tnoozLIVE@Arival: An interview with Gray Line CEO Brad Weber

This is the first part in a series of articles spun out of tnoozLIVE@Arival, recorded live at the Arival in-destination event held at the LINQ in Las Vegas. More clips to come! To learn more about how to bring tnoozLIVE@ to your event, please email Kerry Cannon.

My favorite part of the inaugural tnoozLIVE@ was the depth and variety of guests. While it’s no easy feat to do a day-long lightning round of interviews, there’s always plenty to learn.

One of the standouts, as far as learning, was Brad Weber from Grayline. Admittedly, I am not a fan of bus tours. But Brad engaged me thoroughly on the topic, bringing some new considerations to mind. Most especially, the way that an international group can forge connections that you might not get going it alone.

We’ll be publishing more clips from tnoozLIVE@Arival periodically over the next weeks. The video clip is below, followed by the full transcript. The transcript has been lightly edited to account for the randomness of live shoots — not to mention any incoherence on my part after a long day of filming! 😹

I’m always grateful for constructive feedback. What do you think of this new tnoozLIVE@ product? Let me know! Also, if you want to know more about tnoozLIVE@, click here!

Brad: I’ve been CEO of Gray Line Worldwide for going on 17 years. Gray Line is a 100-year-old company. It was incorporated the way it is today back in 1928, the same corporate structure. Nothing’s changed since 1928. Obviously, the world’s going up around us and we already have a lot of things.

Nick: And it’s a pretty unique structure, there are different elements right. Explain that all to me, because I am sometimes confused [on the structure].

Brad: Yeah it’s a very interesting structure. We are not a franchise, which people think a lot. We’re actually a global licensing organization where we license our trademark to independent local tourism businesses so that you know they can run the business that they’ve grown up doing their entire life. Or if it’s a corporate entity, they can do that as well. Then we layer Gray Line on top of it. They have rights to use our trademark. They have rights to use our technology and all of our business development programs, but they also retain the ‘local-ness’ of their business.

Nick: So can they use other technologies if they want?

Brad: The great thing about our network is it’s all driven by this practice. It’s leveraging the network effect. It’s our best practices as an organization. We’ve learned a lot in the 100 years that we’ve been around. But yes, we do mandate certain technology for us to power our e-commerce platform.

Brad: But as a local business, you’re free to choose what works best for you. It’s very difficult to find a single solution that’s going to work globally with different currencies, different languages, different markets, different business needs. The profiles of our Independent Businesses are a little different depending on where they might be. So you can’t find a single solution.

Nick: And the e-commerce part is most important in the sense of distribution and the advantages of the brand.

Brad: Brand is everything.

Nick: And you guys are known, it’s all over. So if someone goes to the Gray Line website, it’s really one view for the customer. They don’t really necessarily know that they’re going out to an independent in New Orleans. For all intents and purposes, we have one entity, as far as consumers go.

Brad: That’s what the consumers have known since we’ve been founded. We literally invented the category of sightseeing back in 1910. So what we tell our guys is, you’re in a unique position. You are the inventor of this business. You have a responsibility to reinvent it every day because you know customers’ expectations change. @hat people want to see and do changes. But the core values of who we are and what we do has been the same always.

Nick: And it is interesting that it kind of grew up around you guys. So you’ve been waiting a hundred years for the Arival event to happen. It’s finally here! There’s now a conference for us!

Brad: We hold our own conference every year. We think we do a really good job. It’s really fun to see the whole industry come together. It’s time. Our industry deserves this. We are the reason people travel. Our business is at the heart of why people travel, so getting the recognition of people paying attention. Technology coming into the space like it never has before. It’s time.

Nick: And as far as the business changing, you said it kind of grew up around you. There are now bus tours, but now there are things like gourmet chef nights and all these kinds of things happening beyond the bus tour.

Brad: This is the big conversation in this space. The concept of the bus tour being something that’s not great is so wrong.

Nick: This is good because I just said earlier that I didn’t want to go on a bus tour. So let’s do this!

Brad: People talk to me all the time about peer-to-peer, that’s where it’s going, look what’s happening with Airbnb’s Trips. You know, it’s the millennials, it’s a different generation, they want different things. And it’s not true. It’s not true. The idea of being on a bus tour or a sightseeing tour is the absolute best way to see this nation.

