New Life, New Tours

Hi Spook fans…. Yes, I know, long time no speak.
Despite the fact that there’s been some changes to the ‘Trail operations since last posting (although that’s not hard, given the rather long hiatus) I’d been neglecting the blog. Maybe the blog’s loss was Twitter’s gain?

That’s all about to change….probably.
Be scared. Be very scared.

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Tour changes

Well, it’s been an interesting week or two at ‘Trail Towers. Not that one particular place is my office however: as long as I’ve got a laptop and a wifi connection I can be here, there, and everywhere.

And Scotland too.

One thing remains constant in life: Glasgow's creative monument styling abilities with traffic cones.  Photo: THE INTELLIGENCE TRAIL

One thing remains constant in life: Glasgow’s creative monument styling abilities with traffic cones. Photo: THE INTELLIGENCE TRAIL

I was back up north for a week and a bit, saying hello to family and friends. You don’t even have to be north of the border to feel the heat of the referendum debate for the vote later this September. Well, I say debate: ‘immature playground squabble’ seems a more apt description at this moment in time. But more of the independence vote – and the intelligence implications and issues – in a later blog post.

Anyway, on to some rather important news regarding the ‘Trail. Big changes afoot, due to some new secret developments and commitments. What does this mean for the ‘Trail? Read on.

Weekend only tours. Again, this shouldn’t cause much problems. Looking back at the bookings, Saturday was by far the favourite day for tours. I’ll be aiming to offer as many tours as possible over the two days. So this will probably entail Saturday afternoon and evening, followed by Sunday morning and afternoon.

Advance booking times. Tour bookings will need to be made at least 4 weeks ahead of the tour date. As the vast majority of clients already book several weeks in advance, there’s no real issue here. If there are no bookings received by 4 weeks of the scheduled tour date(s), then the tour won’t run. However, if a tour has been booked, but other slots are still free on that weekend, then watch out for Twitter announcements for last minute availability. That said, if you want to guarantee a tour on a given date, you must book in advance!

Full advance online payment. For many clients this isn’t an option as they have chosen to book and pay for their tours in advance using GetYourGuide (this has been available since 2011). I have previously mentioned that some sort of online booking facility will be introduced and I’m investigating a number of options.

When I’ve worked out the dates, these will be shown on the main ‘Trail website and full booking details and procedures outlined. I’m being cautious with the dates to begin with, but if demand picks up then extra slots may appear.

When does all this come into effect? Between now and the end of April it’s business as usual although some weeks will be blocked out. The big changes come into effect at the beginning of May. So if you want a tour in mid-May you’ll need to book your slot a month beforehand.

If you’ve got questions about the new arrangements do get in touch, either here or by email.

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Making An Exhibition of Oneself…at Excursions 2014

Excuse the bad pun: it’s not as dramatic as you think.

At the tail end of January I ventured up to north London to Alexandra Palace for the Excursions 2014 travel trade show now in its tenth year. For me, it was a case of third time lucky: the previous two years I’d tried attending but other things had popped up to prevent me from getting there on the day.

Ally Pally, as the Palace is commonly known, is quite some building although it does seem to have an unhealthy – positively destructive, in fact – relationship with fire over the years. Sort of like me in the kitchen, come to think of it.

The only times I’ve previously seen it – aside from TV etc. – have been whilst speeding in or out of London’s Kings Cross station on the east coast train line up to Scotland. So it was great to see this iconic building (used by the BBC for live broadcasts through the 20th century) up close and personal.

Rather handily, there were a number of free coaches being lined up for attendees from various parts of the south east to be picked up at. As this saved me £17 on a train ticket (ever the skinflint…er I mean ‘frugal’ Scot), this sounded good to me. It also allowed me some time to sit back and get to see some parts of north London that I’d never passed through or visited before. Some of the houses in N2 looked rather nice as we passed by.

