An interview with David O’Kelly of SANDEMANs NEW Europe
Perhaps one of the most well known brands when it comes to guided tours, SANDEMANs NEW Europe is both an industry disruptor and the epitome of the youth travel spirit. The company is known for its inspired, intelligent guides who deliver unique tour experiences with local knowledge, international savvy, and vibrant authenticity. The company is also known for turning the guided tour model on its head and offering all of this for free. Given recent intense interest in the business of tours, activities and attractions on the part of OTAs and the tourism industry at large, it’s no surprise to find SANDEMANs NEW Europe on the programme of the upcoming Arival event in Berlin.
Ahead of his appearance at Arival, WYSE Travel Confederation spoke with Chief Executive, David O’Kelly, about the company’s affinity with hostels, how tours can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals, and the two non-negotiable factors of a good tour experience.
SANDEMANs NEW Europe is known for turning the tour model on its head by offering free tours and working with a tip-based approach. What criticism or praise have you faced over the years for this?
Like any disruptive business model, there will always be incumbents who are threatened by the approach. While some criticism has been born from the incorrect assumption that “free” can’t mean “good”, the majority of feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The model means only the highest quality guides can thrive, and so beyond the 175,000+ five-star reviews we have accumulated, guests have appreciated that we trust them to evaluate for themselves how much a good quality tour is worth. Many of the guests who have joined our tours have never been on a tour before in their lives, and so we are proud to have introduced millions of travelers to the concept of what an excellent quality tour should look like.
The company has always had an affinity with hostels – why is that?
Hostels (and people who work in them) seem to be on the same wavelength as us – a positive guest experience and ensuring a visitor has an unforgettable time in destination are at the core of the business philosophy for many hostels, as it is for us. While there are other benefits such as mutual promotion and ancillary revenue that play a strong role in our partnerships, we believe it’s the shared dedication to guest experience that creates this strong affinity.
What’s the most valuable aspect of the WYSE community for a guided tours company like SANDEMANs?
For us, the most valuable part of our WYSE membership is undoubtedly the strong connections we have made with accommodation providers and tour operators working in the youth travel industry. Through WYSE events like WYSTC and STAY WYSE, we’ve been able to establish some strong and mutually beneficial partnerships with a wide range of organisations.
Berlin is where it started for Chris Sandeman, the company’s founder. Is it difficult to stay fresh in a city the longer the company has been there?
I think that any business that is struggling to stay fresh in Berlin might be in the wrong industry! Berlin is an amazing, living, breathing, constantly changing city, and I firmly believe that many of the world’s best tour guides work here. We are lucky to work with a consistently outstanding pool of guides in Berlin, and while we look for new venues and areas to promote to keep up with the changes in the city, these guides are always adding fresh and interesting content to their tours too.
You’re now in 20 cities, which means a lot of local knowledge – how much does the SANDEMANs model differ from city to city? How do you evaluate what works in one city and its potential to replicate in others?
A big part of the SANDEMANs philosophy is that we are not one big company, but rather, 20 local businesses. We work with local staff, local guides,and local business partners. While some business practices remain tried and true across the network (the FREE Tour/paid tour model being a key one), in this kind of international model, it’s crucial to be able to trust the feedback and suggestions of the local teams you work with, and I can genuinely say that every one of our local teams brings something special and unique to the business.
SANDEMANs guides are known for being great storytellers and no one tour experience is alike – has this approach always been what consumers want in a guided tour? How do you maintain quality standards without becoming too cookie-cutter?
A big part of our company philosophy is that guides should maintain their own personalities and focus on their personal areas of interest when giving a tour. All guides who work with us are required to sit a written test so we can be sure they know their history, and to submit a video audition so we can be sure they know how to tell a story, but beyond that, we love that the guides bring their individual style to the tour, and so do the guests. Guests look for SANDEMANs because they want to learn about the city in an entertaining way, so with these two non-negotiable factors the guests are rarely disappointed.
How do your guides help visitors to make positive contributions to the city?
The great thing about working with almost 600 freelance guides is that you get 600 unique tours, recommendations, points of interest, etc. While SANDEMANs plans events to help visitors give back, like encouraging them to spend an hour collecting litter in exchange for a free ticket to one of our tours, the guides will often share with guests an overview of the challenges and opportunities facing these cities, helping visitors to better understand the lives of local residents.
Does SANDEMANs NEW Europe contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals?
Of course, all of the Sustainable Development Goals are vitally important, but at SANDEMANs there are a few that we feel we are in a better position to tackle. Gender equality is a big one and crucially, sustainable cities and communities. We’re aware of the stress that tourism plays on heavily-visited destinations like Barcelona and Amsterdam, and aside from working with local businesses as far as possible, we also aim to minimise disruption to local residents by adhering to responsible group sizes and moving people through heavy-traffic areas as quickly as possible, ensuring visitors are given behavioural guidelines in culturally sensitive areas, organising litter collection campaigns, and where possible, encouraging travelers to visit areas outside of the city centres.
Last year on International Women’s Day the company offered women’s history themed tours in certain cities. Do you have plans do this again?
This year we will again be offering International Women’s Day tours, and in fact, in even more cities than we did last year. For many of the guides we work with, the research they have done for the IWD tours has now become a regular part of the tours they offer year-round.
You can catch David on stage Monday, 4 March at Arival Berlin during the session Getting More than You Pay For. You’ll also find the SANDEMANs team in the WYSE village in the youth travel hall (4.1/100) at ITB Berlin.