Amsterdam Tulips Tour: How one man with a vision went from niche tour operator to private tour guide for Barack Obama

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In the Netherlands, something pretty special takes place every spring. From around mid-April to mid-May, vast swathes of its countryside are transformed into a technicolor dream, with rows upon rows of blooming tulips opening their petals to the blue spring skies. Pink, yellow, purple, red, orange… these are rainbows like you’ve never seen them before. 

Below, we chat to Rory, a member of the Ticket Tailor community who’s made a successful tour business out of these precious weeks in-bloom. A tour business with Barack Obama on its roster of past attendees, no less. 

Amsterdam Tulips Tour offers backroads tours of some of the region’s most stunning tulip fields with a visit to a fully private tulip farm. Rory is friends with the farmers, so his tour groups get to spend plenty of time in the fields without having to fight their way through swarms of tourist crowds.Read on to learn all about how Rory has crafted a unique offering that allows visitors of the region to experience Amsterdam’s tulip fields in a truly authentic, intimate way.

✅ Key takeaways

👏 When you’re starting out as an independent tour guide with no capital outlay, social proof is everything. Garnering great reviews and recommendations will be your most powerful marketing tool.

⚙️SEO can also be a hugely impactful marketing tool – and you don’t necessarily need to spend a fortune on it. In fact, Rory optimised his own website after learning the ropes on YouTube, and has since seen very tangible results from this.

🌱It’s possible to grow a successful independent tour business without spending *anything* on marketing. Rory doesn’t spend a penny, yet consistently gets booked up.

🌷Sometimes less is more – Rory used to think he should aim to increase his tour size from around eight people to 12-16. But he’s since realised the more intimate groups are what makes his tours so great.

🙌 Barack Obama is just like he comes across on TV – relaxed, gregarious, and inquisitive!

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Ticket Tailor: Take us on a quick imagination-tour of Amsterdam’s tulips fields:

Rory: A field of tulips in bloom is rather majestic; perhaps five hundred metres of tulips, and many rows wide. They’re here for such a short period – just a few weeks in Spring – and that makes it quite special to see. When large swathes of the countryside are quilted with such fields of various colours, it’s so very charming and unique. 

Ticket Tailor: It does sound pretty magical! So, take us back to the beginning – how did your tour business begin?

Rory: I moved to Amsterdam in 2014 for a relationship. I worked in entertainment but had no chance of getting similar work in the Netherlands as that industry is characterised by small companies where Dutch is the working language (my Dutch has since improved a lot, but I’m still not fully fluent). I like stories and culture and history, and have a little background in performing (improv comedy), so the prospect of starting a little tour business while I was finding my feet in Holland appealed.
After reading copious books on Dutch culture and history, I devised a lovely backroads countryside tour with another independent guide. We got lucky in that we met a lovely family of farmers, who farm tulips amongst other things. The rest is history…

Ticket Tailor: Sounds wonderful! How did you grow your business from there?

Rory: As a small, niche operator it’s all about social proof. Initially for a few years that came in the form of reviews on Tripadvisor. My reviews were fantastic and I had a steady stream of clients. However, in 2019 I realised that Trip Advisor was starting to monetize its own content and that you’d effectively have to pay a large commission to retain your visibility.

That didn’t work for me and with the onset of Covid I assumed my tourism career was over. During the pandemic, at some point out of pure boredom I redesigned my site and made some SEO changes. I’m not a tech guy at all, so we’re just talking about stuff that you learn on YouTube.
I wasn’t even expecting anything from it, I literally was just bored. But something worked, and when things started opening up again in early 2022 I noticed that I was getting much more traffic organically from Google! Over time that has compounded. 
Now my site works as its own social proof. It’s full of photos of small groups of visitors having a blast in a private field of tulips, and it's very clearly a small tour company.

Ticket Tailor: Your off-the-beaten-track tour sounds wonderful. Tell us a bit about that:

Rory: I developed it with a colleague back in 2015 – we simply drove down many back roads! It works because it shows you authentically Dutch sights but without any of the trappings of mass tourism. You travel through lovely polders, over dikes, see some lovely Dutch villages and a windmill. It’s all very picturesque. And of course we visit a completely private tulips farm. That’s actually very rare as most visitors only have the option of visiting Keukenhof Gardens, which is incredibly busy. The tour is for eight people max, so it’s very personable and personalised. 

Ticket Tailor: Tell us *everything* about the photo of you and Barack Obama! How, why, when, what:

Rory: Honestly, his people found me on Google! You’d think it would be more complicated than that, but it wasn’t. He was in town for a speaking tour and wanted to see tulips. His handler went and scouted Keukenhof first – which is just a gigantic tourist attraction that sees perhaps 100,000 people a day. The guy was like, this won’t work. They wanted something much more private and they found me. He didn’t tell me it was Obama (though I was able to work it out). Many years ago I worked in the film business in Los Angeles, and was used to dealing with VIPs, so I think my demeanour on the phone and in text when arranging all the details was quite reassuring to the handler.