Getting to the expo at around 11.45am gave me just a few hours there (the return journey was leaving at 3.15pm). If someone had given me the same time for an event such as World Travel Market  I’d have questioned the worth of taking the coach. But once I’d entered and sized the place up in terms of physical size and number of exhibitors it was just the right amount of time.

Excursions 2014, Alexandra Palace London

Mr. X finally makes it to Ally Pally! Third time lucky getting to Excursions travel trade expo.  (C) THE INTELLIGENCE TRAIL

It’s always great getting large group tour bookings, and this is going to be a very important customer segment for the ‘Trail going forwards – more of that in a later post, I expect. Maybe the expo is somewhere I should be looking to exhibit at in the years to follow, so it was certainly a good recce.

But I also wanted to meet with some of the exhibitors who were either military or intelligence-related. Perhaps some of them would be interested in talking about Military and Intelligence Tourism, like on the MITA group on LinkedIn: organisations such as the brilliant Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon, north London. I’ve been there a couple of times: if you love military aviation – particularly RAF-related through the years – this place will keep you enthralled for hours. Hopefully I can get back there in the next few months for a return visit.

There was also Beaulieu, the beautiful countryside estate in the New Forest: a lovely part of Britain, near the south coast. Whilst it’s mostly known for it’s motor museum, it also has a secret past: a countryside Special Operations Executive training school during WWII. Here Churchill’s ‘Army of shadows’ was being put through their paces. Intelligence aficionados will also know that Kim Philby was there for a while as a political instructor, biding his time before rejoining MI6.

Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to speak to the folk from the Royal Navy Submarine Museum  –  shame, but never mind. They certainly seemed to have no shortage of interested people about their stand.

I did however have a good old blether at the London & Partners stand with a fellow Scot who’d come down to the big smoke to work with them in their marketing team. Quite appropriate considering I was celebrating Burns Night that evening!

War Horse Excursions 2014

Joey makes his appearance. He smells cake! (C) THE INTELLIGENCE TRAIL

With time rapidly running out, I caught up with Group Travel Organiser head honcho Peter Stonham for another catch up since December’s GBTF seminar, before we headed to the press area for some cake cutting to celebrate 10 years of the event. That said, we had a gatecrasher: ‘Joey’ the main equine character in ‘War Horse’ was busy eyeing up the cake too! I don’t blame him: it looked tasty. Maybe he’d got fed up of carrots, sugar cubes and Polo mints.

Joey War Horse Excursions 2014

“Neigh-body is getting to the cake before ME!” Joey keeps a very close eye on the proceedings (c) THE INTELLIGENCE TRAIL

Much as though I’d have loved to have indulged, I realised my time was up, and needed to put a wiggle on to get back to the coach. I did the walk of shame as I stepped inside – they were all waiting for me! Oops. Still, only two minutes late: it could have been worse! As it was, we were the first coach to get out of the area which was a godsend considering – wait for this – it took TWO HOURS to travel 28 miles! That’s an average speed of 14.27 mph for you stats fans. Welcome to the joy of London traffic: and that’s not even CENTRAL London! But when you’re sitting in a comfy coach from these guys it could be worse. Unfortunately my nice and productive day out had consequences: my headphones are MIA! I suspect I left them on the coach: what a bummer. Ah well. Bring on Excursions 2015. Will I be there as an attendee or Exhibitor though?!

Cake cutting Excursions 2014

Get stuffed! Adrian Gates (GTO Magazine), Louise Jackley (London & Partners), and Elaine Colley (Tourism South East) get stuck into the cake.

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Pinning Hope on Pinterest

There’s just never enough time in the day is there?!

So, the blog was meant to be posted a few days ago – ideally each Friday. However, you know what they say about best laid plans blah blah. I’ve still got my tax return to file before the 31st  and I’m hurriedly finishing content for the newsletter – out around the same time. No rest for the wicked, indeed. Then on Saturday I escaped the clutches of the computer and went to the Excursions travel trade expo up in Alexandra Palace in north London: more of that next week.