Brad: Couple of reasons. Number one: you don’t have to worry about it. Think if, for example, you’re in Paris and you want to go out to Versailles. If you want to do that on your own, there’s a lot of things logistically, that you need to do before you can actually get to Versailles and enjoy it.

Or you can hang out with us. You’ll meet a group of people from all over the world, so you have the opportunity to build a community. There might be a couple from the U.S., a couple from New Orleans. There might be a group of guys from Spain or maybe an elderly couple from the U.K., maybe a few folks from Beijing…and who have an opportunity to see and experience something new with people from all over the world.

And that’s really what I like about Gray Line. We say we’re changing the world one tour at a time. So if we can do anything to bring people together, that make the world feel smaller, and to create less of an impact on that sites we’re visiting. I think that’s great.

We bring one busload of people, and we keep 50 cars from visiting that attraction.

Nick: And that’s generally the choices people are making: it’s like to rent a car, take a taxi, or do a bus tour?

Brad: I think people make a mistake and underestimate how hard doing certain things are. You and I can leave Vegas right now, hop in a car and go out to the Grand Canyon. And that sounds easy but it’s not the kind of experience you really want.

You don’t get to relax and watch a movie on the way there. You don’t get to have refreshments. You can’t have a beer while you’re there because you don’t want to drive back and you do really know where to go when you get there. You really have the entrance figured out, do you really know what the best places to see at the right times of the day. Or do you want to go with somebody that’s an expert, that’s been doing it for years, that could make that experience the best it can?

Nick: It’s a good pitch. I’m into it.

Brad: You should be into it.

Nick: I really think that that it’s about the guides right. We’ve been talking all day about the importance of not just the mode of transportation, but the guide.

Brad: Is it the guide or is it the content?

Nick: Tell me about this. Is it the guy delivering content that’s you know the guide is boring, or the content’s boring. Let’s talk about those two pieces because they don’t want him to just read a script because that’s not quite interesting.

Brad: It’s 2017. If I want to know anything about anything, all I have to do is reach in my pocket and I can find it. What you can’t find when you reach in your pocket for your phone is the story behind the place, or making it personal or making it local.

And that’s a real cool thing about Gray Line when we do use our live guides. These are local people. They live there. They’ve built their life around tourism. Most certainly, sustainable tourism, because if they don’t do it right tourism goes away. Nut they shop in the stores there. They send their kids to school there. They know the best roads, they know the best restaurants. These are people that are real locals that you get to spend your day with.

So if we’re delivering that content via a live guide, yes, we want all of the pertinent facts for what you’re going to see and what you’re going to do. But we really want to get into that, and behind it, and talk about the story of the place. The guides, the people that are there, we’re part of the local fabric of that community.

But guides aren’t the only way. And the thing that’s important to anybody that’s in this business is your content is your product. You know, our bus is not our product. Where we go is not the product. It’s how we deliver that experience is the product.

Nick: It does rethink it. Not just the mode of transportation.

Brad: It’s the whole experience and.

Nick: There were always probably guides, but back in back in early 1900s, a bus was crazy. The mode of transportation was actually probably part of the fun. And that’s why it’s fascinating because you have things like VR and there are new kinds of attractions. But eventually, no one’s going to want to go to a shop and try VR, because we will have it at home. But the content could matter. So his VR could be better.

Brad: Content is key. Everybody is worried about the platform and how you deliver it. We’re in the entertainment business. We’re all entertainers. We want people who have an experience, we want them to enjoy a day or an hour or three days or a week, however long they’re with us. But if our story and our content isn’t any good, then people are going to go somewhere else.

And so that’s core to who we are: making sure that our content is our product. It’s not our bus, it’s not our terminals. It’s not the people behind the scenes that are making it. They’re essential and without it you can’t do it. But when you’re in the middle of that experience if we’re not delivering good content, then we’re not doing our job.

Nick: And the great thing about having that brand that is globally known, as you deliver the great experience in one location it does translate to another. Not every company can do that.

Brad: Yeah but we’re not cookie cutter. We never want to be. That’s why we like how we’re organized. I want to make sure that if you’re in Boston, you’re going to have unique Boston experience. If you end up in Bali, you’re going to have unique Balinese experience. But it’s not going to be the same.

What ties them together is our global brand. So you know that the things that are probably important to you or should be important to you, that you know you’re in the hands of somebody that has insurance and that’s bonded and has the licenses and the permits. You know no matter where you are you’re with somebody that’s had to go through some sort of process to know that you’re safe.

