The SuretyBonds.com Small Business Spotlight series focuses on small businesses across industries and the best practices that have helped them succeed.
Jim Johnson, founder of BikeTours.com, firmly believes that one of the best experiences a human can have is riding a bicycle along the old trails of European countries. When he discovered a gap in the market for American bike tourists in Europe, his great passion was realized: to help others create dreamlike memories while biking on the other side of the Atlantic.
The Challenges and Rewards of Starting a Business
Before starting the company in 2003, Johnson held multiple professions, such as setting up helicopter sightseeing tours and becoming a marketing director for a Fortune 500 company. He was also a journalism professor, public relations director, and travel agent before eventually taking a position as a freelance travel writer for the LA Times.
Traveling to distant countries, he quickly realized the best way to do his research – and the most authentic way to experience an area – was to travel by bike. After years of working with local bike tours, Johnson learned their primary market had always been Europeans; seeing a ready audience, he took this opportunity to become their North American representative. Starting with only three American clients, the business grew progressively. Starting with barely 100 American clients, the business grew each year, reaching a pre-pandemic high of nearly 4,000 travelers. In 17 years of business, BikeTours.com has served nearly 30,000 clients.
In recent years, the spread of COVID-19 has put a strain on the safety of international travel. In response to the change in the travel industry and the many travel restrictions for Americans, Johnson established a spinoff company called Bike the South. Operating primarily in the Southeastern states of Tennessee and Georgia, Bike the South gives both visitors and locals the opportunity to explore the region, both guided and self-guided, with routes planned, luggage transferred, and local hotels taken care of for overnight stays. As travel restrictions ease, Johnson hopes to see both BikeTours.com and Bike the South prosper and grow.
Advice for Entrepreneurs
When starting the company, Johnson set out with the goal of making his employees his top priority. As long as the company puts employees first, the employees will, in turn, put clients first. He tells his employees that he doesn’t demand perfection, but he does expect “the pursuit of excellence.” He also has always emphasized organic growth, expanding the company through success rather than through investors or bank loans.
Johnson’s passion for engaging with local communities in foreign countries is a great part of what drove his desire to start BikeTours.com. He believes this is the best form of diplomacy. His goal with each of his clients is to have them return to the U.S. with a story or experience they will be talking about for the next 25 years. Johnson often receives messages telling him about clients’ adventures. BikeTours.com has a YouTube channel with videos showcasing the people and culture within the countries his clients have traveled to.
One of Johnson’s personal experiences found him traveling to Austria before starting his company. After underpacking provisions, he came across a peach tree on a farm. Asking the owner if he could purchase some peaches, he was told no and was instead invited to join the owner and his wife inside for some apple cider and pastries. After their pleasant encounter, the farmer gave Johnson a bag of peaches under the condition he would offer a peach to other cyclists he comes across on the day’s ride. Years later, Johnson still vividly recalls this day and hopes each of his American clients has a similar encounter or can share a similar experience across the world.
Navigating the Industry Landscape
Johnson learned that California required BikeTours.com to become registered as a seller of travel, which in turn requires a seller of travel bond. Johnson found SuretyBonds.com by simply searching for “California surety bonds.” From there, he found the process straightforward and purchased his surety bond. Since then, Johnson presses a button through his email every year upon renewal.
Because BikeTours.com works throughout the entire world, the company has integrated professional programs to make the process seamless for customers. Using a system called TourBook, a Europe-based proprietary booking system designed for bike tour companies, Johnson is able to notify a specific country’s tour that it will have a group flying in and have the reservation confirmed within the hour. The company also utilizes BazaarVoice, a ratings and review program to connect with its customers, and Zendesk for customer relationship management. BikeTours.com uses content management system WordPress for its website.
BikeTours.com currently has 160 tour options available on its website with 70 different tour companies all over the world. Johnson anticipates that in the coming months, Increasing numbers of travelers will want to head overseas.
As Johnson said, “We are not in the bike tour business; we are in the business of making people’s travel dreams come true.” The technology, connections, and local flavors BikeTours.com has utilized ensure that each experience is one to remember.