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SMEs, entrepreneurship and tourism

D4SME Conversation with Guy Kuttner

 

In Conversation with: Guy Kuttner, Co-Owner We Are Amsterdam and Starboard Boats

Hi Guy, thank you for joining us today. To get started, please tell me about your business and what your company offered in a pre-Covid world?

We have two brands here in Amsterdam that specify in ‘in-destination tourism.’ We offer a variety of attractions and tours inside and surrounding the city of Amsterdam.  We also sell tickets to other attractions in Amsterdam.

I will be more specific. The first brand is ‘We Are Amsterdam’ – it is a website that any tourist that visits Amsterdam can use to find an experience that best fits what they want out of their holiday.  So in the context of our website, this means deciding what type of tourist you are. This will allow you to see which type of activities and attractions the city has to offer that will best fit you and your group. If for example, you are a group of friends, we have Beer Bike Amsterdam.  It is like a bar on wheels that you can ride around the city with friends.  For couples or families, we offer a food tour in the market or day excursion outside of the city on the Amsterdam windmill tour.

The second brand that we decided to open is for boat rental Amsterdam, Starboard Boats. We have many different types of cruises that we offer, mostly hosting private groups.  The boats are 100% electric. Each individual group has a different type of experience.  So for example, a bachelor party will be a booze cruise with an unlimited bar whilst a corporate event can be higher end.  During the winter, we are one of the official partners of the Amsterdam light festival and offer intimate cruises along the canals. You could say that we have many different faces on the same activities.

 

How long have you been in operation? How many employees work in your company (full-time equivalent approximately)?

We launched two years ago.  Since then we have five full timers. In the high season, when all our tours are full and all our boats are cruising, we have around 35-40 employees running around town.  They are not all under contract, but more freelance guides and skippers.

It is also by department.  We have an Israeli department, with Israeli guides.  We have a Mandarin speaking Chinese department. We have our boat department, with the skippers and hosts.  The skippers are mainly Dutch, but the hosts can speak up to 12 languages.

 

Operating in the tourism sector, where did the majority of your customers come from? The Netherlands or from abroad?

Since we have two brands that have two separate offerings, the market is different. Starboard is targeted towards a more domestic audience.  Starboard is often booked for company events or bachelor/bachelorette parties, so by the Dutch or neighbouring EU countries.

We Are Amsterdam, at the moment, is mainly targeted at the Israeli market. Since I am Israeli myself, and we have hosted several Israeli celebrities that generated good PR back home. Also, the Chinese market.  Six months before the COVID-19 lock-down we started delivering tours in Mandarin, it began to be profitable, and then of course the lockdown started.

 

How did you traditionally advertise and propose your services?  Did you use specific digital tools in your daily business, through advertising or using data analytics for example?

For every market it is very different, as you can imagine. For example, with the Israeli market it is very important to have Hebrew options. Israelis want to speak with a person, not with a company.  So in Israel we advertise mostly through Instagram and Facebook, as well as PR and word of mouth, with me personally as the face of the company.

For the other markets, digital advertising. Google Advertisement, SEO, and of course trying to be featured in travel blogs.  We also try to host new initiatives to stand out from our competitors, for example we did a Barber Boat, where you could get a haircut on one of our cruises.

 

Tourism is one of the sectors that has suffered the most over the last few months.  With the lockdown, how have things changed for you? How has the crisis impacted your business? 

To simplify it as much as possible, we went from 100 to 0. Just like that.  In the first month when the pandemic was only in China, our Chinese guides told us they do not feel comfortable taking the upcoming tours. Two weeks later, we started to get more and more cancellations. And of course, no new income or new bookings.  And then by March, with everyone going into quarantine, we had no tours running. We just tried to stay above the radar, but we weren’t able to host any tours.

 

How did you manage these disruptions?  Did you implement or increase use of digital tools? What has been the process of transformation?

My business partners and myself are all very young entrepreneurs, we are 25 years old. We can’t really sit around and do nothing.  It is not in our nature.  We continued to try shout to the whole world “we are still here,” and when these bad times are over you will want to come to Amsterdam and you will want us to host you. 

So we started our first marketing tool, you could say.  But it was also a nice gesture for the people stuck at home.  With a special 360 degree camera we went cruising around the canals and made a virtual tour. With this tour, you could be cruising around Amsterdam on your mobile or computer, have a 360 view, and at any point of interest have some information about where we are now; in English and in Hebrew.

