Starting a Tourism Business

Interview with Toma Clark Haines, Founder of The Antiques Diva

Combine a love of travel, antiques and shopping together and you've got a great business. That's what Toma Clark Haines has managed to do, and she has some great advice for anyone who wants to transform their passions into profits.

We are pleased to have Toma Clark Haines join us for one of our entrepreneur interviews.

She's a talented entrepreneur who has made a name for herself in the fast-growth shopping tourism industry.

So, Toma, speaking of names, what is the name of your business?

The Antiques Diva Exclusive Shopping Tours of Holland, Belgium and France.

It's catchy, don't you think?

It sure is. So where is your business located?

It's an American company based in Amsterdam. I have employed independent contractors in three countries -- Belgium, Holland and France -- to work along with me as shopping tour guides.

The Antiques Diva offers tours in three countries and in five languages -- English, French, German, Italian and Dutch.

When did you start the business?

Officially, The Antiques Diva became a tour business in April 2008, although a lot of planning and action went into it before then.

It sounds very interesting. Tell us a little more about the company.

The Antiques Diva is a business that I set up in Holland, Belgium and France, offering exclusive, private, guided, antique shopping tours. It was originally for expats, but quickly expanded to anyone looking for a diva-licious antique shopping experience.

We also offer a decorating service to go with the tours, visiting clients' homes, offering interior decorating advice and staging private, personalized tours to help purchase those elusive perfect pieces.

So -- let me get this straight. You are American and yet you've moved overseas and started a business in Europe. How did you make the decision to move and work overseas?

The last twelve years have been a whirlwind, proving each year to be more exciting and more romantic than the year before. While attending Oklahoma State University, I decided to study abroad spending a semester in London. My husband, who was then my boyfriend, was a pragmatic man and proposed to me a few weeks before I departed for the UK, ensuring that he "sealed the deal" before I crossed the pond.

Before long, my dream of living overseas became his dream as well and from the very beginning of our marriage we followed a plan that would give us an international lifestyle. We moved around the United States, building our skill-sets (my husband in finance, and me in advertising). Then thanks to my husband's career, we got our big break with a chance to live in Paris in 2000. We lived in Paris for 5 years before moving to The Netherlands in May 2005, where we have lived ever since.

How did you "become" The Antiques Diva?

When my husband was transferred to Holland in 2005, I joined the International Women's Club and worked my way from Vice Chairman to Chairman. In the meantime, I shopped: I researched the number of antique shops in Holland and Belgium and systematically began visiting them and making relationships with the best dealers and most interesting stores.

In August 2007, I started The Antiques Diva blog as a way to share shopping tips on Europe. I'm a writer and enjoyed the process of blogging. Within a few months of starting the blog, I had subscribers on every continent (except Antarctica) and within a couple more months surpassed the 30,000 visitor mark. Readers living in or visiting the area began asking for private and group shopping tours and new expats looking to decorate their homes quickly emailed seeking personalized tours to show them where to shop for decorative antiques.

Where did you get the start up money? Where did you start advertising and marketing?

The start up costs were not large. Having already created a blog, I had my first social marketing step in place for free. I would encourage any business owner to blog with purpose on their business interest.

I was also well established within the expat community and was able to leverage my social network to gain clients. I knew the target market well, so I was able to target my advertisements very specifically and at a low cost by approaching social clubs with very low ad rates for their newsletters.

The Netherlands Board of Tourism weblog took interest in my business and is now planning a 3 part series on my tours which will add more exposure to tourists visiting the area. I've also made face to face relationships with concierges and hotels.

My initial website isn't so good as it was only created as a temporary solution, but I'm in the process of having a better website built. A friend, who is starting a graphics design firm, has offered to make my new site (to go live Jan 2009) for a major discount in exchange for referrals within my network.

I understand you have 3 employees working for you? How can afford to pay them so early in your business?

