood Ranch; an international food tour in downtown Sarasota; and a 3 p.m. St. Armands tour. There's even a ghost tour on the docket.
When it comes to new tours, actually, the possibilities are almost endless — both a pro and a con. “The problem isn't so much can it go someplace,” says Robinson. “The problem is making sure I have the right team of people in place. That holds me back so that we get the infrastructure in place before we put too much pressure on the business with all these ideas.”
Robinson hasn't had a lot of difficulty getting restaurants to come on board. “I legitimately offer them a nice deal,” she says. “I'm going to bring in people who have never been in their restaurant before — and pay them. I can't tell you how many times we've had Sarasota natives on our tour who are sitting in Columbia Restaurant, which has been on the circle since 1959, say they've never been in there before.”
Robinson doesn't pay retail, but instead negotiates a price for food served to cover restaurants' costs. Servers are tipped, and customers can purchase alcohol. Most tours are $65 a person.
To spread awareness of the tours, the company relies on third-party endorsements, word of mouth and social media. “Social media plays almost no role in my other business, but it plays a huge role in this business,” says Robinson.
Top-notch tour-guide hiring and training is another secret to the business's success.
“Tour guides are what makes or breaks a tour,” says Robinson. “We realized that kind of early on, but not before we made a couple of mistakes in hiring. We discovered through trial and error that we shouldn't be recruiting for history majors. So now we recruit for personality, and everything else we can teach. And when you have the tour guides in place and they're doing it right, a lot of the problems go away.”