The next thing we did were live Zoom tours.  We had over 300 people from Israel live on a tour of Amsterdam.  We have a flagship tour called Fall in love with Amsterdam. It shows you what it is like to live in Amsterdam, incorporating in a bit of history.  My business partner was walking around town with soundproof headphones. I was at home in the office with a slideshow, explaining about the sites. I would pop up with a slide. Everyone loved it! The best part is that when it was done everyone said, “when COVID19 is done, we are coming! We will be with you. We can’t wait.” They saw that we do it with a lot of love.

Everything that we have been doing over the last few months was motivated more by good intentions, rather than to drive a profit.  We knew that we would not be able to generate revenue from it. We had a small donation button, and we received some donations, but it was more of a nice gesture.   Although it wasn’t a profitable exercise, it made a small buzz about us.  We had an increase in traffic to our website.  Good PR!

 

Which barriers did you face, e.g. costs? Which support did you find, for instance, public support? If you received public support throughout this period, from which public institutions (city, region, country level) and which type of support was it (e.g. deferrals of payment, wage subsidies, unemployment insurance, etc.)?

I have to say, I was really glad to be here in the Netherlands. I am really glad to be paying taxes here, as you really know that you will be taken care of.  The government helped us way more than we expected!

Every small business that lost revenue like we did, so any business that lost 100% of their revenue, were given 4000EUR to their back account. No it wasn’t a loan, it was just to survive.  Of course 4000EUR is not a lot of money for businesses that run a certain level of revenue.  But it does really help. It was helpful for office rent, or small covers that we do need to pay on a day to day basis.  Another payment is due for businesses to assist in the next phase of the crisis, of up to 20,000EUR per business.  We are still waiting for the outcome on this.

The next thing that the government did, and still are doing, is covering 90% of our full time employees salary. They said they will pay it for us, if we promise not to fire them, but also to cover the final 10%. This was great for keeping employment around the Netherlands. For myself, as a business owner I cannot get 90% of my salary covered, to avoid fraud. Instead I receive an Entrepreneur Unemployment payment.  I get a bit above 1050EUR a month, which is not a lot but it is still something. This is a local government initiative that I settled with the Amsterdam City Hall.

 

If you had to point at a single measure governments should put in place, which one would it be?

I think that there are some things that are not equal for the de-confinement policies.  Comparing different industries across hospitality, in my context the boating industry compared with restaurants and bars, we have to comply with much stricter rules of de-confinement, where in reality the level of risk is the same.  This puts us at an unfair disadvantaged.

Similarly, I would suggest that the communication around de-confinement has not always been clear or timely.  The boating industry is not restaurants, but it is not exactly events, so whilst the restaurant industry knew two weeks in advance their opening date, we only found out one day before that we would be able to take our cruises on the water.  This did not give us enough time to prepare as we would have hoped. I think this really hurt us.  We weren’t able to take any bookings.  We had a feeling but it wasn’t enough. However, honestly I am not one to criticise the government, as I am really happy with how they handled the situation for us.

 

How do you see the future?  Are there elements from this new digital business model that you will keep once borders open and things are back to ‘normal?’

We are starting to see slow increase in bookings, domestic and from Germany.  We are shifting our focus to these markets domestic and EU markets, and focussing on the boats rather than the touristic tours.  We have had to drop our prices by almost 50%, which is a shame. It is only to build ourselves back.  It is also one of our strategies to create lots of new content, to make people hyped not just about us but also hyped about Amsterdam and to want to come visit. For example, we will host live music jams on the canals, and have these concerts broadcasted on live internet platforms and available on YouTube.  We are also developing free tours in your phone through an app.  No guide will be needed, it will almost be like an interactive game around the city of Amsterdam.

I have to say I was originally against a lot of the digital ideas, I really believe there is nothing like visiting somewhere in real life, being hosted by a local in a new city by a smiling face.  Of course we will try do this through the app. We all know it’s not the same, but it is the future and we call it the 1.5 km economy. 

 


 

For more information, visit their website: https://www.weareamsterdam.com/ 

Contact: Guy Kuttner, Co-owner and Head of Sales | guy@weareamsterdam.com

 

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