I am officially a one person business, but I have Independent Contractors who work with me. Each of my contractors are educated in the field of antiques or décor, but due to their life circumstances were only interested in leading tours 4 -- 6 times a month, which is ideal given our business climate. I set up a pay structure so that guides are paid a percentage of each tour they lead. If they bring in new clients they keep an even larger percentage of their tour proceeds.

It sounds like social marketing has been the secret of your success.

Indeed, it has! Writing a blog has meant that I have a web personality and presence. People who are traveling to Europe search the internet for information on the country they are visiting and as a result of the blog they find The Antiques Diva Tours. I am huge proponent of blogging -- without the blog, I probably would have never decided to start my business. When readers started asking for a service, I knew I was onto something good!

I understand from reading your blog that you are also a public speaker?

That's true. I speak across Europe and the USA on the topic of antiques and antique shopping. Mostly I speak to women's social clubs, Junior Leagues, Charity Organizations and Decorative and Fine Arts Societies -- the people who are attending these lectures are my target audience. They are the ones who would want to book my tours. A public speaking platform is ideal for me for 2 reasons -- it gives me added exposure and added income. As The Antiques Diva , public appearances are the best way I know to sell myself! And, by the way, in addition to promoting your business, public appearances also cover transportation costs and a speaker's fee. I'm actually being paid to advertise myself!

Excellent! From a Rancher's Daughter in Oklahoma to The Antiques Diva…you've gone global! What tips would you give someone who is wanting to start a career in their suitcase?

I've got a ton of tips for those who aspire to do something similar to what I'm doing. Here are five things to consider.

First, look towards your passions & pursue them with an intensity that is startling to those around you. Throw yourself into your passion and learn everything you can about it. As an expat wife living overseas my first 5 years in France, I legally was not allowed to work for profit. Rather than viewing this as "a sacrifice to my career", I looked at this opportunity as an incredible gift which allowed me to evaluate my passions and interests and to ultimately parlay them into a career.

During this time, I toyed with many career ideas (in addition to the one I ultimately chose to follow), including teaching gourmet cooking lessons, becoming a certified picture framer, teaching English as Second Language.

Slowly as I threw myself into learning about these careers, I found which ones suited me for a future profession and which ones didn't. It was only through pursuing each hobby passionately that I came to learn what I wanted to do "when I grew up".

Second, recognize that sometimes it's okay to give up. To try a business idea and then decide you do not enjoy it does not make you a failure. I struggled with this concept for years -- thinking that starting a plan meant I had to finish it. I'm an entrepreneur at heart and have 100 ideas a day.

I've thrown myself into many of the ideas I mentioned above – cooking, picture framing, and teaching English -- only to discover that a) my recipes never come out the same more than once (irritating to students wanting to recreate my un-recreatables); b) that I hate measuring things (a disaster for a professional picture framer); and c) that while I love chatting with foreigners I'm more likely to pick up their grammatical habits than to correct them (say "Au Revoir to being a TEFL teacher!).

But if I wouldn't have tried these ideas I would have never known that I wouldn't be good at them or that I wouldn't enjoy them. I also came to learn that not every passion had to be made into a career. While I love oil painting, it will never be my profession. Just because you love doing something doesn't mean you need to find a way to make money at it.

Third, remember that eventually, you have to grow up. If you're serious about turning a past-time into a career, then you need to take the next steps. I've watched several friends decide they are going to start a business, delve into the "research with passion" phase and never move beyond that point because they were striving for perfection. Face it - you are never going to be perfect. There will always be someone who knows more than and is better than you. With that in mind, do what many a President does -- surround yourself with people who are smarter than you!

For my tour business, I hired guides who were older and wiser than me -- guides who were more international, who had fancy master degree initials after their last name and who were, coincidentally, European and already knew their way around the legal and taxation system in the countries where I'm establishing my business. Their language skills, life experience and understanding of the countries we're promoting worked to strengthen me and my business.