The initial contact came on the 28th of April and the tour went ahead on the 1st of May. It actually wasn’t a typical tour, in that I simply met the entourage in the tulip field itself (apparently Obama is a busy guy and also has his own driver). It’s surreal to find yourself waiting in a field, and as this entourage makes its way towards you, to see the familiar figure of Barack Obama growing real and then extending his hand towards you and saying hello.

The whole thing lasted maybe 40 minutes. He was exactly as you see him on TV – relaxed, gregarious, and inquisitive. Between friends of Obama, assistants, and security, it was a larger group than normal and there was a lot of excited energy in the air. It was a lot of fun and I – thankfully! – was able to be as nonchalant as usual! After a while I was able to draw the family of tulip farmers into the conversation, too. They’re big fans of Bruce Springsteen, who Obama had been hanging out with a few days before that, and when I mentioned that they even named their dog Bruce, Obama got out his mobile and dialled The Boss. Alas, he didn’t pick up.

Ticket Tailor: What an experience! So, aside from Obama, what kind of audience do your tours attract – locals, travellers, or a mix?

Rory: I haven’t had a single Dutch person on my tours! My audience is mainly American, though I also get clients from other English-speaking countries. A significant percentage are going on cruises – Amsterdam is a terminal for Rhine river cruises. The vast majority are professionals and are either middle-aged or retired/semi-retired. There are always some exceptions, but that’s a typical profile.

Ticket Tailor: What kind of marketing do you do to get the word out about your tours?

Rory: Organic Google search results. Somehow my site has gotten ranked pretty highly on Google for terms such as Amsterdam tulips tour and certain variants thereof. I don’t spend a penny on marketing and am not listed on re-sellers like Get Your Guide or Viator, or anything like that. Previously I relied on Tripadvisor reviews, but now I only ask for Google reviews.

For next year, Spring 2024, armed with the Obama photo and impressive online reviews, I will seek to partner with a couple of hotels in Amsterdam to offer their guests the backroads experience. And hopefully I can expand that way quite sustainably.

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Ticket Tailor: What about the logistics of your tours – have you made any important learnings along the way?

Rory: My tours are limited to eight people – the capacity of a minivan – so things aren’t that logistically difficult for me. When I was starting out I always saw that as a hindrance just in terms of a business model, thinking ideally you’d like to have a small-group tour for maybe 12 or 16 people. But over time I’ve learned that that limitation is one of the things that help make the tour so great. So, I now embrace it and have no plans on buying a larger vehicle.

Ticket Tailor: Do you have any words of advice for anyone thinking of starting a tour business?

Rory: If you’re starting out as an independent guide, without capital outlay, then you’re going to be dependent on social proof to make a living. This takes time to accrue and you’ll need to be patient – and likely have another source of income as you do. You should intrinsically like talking and educating about your subject area. If you don’t, people won’t enjoy the tour in the early days and there won’t be any later days.

Ticket Tailor: Wise worlds! Is there anything that’s particularly challenging about running your tours?

Rory: Again, as my offerings are rather simple, there’s not a ton of logistics. But one of the biggest problems we encounter is parking. Amsterdam is not car friendly! As a resident I love that, but as a niche tour operator who uses a minivan it is rather annoying. To find a reliable, convenient parking space that cuts down on the pfaff-factor for my guides is rather expensive. And because we operate in an intensive, five-week period, that pfaff-factor can be quite taxing.

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Ticket Tailor: Now let’s talk ticketing – how do you go about designing your packages and deciding what to include in the pricing?

Rory: At the moment I just have one group package available for booking, which is tried and tested. I designed it by feel and common sense and it worked. We floated a second offering back in 2017 and that didn’t work. Basically, it wasn’t quite as easy to describe in one sentence. So, in that sense I learned that you need a headline that is easy to grasp.

In terms of what to include, it usually comes down to the length of the tour and what goodies – food and drink! – are included. I intend to offer a second package next year, so let’s see how my theory holds up.

Ticket Tailor: Why choose Ticket Tailor as your ticketing partner? We’d love to know if there are any features you find particularly useful:

Rory: Ticket Tailor doesn’t charge a percentage of my sales and its interface looks and feels fantastic. When I was looking for a ticketing company, it seemed that all other competitors that looked comparably professional were all charging a percentage AND a flat fee, and I was like, sod off! (but perhaps I phrased it differently).

With Ticket Tailor the software works fantastically well and the pricing is fair.

Ticket Tailor: Music to our ears! Finally, what does the future hold for Amsterdam Tulips Tour? 

Rory: Well, with Obama as a past client now it does feel like I have a bit of momentum. For the coming year, I think I can forge a couple of close relationships with a couple of the larger hotels in Amsterdam to hopefully roll out an extra minivan or two that caters exclusively to their clients.

That would represent a really sustainable form of expansion for me.

Ticket Tailor: Sounds fabulous! Best of luck, Rory, and thanks for chatting with us!

To find out more about Rory’s incredible Amsterdam Tulips Tour, head here >

And to find out more about how Ticket Tailor can help your tours business thrive with intuitive ticketing tech and fair pricing, head here >