Today I was on tour – in truly foul weather it has to be said – but I wasn’t complaining. Firstly, I was getting paid; secondly, it was with a loyal overseas client, so good to see him once more – that’s his third time now! Thirdly, it was the Westminster & Water ‘Trail – nice to be doing that again seeing as the Classic tour does seem to be the perennial favourite.

So now on a Sunday night and watching a recording of Air Force One on the TV before Mr. Selfridge comes on, it’s time to write something. BTW, did you know about the store’s spy history? Another time perhaps…such a tease, aren’t I ?

If you’ve been keeping up with the blog of late, you’ll have read about me wanting to grab the social media bull by the horns and give it what for. One of the things I wanted to get established was a ‘Trail profile on Pinterest, the social media site that’s creating waves for all the right reasons. Two years ago I was at a CIM travel industry seminar where one of the speakers was spouting wonderful things about Pinterest, especially when compared with Facebook and Twitter referral rates. In short, Pinterest kicks ass.

And in true Pinterest-y infographic fashion, here’s some more ass-kicking figures.

So where does the ‘Trail fit into all of this visual loveliness then? Obviously, the ‘Trail is a very visual experience. You’re looking at and passing by multiple buildings and locations: how much more visual can you get? With travel marketing, the key themes to be emphasised are the sense of discovery (in the ‘Trail’s case this entails learning new things, or getting an entirely new perspective on a previously well known landmark) and the overall experience. Pinterest can exploit these beautifully: a picture IS worth a thousand words.

Therefore when you visit the ‘Trail on Pinterest you’ll see a regular build up of spy snaps appearing. Of course there will be some London spy locations appearing, some of which you’ll have come across if you’ve been on tour. With close to 300 ‘spy sites’ across the city, there’s no shortage of potential snaps to be taken and uploaded for your visual delectation. There’ll also be some promo imagery as well: who knows, maybe some rather colourful ones (can’t help but think of the potential Sexpionage ones!)

Feel free to repin the images and spread the word about London’s spy capital status, and well okay then, the ‘Trail too if you feel so inclined. Hell, ain’t that one of the joys of Pinterest anyway!

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Here is the news…letter!

Well, not quite: but soon!

2014 is the year that the ‘Trail really gets social. Big digital marketing warfare and all that. Now many of you will know that there’s this here blog (if you didn’t before, er…you obviously do now!), there’s the ‘Trail Facebook page and of course there’s Twitter too. For you professional types, there’s also the ‘Trail LinkedIn company page.

Previously, my digital activity has been haphazard. Yes, there’d be tweets or Facebook updates, but nothing particularly regimented.

That’s changing.

Content has always been king, but now it’s an even bigger and more important king. The official website is effectively the shop window and I’m regularly told by clients that it looks good, credible and authoritative. In other words, it makes the buying decision easier and less risky for customers, when they are reassured by a content-rich website that looks pretty good and gives them the information they need.

That’s just one element however.

What has become increasingly obvious over the last few years is the emergence of ‘permission’ or ‘inbound’ marketing and the lack of enthusiasm for ‘interruption’ marketing – advertising, for instance. The average individual is now being bombarded with thousands of commercial messages per week – figures vary, but mark my words, it’s a lot. Through sheer necessity we have to ‘zone out’ the vast majority of these otherwise we’d become bigger mental wrecks than what we’ve become. And that represents a hell of a lot of wasted advertising.

Marketers have to accept that the days of fighting to get someone’s attention when they’re not really  interested (I remember my ‘Buyer Behaviour’ uni lectures, discussing ‘receiver involvement’) is simply throwing money away.

What DOES work however, is being there when the moment comes that someone IS interested in one’s product or service. Being highly visible on Google search results is key. Thankfully the ‘Trail performs very well in that respect when typing in things like ”London spy tour” or similar.