Nick: Yeah absolutely. What about training? How does that work across all the different areas, to make sure that guides are where they need to be.

Brad: You have to you have to look at how we’re organized right. That’s really a local decision of the local business. But one of the things we strive to do, and we do this at our conference, we do it throughout the year, we have a Gray Line university that we run. And literally what we’re bringing to them is best practices.

We’ll literally hold our events in cities where we have showcase locations. We were recently in Iceland a year ago, we were in Miami this year. We want to take our own licensees to somewhere where another licensee is doing it 100% right. It’s amazing the power that that has.

You have a great experience with somebody that’s affiliated with you through the brand. You take that home and you integrate that in your business. We do provide things where, access to great training programs or access to great models or access to great content platforms and content creators, to augment what they know.

And what they know is what’s local. They have the local expertise. So if we can layer on top of that, such as ways to make it more entertaining, ways to make it more engaging, ways to make your guides better. That’s what we help them with. There’s no way I’m going to sit in Denver and say, “this is what you have to be talking about in Paris.”

Nick: That’s why I hate to use the word fragmentation. Tours and activities has to be fragmented. Because that’s the point: you can’t be in London and do something else. VR notwithstanding, it’s always a local thing. So there’s always going to be thousands of suppliers.

Brad: And I think that’s great.

Nick: Otherwise they would be boring. Like you said, if everything was the same then no one would go. How do you guys do testing of new approaches, new tours, like maybe smaller tours? How does that work? Is that really up to the local entity or do you encourage some testing of the routes.

Brad: Yeah it’s both. So again back to how we’re organized, I don’t get involved with somebody in Munich or in New York City saying she should go left here instead of going right. I don’t have that expertise. But what it’s all about is we do we pay a lot attention to changing consumer behavior.

We hear a lot about millennials, that they have they have different expectations than a Gen-Xer like me or a baby boomer or mature. So we pay a lot of attention and we give them that data. We just came off our conference that happened two weeks ago. So we talked a lot about that.

We talked a lot about the changing demographics. What are the ways people view different things. When you come to our conference, and it’s a conference of sightseeing companies, we’re talking about things like what do you watch on TV. And who’s creating that content? And why did you choose that show from that network?

So we try to we try to leverage learning from other industries and bring it to us, so that we are always at the top of our game in creating the best products. And accommodating whether it needs to be a big tour, whether it needs a more private tour or whether it needs to be a single one-on-one walking tour. We offer all those. Gray Line is not just about the bus.

Nick: That’s great, then it really keeps them fresh too because everyone can move at a different pace. Maybe some cities need to try new tours all the time and some can move slower.

Brad: Some markets are easier than others. Some markets have natural attractions. In others, you have to get more into the fabric of the community and go behind the scenes, because there’s always stuff.

I am constantly saying to our team that if we can’t find anything cool and unique about all of our destinations, then we’re in the wrong destinations. I guarantee you no matter where you go in the world there’s something really cool there that’s just waiting to be experienced.

Nick: How do you guys market that message? What are some of the strategies you use, at a corporate level? How do you keep engaging people with the Gray Line message?

Brad: Our strategy is really great because we’re able to leverage the power of our network. What we do is we have some targeted central messaging that we do. We have a big video program. We just did a whole seven-episode series called The Bucket Life and we won a couple of different awards.

Somebody presented today on Maslow’s hierarchy. We actually based the Bucket Life off of some of those tenets. We said, you know there’s a lot of things we do in our life where we’re just checking off lists. So what we suggest is there’s a better way to do it and live your life so you’re enriching yourself through experiences rather than collecting things.

So we went in-depth to a bunch of our different markets, and then we leverage that out on social media, leverage that through traditional media. We provide it to our licensees, that leverage it through their own channels.

Brad: So what we have the ability to do is create a central message and without a huge central spin, distribute it to our licensees and leverage that network and their relationships worldwide.

Nick: And how does that bubble up from them to you?

Brad: This is what I say all the time: If you’re looking to us in Denver to have the best ideas, then you’re looking in the wrong place. What we do is we take the best ideas from our licensees around the world, review them, analyze them. And if they’re great then what we do is we promote them throughout the network.

There may be a great idea coming out of Chicago Illinois that two weeks later is happening in the Galapagos because our guy there said that’s a fantastic idea. I need to integrate that here to make my experience better.

Nick: It’s a fascinating model.

Brad: It’s worked for a hundred years. It’s gonna work for another hundred!

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