A Travel Business Staying True to its Mission Despite the Lockdown
Recorded and edited by Audrey Coggins
The Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global Pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In June 2020, Julia Skupchenko from Lockdown Economy chats with Monique Y. Wells, the co-owner of Entrée to Black Paris, a travel business that has provided services tailored for the African-American travel market since 1999. With the lockdown, international tourism in France has been interrupted. Her clients, the majority of whom come from the US, cannot enter the country.
Can you tell us more about Entree to Black Paris?
Monique: Entrée to Black Paris is a service which provides both private and open walking tours on themes focused on African-American and larger African diaspora, history, culture and contemporary life in Paris.
How did you come up with this idea?
Monique: Well, years ago, my husband and I started a business called Discover Paris. It was a service that provided personalised itineraries for independent travellers. We provided personalised guidebooks for our clients, based solely on their particular interests. So, for example, if a client came to us and they had an interest in photography or architecture, then we would create a written itinerary based upon that particular interest. We noticed over time, that more and more African-American travellers were coming to us, wanting to understand more about ‘black Paris’. We want to understand the history African-Americans in Paris because it’s fairly common knowledge that Paris is viewed as a racial haven for African-Americans. So as requests mounted, we finally just decided to focus on that. We rebranded because of that.
How well was Entrée to Black Paris doing prior to the lockdown?
Monique: Before the lockdown, we were doing quite well. We have an open tour (tours that you can sign up for online up to 48 hrs before the tour begins) and private tours, which you have to book well in advance before the tour — generally at least 6 weeks in advance.
Then on 17 March 2020, the whole of Paris and France shut down due to COVID19. Seeing as our client-base is 99% from the US, we haven’t been able to do those tours anymore. Plus any kind of gatherings were banned. At this point, we do not know when we’re going to be able to begin again.
What were your first actions and reactions?
Monique: First we had to understand what the French government was mandating for businesses like ours. Tourism across the board was just devastated. Our business is very small, and we needed to understand what, if any, kind of support the government could give us — after all, we are a French business. Even though we focus on the African-American experience and larger diaspora, we are a French business, as opposed to other small travel businesses that perhaps might be American-based.
The first thing that was established was that in terms of running our business, we could no longer have clients in small groups. But we also needed to know what financial support the government could provide small French businesses like ours during these uncertain times.
What did you find? Were there any subsidies, programs, consultations provided? What was out there for you?
Monique: Yes, there was a financial subsidy that was based on month-to-month comparison to last year. So for example, we closed down on 17 March 2020. So the government looks at the income in March 2019 and gives you a subsidy based upon that revenue figure. So that was very, very welcomed. We have been so appreciative of that.
Paris’ Office of Tourism has been very pro-active in reaching out to businesses and helping us to prepare for the eventual return to work. There will be a small number of clients coming from the Schengen region.
We’re planning to start reaching out actively to these kinds of groups because we have no idea when Americans will be allowed to travel to the EU again.
Are you envisioning a shift in your direction? Previously you were Discover Paris and then you shifted to Entrée to Black Paris. Is the shift going to be something more substantial than a temporary shift due to COVID19?
Monique: I think what we’re going to do is to do more things online. For example, just a couple of weeks ago, an Australian podcaster living in Paris invited me to do a walk-show with him. We walked through some of the areas that our tours involve. We talked about the Black Paris experience. That was fantastic. We are looking to do more of that.
Pre-the-lockdown, Entrée to Black Paris do presentations for study abroad groups in a classroom or a conference room setting. We’re looking to do that online as well.
What are you sensing from the customers these days? Presumably, you had bookings which had to be cancelled on short notice when Paris went into lockdown. What were the interactions with clients like?
Monique: First of all, clients were hopeful, as for private-bookings, you have to book 6 weeks in advance. So whilst we shut down in March, their trip would be in July. So clients were hopeful that this would be ok [to travel to Paris]. And time has marched on and of course, it’s not okay.
So we have to write to them and inform them about the cancellation and hold the deposit for the booking until you come. Sometimes the clients preempt us and say that their flight has been cancelled and they won’t be coming. Either way, we’re reaching out and our clients are assured that if they’ve put down a deposit, we will honour that for whenever they are able to book again.
I publish a blog every Thursday called Entrée to Black Paris and there are people who are writing to us about the updates I put up about their interest in the tours. Many have indicated that they had to cancel summer holidays in Paris and are now looking at Christmas 2020 in Paris. So there is wistfulness and desire for things to get back to normal so that they can get to visit Paris and do our tours.
I hope that some of those wishes will come true soon. Paris is a beautiful city. With borders closing and flights being cancelled, it’s such a shame, as the weather has been truly beautiful. What about the competition? I know that in the tourism industry, the competition is fierce. But in these times, has something changed in the industry?
Monique: There are a couple of companies that do the same types of tours that we do, but these companies are not French-based. Of course, as we are facing, they have no clients. But I don’t know how they’re faring as far as subsidies go, because they are US-based. There are some things that the US government is doing to try to help small businesses but I don’t know that they’ve been able to take advantage of those.
So you haven’t had anyone reach out to you with suggestions of collaboration and joining forces?
Monique: No — and that’s neither good nor bad. Each of our businesses has a unique set of challenges. I don’t pretend to know what those are and they don’t know what ours are. If this situation is going to be prolonged — and it looks like for US travellers, this will be prolonged — then we’re open to having those kinds of conversations. We just have to see how things go, from month to month.
Well, we hope that things will normalise and that business will pick up and continue to grow. What about the future? What are the next three months looking like?
Monique: Well, we are developing new walking tours; it was always our plan this year to introduce two new walking tours to our portfolio. We already have 13 tours on African-American and larger African diaspora in Paris.
We also do some gourmet activities and these are commonly French, like wine tastings. But we also do African-American centric gourmet activities, working alongside the Academy of Culinary Arts for the Creole World in Paris and we’re looking to do more work with them. They are another French-based organisation and we’re looking to reach out to the Francophones already here for some events while we’re waiting for the international borders to open up again.
That sounds really interesting! Perhaps some of our EU viewers are planning to go to Paris for the summer break and would be interested to hear more about that.
Monique: That would be fantastic!
I would like to finish off this interview by asking about the entrepreneurial learnings — because you’ve been doing this business for a while. What have you taken away from this last few months?
Monique: For one thing, entrepreneurship is truly a journey. It calls up everything inside of you — everything that is strong inside of you and all your deepest fears and insecurities. My husband and I — we run this business together — have had to sit down and take a really good look at who we are and what we want to achieve through this business. We have discovered that our mission is going to remain the same.
Sometimes these circumstances will have you looking at your business and considering a change in direction. For us, particularly in light of all the civil unrest in the world and a birds’ eye view on what is happening to black people in this world — not only in the US but in France and elsewhere — it’s more important than ever that we remain true to this mission.
So what we need to do is to figure out how to keep our business going in the short term and whether it is going to evolve into something different in the long term. All with the purpose of illuminating the history, culture and contemporary lives of the African-American people and larger African diaspora in Paris.
Thank you, Monique. As you say, staying true to your mission is really important. Consistency in an entrepreneurial approach despite everything is one of the key elements to success. We wish you all the very best.