Great web content will always be worth it. The blog will also play a part. As for social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, they may play a small part, but at the end of the day what matters is getting tootsies on the ‘Trail (my equivalent of ‘bums on seats’). Facebook ‘likes’ are lovely to have but are they a valid indicator of purchase intent? Not in my experience.

Content marketing can be many things, for example: a great website; an informative and engaging blog; regular posting on social media – a mix of text and visuals; videos; infographics; discussion papers / long feature articles.

So, I’ll spare you the gory details but you can look forward to / run away from much more of this. I’ll keep you posted as things progress and the strategy and tactics are in place. But it bodes well for the future. Online is a great leveller for the small Davids fighting the giant corporate Goliaths, if there’s a bucketload of enthusiasm, passion, knowledge and the will to win to go with it. ‘Sounds like I’m up for a scrap!

The above list can be equally applied for both prospects, customers, and industry peers. But what about customers? Don’t they deserve something a bit more? Yes they do.

I’d toyed with the idea of a customer newsletter a couple of years ago, but the thought of sending out a whole bunch of emails individually was never going to work. With hindsight there were probably mass mail programs out there that didn’t cost a fortune, I just never looked into it in enough detail.

But now the time is right to engage with those kind enough to pay for my services. Enter Stage Left: Mailchimp.

This is the tasty bit of kit I’ll be using for the new customer newsletters coming very soon (if everything goes well, before the end of the month).

So what’s the point of the newsletter? Well, there’s a few reasons. From a commercial point of view, I want to keep in touch with the people who’ve spent their hard earned cash with me in the past. Afterall, there’s a few tours available to go on: don’t be shy going on just one of them! There will be a new referral scheme introduced also – probably in the first edition – so that’s one way of spreading the news. Email is also very easy to forward onto friends and colleagues etc, so it’s worth it for that.

As there will be more social media activity on various websites, the newsletter can provide a friendly nudge when these occur. Hopefully it will be a catalyst for some good discussion: afterall, it ain’t designed to be one way traffic!

Furthermore, many of my clients – especially from 2013 onwards – have paid premium prices for their private tours. There’s got to be some genuine interest in the intelligence world to do so and should appreciate the content.

What’s going to be in it?  It’s early days but I reckon the first edition will include:-

Spook News – highlighting some of the month’s most interesting spy and intelligence-related news stories from the UK but also around the world.

Spy Key topic  – whether it’s a story, individual, or institution (possibly covered in the tour, but not necessarily so), there will be some background info, commentary, and additional weblinks for further reference.

Tour News – containing interesting titbits of info, or steaming hot gossip, together with special tour promotions.

‘Trail At Large – some pointers regarding the ‘Trail on social media – think along the lines of London spy site imagery on Pinterest, or other relevant Facebook and Twitter content.

Spook Books & Spy Cinema – if there’s a new spy movie or spook book released that’s caught my eye, I’ll flag it.

Once I get my head into MailChimp I’ll work on both HTML and text versions. This helps with avoiding spam filters and gives the choice of lovely images or just the nitty-gritty text and links. Email newsletters should be appealing but neither should they be an absolute pig to download. So bear with me while the optimum format is being arrived at.  Needless to say, I’ll be wanting and expecting feedback on any and all aspects of the newsletter when it’s up and running.

What’s it going to be called?   At the moment, I’ve no idea. I’ve thought about just nicking ‘Below Top Secret’, but if you’ve any better suggestions, let’s hear ‘em!


So keep your eyes peeled: it’s a comin’!

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‘Tis the Season for…Tradecraft

So we’re hardly into January but it’s been a busy start for the ‘Tradecraft’ tours. Two already just in the last few days. Is 2014 going to be a bumper year for them? Who knows, but it’s been an exciting start to the year because of them!

