Educator (Associate Professor) / Entrepreneur / Leader of angel communities /
Entrepreneur in residence at PorterShed and BioExcel
When the Music Stops
I met Anthony Barrett when we invited him to participate in my first NUIG-sponsored accelerator course. Young, fresh-faced, always smiling. He sat in the back of the class taking notes. His questions usually came one-on-one at the break.
Anthony is the managing director of Hillwalk Tours (hillwalktours.com), a company that has been around since 2008. The original concept (of founder and dedicated hiker James Byrne) is still their lodestar: offer visitors to Ireland high-quality, self-guided, sustainable hiking tours of places like the Beara Way (their first tour) Connemara, and the Kerry Way.
Anthony and his team curated routes, located quality B&Bs, developed maps and background materials, and offered a consistently high level of service across multiple languages and cultures. Over the years, Hillwalk climbed a steady path, the number of tours – and tourists – expanding. In 2019, more than 3000 persons joined one of Hillwalk’s tours, and company revenues topped €4 million. Each year Hillwalk says ‘thanks but no thanks’ to many who seek bookings for tours that had already been filled. Hillwalk is steadfast in choosing quality over quantity; the company never wants to endanger their customer experience in any way. Their ‘grow slow, be the best’ philosophy makes them distinctive in a crowded market.
From where I sit, Hillwalk is the very model of a modern, successful boutique business. One that creates lots of value for customers, employees (a head count of twenty-eight in February), and their partners – publicans, hoteliers, restaurants, transportation companies and more. And great good will among those who come to Ireland from the US, the UK, and as far away as Australia, some year after year.
To date, more than 25,000 persons have enjoyed the Hillwalk experience.
By this February, Hillwalk had already taken deposits for more than 1600 tours for this summer and were on track for another record year.
Then Covid-19 turned things upside down.
There won’t be much summer business for Hillwalk this year. They’ve already let go of seven employees and returned most customer deposits. The very foundations of the business – accommodations, transport, even the availability of pub culture – depend upon the whims of a virus whose longevity and path are difficult to predict. Customers depend on predictability; like so many others business models, Hillwalk’s found itself in a cocked hat.
If you’re Managing Director Anthony Barrett, with responsibilities to his family, his employees, and his customers, what’s to be done?
Over the last eight weeks, Anthony and his team have been busy with new plans.
For several years, the company has toyed with the idea of increasing the number of Irish citizens who might want to take hiking tours. Having done some early market testing, Hillwalk looked at the current reality – the stay at home regimen – and saw an opportunity. Anthony and his team are fast-tracking the development of one-day and weekend walks for individuals and families. People who will want to get out in the fresh air, maybe explore a part of the country they’ve never seen (or only seen from a bus, car, plane, or train). And they’ve begun to work with their partners to ensure that enhanced safety measures are all part of the quality experience that Hillwalk provides.
And they’ve done something else that really impresses me: they created a new business, Outsource Locker (outsourcelocker.com) offers Hillwalk’s expertise in customer service, language translation, marketing, SEO, and social media to other small businesses. They already have a couple of clients, and their staff is more than happy to be using their skills to good effect.
Agility. Humility. Knowing your core skills. Pivoting. Call it what you will. The grade may be steeper, but Anthony and his team have stayed the course.
Summer 2020 is already a washout for Hillwalk. But Anthony is ever optimistic. What I see in him today I saw in our first interactions – a dedication to quality, empathy for his employees and his partners, and a thoughtful but decisive approach that inspires confidence.
When I say boutique is beautiful, I’m talking about companies like HillwalkTours.
As always, contact me w/questions or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org