Everyone loves some element of the travel experience, but turning that activity into a full-fledged business is a difficult task that requires stepping outside your passion to pass it on to others.
For the past year, a small group of energetic museum aficionados have been quietly revolutionizing the way tourists and locals visit New York City museums.
Museum Hack, built out of founder Nick Gray’s personal hobby, takes visitors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History on fast-paced hilarious tours of selected pieces of art. The guides tell surprising and often blush-worthy stories about the time period the art represents, the artist, or the work itself.
Since its July 2013 launch, the company has humored and informed more than 3,500 customers. It now offers 20 tours per week that include 2-hour day tours, 3-hour VIP night tours, and private tours.
Gray, who launched Museum Hack one year ago, will speak October 9 about passion-based entrepreneurship in travel at the Skift Global Forum on The Future of Travel. Skift caught up with Gray to learn more about his tour company’s start and how he turned a hobby into a full-time profession.
Skift: Can you explain how you came up with the concept for Museum Hack?
Nick Gray: Museum Hack was founded out of a hobby that I had, which was giving tours to my friends on Friday and Saturday nights at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I don’t come from a museum or even from an art history background. I worked at an electronics company selling flat-screen monitors for military planes and private jets and I just started to do these tours for fun.
I had this experience where a woman brought me there on a date and gave me a tour of her favorite stuff. She was showing me these sculptures and these paintings and this furniture that she liked. I had been to the Met before as a tourist, but had never really enjoyed it. It was like an obligation to go there. That experience; however, made me very curious about art and the museum so I started to go back to do audio tours and adult museum tours.
Skift: When did you realize that you might have a business of your hands?
Gray: That wasn’t until a long time later. I was so uncomfortable selling the tours at first.
After the first Sunday morning tour that I charge people for, I gave them all of their money back because I had so much fun doing it. What I found though was that people actually liked it more when I charged them. People who didn’t know me thought there was a catch. It was when I actually started to charge them that things really really started to take shape. But I lost sleep and I wrestled with charging for the tours for a long time.
I think when you do something for passion, you have to start by doing it for your friends for free. You have to get really good at it. When you shift it to a business and start charging people, it becomes less about your experience and more about the customers’ experience.
For example, I like really fast-paced museum experiences but you can’t do that if you have a visitor that can’t move that fast. When it was free, I would run through the museum, not caring about certain things, and just having fun. People have a whole different set of expectations when they pay.
Skift: How do you learn about customers’ expectations and work to improve the tours?
Gray: We used to do feedback forms at the end of every single tour and I would have people write down what they’re favorite parts were and, more importantly, what their least favorite parts were. We’d ask them what part felt awkward or didn’t feel right and how we could make it feel better.
And when my friends started to give tours to help me out, because its popularity was growing, it was really helpful for me to go on their tours. I also learn so much every time I take tours as a general consumer.
Skift: What’s the difference between a smaller passion-based experience and some of the larger, established tour experiences?
Gray: What these passion projects are, if you look at what I or some of these other amazingly popular but small businesses do, is boutique tours. We’re creating these very small experiences with less than ten people per tour guide. Huge companies are all about the numbers. We’re going after these smaller curated experiences.
A boutique tour company is interesting to me, because our guides like it. They have fun. We think we have the best jobs in the whole world.
In the hotel industry, the closest comparison is B&Bs. You have operators with smaller venues where they form relationships with their customers and it’s not just about trying to crank hundreds of people through a big hotel.
If you’ve ever ridden a bus tour around New York City, it’s largely about the tour guide and his characteristics. It’s not a conversation, it’s a lecture.
Skift: What are some other passion-based travel companies or experiences that you admire?
Gray: I like what Zerve, our ticket broker, is doing. It hasn’t gotten as much press as somebody like Peek has, but I think that’s going to be a big business. They have a ton of employees that man the phones. They’ll say, “Thank you for calling. How can I help you book the Museum Hack experience?” They’re laser focused on being the ticketing provider for people like me.
On the tour operator side, Scott from Scott’s Pizza Tours is one of the best tour guides in New York City right now. He is as crazy about Pizza as I am about great museums. I’ve learned a lot from him.
There’s also a man named David that does art gallery tours. He is so innovative in what he is doing. He is using recorded wireless headsets to interact with himself as another tour guide. It’s a whole new way to look at the Chelsea gallery experience.
Skift: What’s something else you want to share about building a passion-based business in travel?
Gray: When I go to a new city, I want to get the real experience. I think a lot of people want that, it’s not a unique want.
We try to show you the museum like a real New Yorker would. I think that there’s a big market for that, but I don’t think it scales. I think it’s these boutique experiences. I think that people are definitely willing to pay for these boutique experience because it’s real.
For example, we don’t hire tour guides. That’s because, in my experience, they come with bad habits and scripts. I’m looking for someone to be real, to snap out of scripted mode.
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Photo credit: Nick Gray, founder of Museum Hack, sits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Joe Martinez Photography