You may be wondering: what’s a ‘Tradecraft’ tour? Aside from the normal tour where myself and the client (and partners, colleagues etc) meets at the rendezvous point, clients may want an additional element thrown into the mix. This mostly boils down to a partner booking the tour as a surprise for his or her other half, who they already know loves spy stuff. Why not get their blood pumping with a bit of drama to begin with?!

From a personal point of view, it’s great fun. By exchanging emails with the client, and understanding more about how and why they’re wanting to indulge in this, I get some background information about their partner, little snippets that can be used to create a concept and frame the subsequent scenario.

If truth be told, I really enjoy the vibe created by putting some ‘Tradecraft’ to use. It calls for creativity and in some cases, a bit of dramatic license as well. This week alone there has been classic brush passes with completely unsuspecting individuals in a coffee shop and a bar: brilliant! I wish I could be a fly on the wall to see their reaction afterwards! But alas, I must disappear as quickly as I initially appeared…it’s all part of the drama, Dahling!

From a purely clinical marketing perspective, the initial process cements firm foundations and trust between both parties, which is good considering the money changing hands. I never forget that with private tours there is a premium price, and a certain amount of risk to the client (despite them getting a good feel for the experience from the website and the TV video clip). I don’t doubt that people have paid good money for private tours elsewhere and perhaps felt short changed by what they received. That sure as hell ain’t happening on MY watch! So this sort of interaction between myself and the clients helps reduce their feelings of risk or uncertainty and further improves their confidence levels of getting the experience they have paid for, and deserve.

So far these ‘missions’ conducted have been relatively small scale, involving creating anticipation, excitement, and certainly some mystery immediately before a tour – in some cases, mere minutes beforehand.

What REALLY kicks ass is being able to create something special and customised for a whole day or weekend for a couple or mature family. And as for larger corporate audiences there’s already the possibility of creating something special through my relationships with the InterContinental London Westminster Hotel and the St. Ermin’s Hotel – the latter being the spy hotel of spy hotels for so many reasons.

I hope 2014 will be the year of the ‘Tradecraft’ tours: even more excitement, creativity and more value and smiles for the clients!

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Happy New Year from Spy-land!

Happy New Year!

I hope you all had a lovely Christmas and have had a good start to 2014, despite Mother Nature’s best attempts to drown us – where is all this rain coming from ?!

I disappeared back up to Scotland on Christmas Eve, returning just yesterday. There was no escape from the horrible weather up there either. I think there were maybe two days in which an umbrella wasn’t required, which is pretty poor in anyone’s book. That said, many people didn’t have mere rain to contend with, but a lack of electricity in their homes. Let’s not forget the flooding too in many areas of the UK. My heart goes out to anyone affected: what a crap way to spend Christmas!

Anyway, to the future.

2014 is going to be a pretty big year for the ‘Trail. There are a few things which are currently up in the air but will be sorting themselves out as the year progresses. The main thing is that the ‘Trail has been around since 2009. Slowly but surely it has grown in both content and stature, and it’s about time I REALLY exploited this.

Maybe it’s too much British ‘reserve’. Maybe it was me simply being too cautious. Either way, things are going to change. There are two things we often take far too much for granted: TIME and HEALTH.

I’m not saying I expect (or want) to be hit by a bus tomorrow – I hope not as it will severely screw up a client’s surprise birthday tour on Monday, lol. But nobody knows what is around the corner. So 2014 is more than ever the year of DOING. No more bashfulness, no more hiding. And much more aggression. Grr!

So look out for the following in 2014, in no particular order: Direct online booking / payment from the ‘Trail website; Much more content: blogs, social media, pictures, discussions – you name it; Customer Newsletter with all sorts of spook-related stuff, both British and from around the world, along with some tour promotions and other things of interest.

More shouting from the rooftops, basically. And then there’s the book: more progress on that too.

So, let’s all go into 2014 with a bucketload of enthusiasm, a shedload of ideas, a never ending source of energy to put all this into action, whilst wearing a naughty smile to make everyone else around wonder what we’re up to!

Carpe Diem, Babies!

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