Small Business Spotlight: From Math-Stat Professor To World Travel Tour Operator

June 26, 2018 - 6:50 pm
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- A former SUNY professor changed gears and started his own business in a dream field for many people – travel.

Steve Solosky told WCBS 880’s Joe Connolly he taught mathematics and statistics at Nassau Community College for 32 years, but needed a break. He had traveled a lot while teaching and had kept notes, and he started over with a new business as the Traveling Professor.

“People would ask me about my travels. And I'd go to continuing education programs and speak about it. So they said you should put your notes into the form of a book. So I wrote 'The Traveling Professor's Guide to Paris,'” Solosky said, “and what happened then is after people purchased my book, and I sold an unbelievable number of copies of that book, they wanted to come to Paris with me. They emailed me and they said, 'Steve, when are you going to Paris next I want to join you?' So they would join me in Paris and I would show them the City of Lights."

At first, he offered to take people with him to Paris for free. But he ran his first tour for $999 12 years ago and decided it was time to get out of teaching.

“I took early retirement and I started running tours starting with Paris. Then we went to Italy, then we went to Peru and Machu Picchu,” Solosky said. “Now we go to Iceland, we go to Norway, we go to Scotland. We go all over the place now."

Solosky said owning his own business is a lot of work, but he enjoys it a lot and there isn’t much stress involved.

"I like being my own boss, I think that's what it is. I like teaching, I had a great job in teaching. Being a college professor, there's nothing wrong with that, but what I really wanted to do is I really wanted to put my life skills and my professional skills and my academic skills to work in a business. I have a business degree. So I started this business and I looked at my assets,” he said. “I was a college professor, which is a good credential to have. I have a business degree. I know how to lead groups of people. So I put all that together and I started these tours and it's worked out very, very well."

“Every time we go to a new city we have to do the research. So we visit the cities, we put together the tours, then we offer them to our clients," he said.

For marketing, Solosky said his main point of entry is through his website – and after someone makes contact there, he either calls or meets with the client.

“Once we have a client we have that client for six, seven, sometimes eight trips. It's very, very important,” he said. “So we make this a very personal business and I think that's why we've been successful. If you go on one of our trips you'll see 70 to 80 percent of the people on our trips are return travelers."

Solosky said he takes a personal approach to marketing as the Traveling Professor – doing trade shows and appearing in radio such as media rather than methods such as buying Google ads.

He added that he enjoys the tours, but it’s hard work – and he likes to get home and sleep in his own bed too. Thus, he takes the summers off – even though that is the time when everyone else is competing.

“I really don't want to travel in the summer myself either. It's crowded, it's expensive, it's a real hassle,” he said. “I like to travel off-season in the spring or in the fall and even in the winter now. You get much better value, there's a lot less crowds and it's more fun."

The most popular trip for Traveling Professor tours is always Paris, but Iceland, Peru, and Scotland are also coming up strong, Solosky said. There are also wait lists on some trips.

“We're sold out on some trips 14 months in advance,” he said. “We're going to Croatia in the summer of 2019 -- we're sold out."

The way the tours work is that he puts together an itinerary with hotels, tour guides, and everything except the airfare.

“So the travelers meet us in the city and we take care of everything from that point on,” he said. “People enjoy that.”

As to why he doesn’t also set up the flights, Solosky said doing so is fraught with too many risks.

"Booking flights is tough because there's so many things that can go wrong with a flight that are out of my control,” he said. “But if I'm booking hotels, I have the control of that. If I'm booking guides it's in my control so I'll do that. But airlines we generally don't do."

Solosky said he plans to continue the business as it is for another two or three years and then reassess.

“I think we're going to slow down a little bit and maybe only do instead of 14 trips a year we'll cut down to eight or nine,” he asid. “We have such a loyal client base it won't be any problem in finding people to travel with us. They trust us so much. And they'll go anywhere we recommend, which is really nice."

As to the prospect of someday selling the business, Solosky said he did not know whether that action may be in order in the future.

“If we could find the right people who want to take over this business, I think it would be a great business for someone. And we're not running in the summer either – we're running only 14 tours,” he said. “If I wanted to I could probably run twice as many tours, so it might be good for someone else but I think we're happy where we are right now."

Solosky said it is of critical importance to put the customer first.

"When I went into this business, the first thing I said to myself, 'I'm putting the customer first.' And that's very important to us,” he said. “And we found out that when you put the customer first they keep coming back. And that's the core of our business. That's why we're successful."