Moving and shaking up the tourist trade

Charlie O’Connell’s Paddywagon Tours now handles 90,000 visitors and he’s on course to expand his brand internationally

'I escorted the Ulster Rose in the 1993 Rose of Tralee festival and she was quite tricky but we got on well at the end. At the beginning she was going to tell the organisers I wasn't a good enough dancer and look to have me replaced."

Paddywagon Tours founder Cathal "Charlie" O'Connell has come a long way in the 20 years since then.

Not only did he get asked back to be an escort at the festival two more times, he built up a successful tour operator business, which currently handles 90,000 visitors a year.

He now owns seven hostels, four B&Bs and a number of serviced apartments – none of which he bought at the height of the boom – as well as 40 buses that criss-cross the country on a daily basis offering tours of Blarney Castle, the Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher and other tourist sites.

He also runs five tourist offices and entering the hotel market is his next big move.

“The business was originally aimed at backpackers. We quickly found out there were a finite number of backpackers and many of the other markets were being poorly served. A lot of people were coming to us who were more senior who wanted to use Paddywagon’s services.”

As a result, the company evolved into doing tours with private groups, groups of American families and mothers and daughters on holiday together.

"The buses started to have older denominations on them which didn't suit the younger crowd. You'd have Mary who is 75 from Alabama and came here to hear about macushla and then you'd have some young Aussies who came here to drink.

"So I had to divide it up into private tours and tours for people of older ages. Seventy per cent of our business now has nothing to do with backpackers."

Tech savvy
In 2011, he set up an online booking site for day tours in cities across the globe, after discovering a huge proportion of tour activity and excursion providers in places like New York and Sydney did not have a website, web presence or online booking facility.

He found more and more people were becoming obsessed with packing a huge number of activities and experiences into short stays abroad, but providers of those experiences were often hard to find, as they had a near invisible presence on the internet.

The website, DayToursWorld, offers more than 15,000 different tours and activities such as ghost hunting in Prague, a gang tour of New York, cooking in Cappadocia and a Bondi surf experience in Sydney.

In order to keep the costs of setting up the website as low as possible, O'Connell began offering visitors to Ireland free accommodation in return for a few hours work.

"If people [visiting Ireland] load products on to the site for us, they get free accommodation. People who sell boat rides in Bangkok or jarvey rides in Killarney might not be tech savvy. So I give free beds and free tours to visitors who put these products up.

“World travellers today are very smart. They all have their own laptops so I don’t have to provide them with one. They might work for three hours per day. It helps us stock the shelves without breaking the bank and spending millions.”

Paddywagon Tours also offers free accommodation to tourists who clean the company buses or make the breakfast.

“We have 700 beds on the island. Our occupancy rate would allow us to let people stay for free.”

More recently, O’Connell has also begun targeting the cruise ship market with tours.

“Cruise ships were coming into Ireland two-a-penny and all the money for tours was being taken by the cruise company, as they were selling the tours aboard the ships.

“People on cruise ships started getting tech savvy and searching for tours online at cities the ships were docking in. We managed to get in on the forums and get chatting to the customers and today we are carrying 600 passengers off a cruise ship that has docked in Cork.”

He hopes to be in every port in Ireland and England next year and progressively get around the world.

"If you search 'shore tours Cork' or 'shore tours Belfast' on Google, we will come up first in the results. The aim is to have a presence at the 60 major ports in the world."

It is this tech savviness that O’Connell attributes to the success of his business.

“The bus industry is a technology battle now and that is where we are masters. Throughout the recession, our profit and turnover increased year on year. Our numbers also increased. We are heavy on search engine optimisation. The traffic coming into our website is 10 times what it was in 2005.”

He says appearing at the top of search results is a big draw for bookings coming in through the DayToursWorld website.

"Bookings on our site are plentiful and we haven't really marketed it. Keeping up with the internet is very important to us. If you're not on the first page of search results, you're out."

Tough breaks
Things have not always gone so well for O'Connell. His business was only up and running two years, when in 2000 he received a telephone call from one of his drivers in Belfast to say a tour bus was on fire.

He says three youths had lined the road with petrol, stood back and lit the match. Two Paddywagon coaches were torched.

The loss, defined as an act of terrorism, was not covered by insurance. On a fully-booked tour due to kick off from Belfast days later, only three people showed up.

“That almost broke me,” says O’Connell. Several years later, in 2008, two further attacks occurred on the Paddywagon tour buses in Belfast, costing the company more than €68,000, as once again insurance didn’t cover them.

"Having four buses blown up in Northern Ireland could have put me off, but it didn't. I'm now one of the biggest tour operators in Belfast."

He says a Eurowagon business he started in 2002 also nearly broke him.

"We had buses going all over Europe. I didn't realise that when a bus broke down in Italy and the Italian mechanic didn't speak English and I didn't speak Italian how much of a problem it would be. The air conditioning unit started pumping water into the bus all over passengers in the middle of Venice. Eurowagon was a dramatic failure.

“I also had a juice bar in Dublin during the boom and that was a spectacular failure. We had business but we didn’t know what we were doing. We soon found out that fruit went off quickly. Overall my failed businesses have cost me hundreds of thousands of euro.”

When O'Connell became a finalist in the 2009 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Awards, he pronounced: "I care not for the profits, riches and reward but the glory of seeing my business succeed."

Lessons learnt
He has since changed his outlook, saying that while the elation of success is "amazing", he has learnt more from his failures than the successes.

“I would hate to be one of those people who knows only victory and not defeat.”

While his businesses might have not all succeeded, he remains quick to spot an opportunity.

In 2010, he jumped on the Icelandic volcanic ash bandwagon, by dispatching buses to Europe to rescue stranded Irish people from places such as Paris, Barcelona and Milan.

His next aim is to tackle the UK market, and is in the process of putting in place 10 buses in London to do tours to Stonehenge and other tourist sites.

“We have nearly reached our maturity level in the Irish market. We are going to open shops in Leicester Square and we are going to draw them in. It won’t be Paddywagon, it will be English style. A bit of Jolly Roger and Paddington bear.

“I’ve built a national brand, but now I want to make it an international brand. I want to multiply this business by five times over the next few years.”

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