In 2010, when Charley Harrison started work as a tour guide in London, it was to help finance a career in stand-up comedy. But she rapidly became passionate about her new job.
“I guess I just liked the attention,” she jokes. “And I loved being able to show visitors around a city that I love.”
Over the next six years Charley held a variety of tour guiding jobs: working on open-top London buses, leading tours around Europe for teenagers, and even showing visitors around the BBC. But although she enjoyed her work, she felt as if there was a lot of unexplored potential in the market.
“Whenever I was guiding for other people, I always felt it could be done better,” she explains. “An employer would tell you to recommend a pub because it was the best place in London. Then you’d find out it was a chain pub, and that they were getting commission for mentioning it.”
And so in 2016 Charley started her own company, Totally Tailored Tours, which runs bespoke private tours in London and Edinburgh.
In the early days, she was the only employer, largely reliant on growth through word of mouth. Initially, she worked with a lot of American families.
“They were really supportive, coming from a culture that really values entrepreneurship. They recommended me to their friends and that gave me confidence,” she explains.
In her first year of business, Charley led 135 tours. Soon she was leading a range of specialist tours in London, which showcased everything from the city’s hippest neighbourhoods to its imperial history. Over the last year, Totally Tailored has organised 332 tours so far. Now, Charley has three full-time employees and several part-time guides. Totally Tailored has also won three industry awards. This success in London led Charley to set up a branch of Totally Tailored in Edinburgh a few months ago.
“Our client base just continues to expand and diversify. We now do a lot of work with corporates and business leaders. For example, we just worked with Unilever, taking the company’s managers on a Tailored Tour.
Another client has been the American Defence and Trial Attorneys. We hired out the Houses of Parliament for them and did a private tour, followed by dinner. Our executive offering is very high-end.”
So what explains Totally Tailored’s success?
Charley says her marketing strategy has never been aggressive.
“We believe that healthy SEO and word of mouth is the way to go for a business like ours.
“We invested heavily in SEO at the start of our business. So that means our name comes up whenever someone googles “private guide London” or “private guide Edinburgh.” Then a potential customer will cross-check our reviews on TripAdvisor.”
Considering that Totally Tailored has received more than 250 five-star reviews across Google and TripAdvisor, this simple strategy allows it to attract new clientele easily.
Charley believes that the guides she employs have been central to the company’s success.
“We put the guide at the centre of everything we do, and we choose our employees very carefully. Quite a lot of them are stand up comics. They make the best tour guides, because tours are all about timing, and so is comedy. They also know how to improvise, and even how to deal with a heckler.
“The best guides are those who really listen to their guests, so the tour is totally tailored to their group. There’s no point telling someone who’s only interested in the reformation about Harry Potter, or vice versa.
“We employ ex-Queen’s guards, ex-soldiers, ex-cabbies, magicians, quidditch players and academics. We’re proud of the diversity of our guides.”
The diversity of the company’s tour guides allows Totally Tailored to run specialist tours, led by experts and enthusiasts in their field. As a result, the company really can tailor a tour to any requirement, just as its name suggests.
“Once we had a customer who wanted a tour in London about 17th century Dutch seafaring attempts,” she recalls. “He wasn’t Dutch – we never really got to the bottom of why he was interested in it – but we have a guide who runs tours on imperial history, who did some research to make it happen.”
Charley believes that drawing upon the expertise of her staff has been key to the company’s success.
“I think a lot of small tour companies stay small because they’re quite protective of their work – they don’t trust anyone to lead the tours in the way they want it done.
“But I’ve learned that if you allow others to take responsibility and ownership within the company, you can grow to the point you didn’t think was possible.”
Totally Tailored has ambitious plans for expansion in the future. However, Charley has realised that in her industry, there’s no substitute for lived, local knowledge of a place.
“Initially I thought I would move to different cities, bringing the Totally Tailored Tours model with me. But now I’ve realised it’s better to partner with other tour companies in different locations – those who have the same values, owner-guides who believe in curated experiences.”
Totally Tailored is currently in discussion with tour companies in Rome and Paris, as well as a concierge company in New York, about the best ways to partner.
All in all, the future looks bright for Totally Tailored Tours. The company is testament to the fact that with an excellent product, and a little creativity, an idea can be transformed into a successful business.
If you’ve travelled to London frequently for business, and would like to explore beyond the city’s most popular landmarks, Charley has some recommendations:
“Head to Borough Market – it’s my favourite place in London – where you can browse the food stalls and grab a hot chocolate. Then walk further into Borough, to the Red Cross Garden. It’s a beautiful little oasis designed by Octavia Hill, a woman known as the “Mother of Social Work”. After that, head to my favourite pub, The Gladstone Arms. To reach it, you’ll walk down some beautiful streets, right out of a Charles Dickens novel. You’re so close to the Shard, but it feels like a million miles away.”