Fourth, along the lines of surrounding yourself with people who are strong in areas you are weak -- the most important thing you can do for your career is find someone to be your mentor. They don't have to be in the same industry as you -- they simply have to be someone who you respect and who you strive to emulate in your career path.

Meet with them regularly to discuss growing your business and to get their input on your ideas. But, and this is key, remember their ideas are not always right for you and your business. Consulting with a mentor doesn't automatically mean you have to do everything they think you should! Use these conversations to help cement your personal and professional goals, to add definition to your business, to explore options you wouldn't have thought of on your own, and to see yourself through someone else's eyes and then trust your instincts and do what you think is right for your business. The second most important thing you can do for your career is to be a mentor -- find someone who is starting a business and aspire to be someone they can look up to. By aspiring to be their mentor, you hold yourself to a standard higher than you might otherwise as you try to become someone worthy of their respect.

Fifth and finally, once you've found a passion you want to make into a career, look to see how you could adapt this career to fit your lifestyle. If you are a serial expat who will move from country to country, determine how you can keep a loyal customer base when you are no longer around. The internet is a wonderful thing that makes all things possible! You can continue your sales on line by establishing a website, blog, podcast and webcasts.

Maybe it's worth considering finding a partner for your business. A perfect partner might be "a local" or "an expat friend married to a local" who is planning on living in your current country of residence for a long time. When the time comes for you to move to a new country, you can keep your business going in Country A, while setting up business in Country B and then C, thus using this opportunity to grow your business and your client base with each move.

The first thing a person who wants to write a book is told is to write about what they know -- I took this sentiment and applied it to my target audience for both my tours and my proposed series of books. I am first an expat and I write first and foremost for expats. I then expanded the idea to increase my target audience and tourists wanting to tour like locals benefit from this. My guerrilla marketing efforts are targeted first at my community -- expats, internationals and women's clubs. I then expand my efforts to include national tourism websites, hotel lobbies and publications for trains & planes. A third wave of marketing efforts extends toward American & UK Travel, Home and Lifestyle publications focusing on international living. By utilizing the market I knew, I was able to capture a base level of clients using the expat market as my bread and butter and am able to grow my business from here.

Fantastic stuff. What tips could you offer to people wanting to promote/market their portable business?

Create a consistent brand image so that clients and customers will recognize you and begin to identify you with it. The most worthy upfront investment on my business was a logo development fee. By having a professional logo and artwork, I was able to help others visualize the look and feel of my business. Aesthetics matter. If you present yourself as a professional, you will be viewed as a professional.

Get to know your target market inside and out. Live, eat and breath the things of your target market so that you can anticipate what they want before they want it -- and then create a solution to their problems/needs/desires before they even know they have it!

Employ Guerrilla Marketing Techniques -- starting a business takes time, energy and imagination. A small portable career often doesn't have the funds to do a big budget marketing campaign, so develop contacts, both professionally and personally, and look for sources of free or inexpensive publicity. Be opportunistic. If an opportunity presents itself, see how you can turn this idea into more exposure. Look at how you can increase your average sale -- are there services you could offer an existing client but don't? Increasing sales with individual clients makes a significant difference in the long run - focus on increasing wallet-share. Last but not least, ask for referrals. Many clients are more than happy to refer you -- but when they do, make sure you reward your clients for their referrals!

Wow, so much great advice. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us. It sounds like such a great offering. We wish you all the best in growing your business!

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Conversation Board

Shopping tours in Europe sound like a great way to see a country, wouldn't you agree? What's your perspective on this entrepreneur interview? We welcome all comments, questions and suggestions.

  • The Antiques Diva posted on 10/23/2008
    The Antiques Diva
    Since being interviewed by, The Antiques Diva has exciting news! We're adding Berlin to our list of upcoming tours for 2009! The Antiques Diva is expanding into Germany!!!
  • Lorrie Gray posted on 10/24/2008
    Lorrie Gray
    Really good information - it's like a first meeting with a mentor!

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