Keep it simple. Do this for all stakeholders and your internal team. Communication and the checkout process needs to be clean, simple, fast, and easy.
As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lance Zaal.
Lance Zaal is an entrepreneur, veteran and business owner, owning and operating businesses in the tourism, hospitality and software industries. Zaal is the Founder and CEO of travel experience and software company Junket and US Ghost Adventures, which includes the Lizzie Borden House and Brickhouse Inn Bed and Breakfast. As a Marine Corps combat veteran, Zaal sparked his passion to support Ukraine citizens with the means to defend themselves and their families. In 2022, Zaal founded the Ghosts of Liberty, actively supporting the Ukrainian military throughout the invasion and personally training and equipping various forces in three trips to the country.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I started a food tour and was looking for a way to do more with ease. So, I made an app that would turn a phone into a tour guide. To market it in most places, I had to sell physical tickets, so I did it as an experiment to get more exposure. I then ended up with two businesses: an app, Junket, and a physical tour business, US Ghost Adventures. Now, they complement one another.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Overall, I would say there were many experiences over the last six years that shaped me and my companies. However, one of the best decisions I have made was to continue to focus on the development of my businesses during the pandemic. Instead of withdrawal and wait, I invested in growth during the pandemic because I saw an opportunity to pivot and focus on new endeavors.
While a lot of companies dialed back their efforts or paused completely, I continued to look for ways to innovate through modern technology and expansion. I did not lay off any staff, and in fact, added more staff. We expanded to more locations. We sold our vehicles and compensated with transportation partnerships and walking tours. As a result, we came out stronger than before, whereas several others in the industry took a step back.
My favorite example is that we added a product called GhostFlix, which we still use. GhostFlix lets people take a virtual tour at any of our locations either live, or pre-recorded whenever they want. These were popular during covid, and we still sell these to other corporations today as fun activities for their staff. We also heavily invested in our GPS audio-guided tour app, which we plan to do more with in 2023. We also increased marketing efforts to support these products.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As an entrepreneur, you’re bound to make many mistakes. I have made some costly mistakes, but I’ve learned from them. Not having the right people early on, both staff and a mentor, was one mistake. I also made the mistake of staying in a city that was not best for an entrepreneur. In the early part of my career, I started too many businesses quickly to see what would stick, however my business process helped me to diversify and learn. Once I was able to focus on one or two companies and industries, I was able to grow rapidly and became happier.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I hold myself responsible for my successes and failures and did not ask for or receive help along the way. However, I am grateful for my employees, the team of people I can hold accountable to oversee day-to-day business operations. The success of a business depends on a lot of factors, but the people who help manage them play a vital role. We would not be anywhere without them.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
Most of our business at US Ghost Adventures focuses on retail customers: individual travelers. For that market and the group tour market, we create new tour experiences to showcase each destination in a new light by sharing authentic and interesting stories or helping people engage in unique activities. Currently, we are working on a platform that will allow customers to purchase digital gift certificates that recipients can use to book a tour of their choice. This is ideal for people who want to gift experiences versus physical items.
On the business side, we have a business intelligence and tour management platform, which will be combined into a booking and reservations system in 2024. This software is a tool my company is excited to use to quickly grow our brand and effectively manage day-to-day operations. We will make it available to the wider industry, combined with the ability to make app-based tours.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
With US Ghost Adventures tours, we’re offering the ease of access to fun experiences for any demographic to enjoy. On the B2B front, we didn’t develop any of our capabilities for the pain point of others; we developed them for our internal needs. So, whether or not it succeeds once it’s available won’t hurt the business. It’s nice to be diversified and work from a position of strength.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
In my opinion, COVID-19 is no longer a major factor in travel. The pandemic changed the world when people couldn’t travel or get vaccinated, and everything was shut down. However today there are not as many travel restrictions and people have access to vaccinations if they want them. In fact, we’ve seen more people returning to what we considered to be “normal” as 2022 was the first true year of recovery.
COVID-19 did not permanently change the methods and modes of transportation. The methods that were available before the pandemic continue to be available. However, we do expect an increase in the usage of electric vehicles. With that knowledge, we have or are working on adding electric vehicle charging stations at our hospitality locations. Just recently, we added two chargers at the Brickhouse Inn in Gettysburg, PA.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
I think it’s important to realize that no destination or experience will ever be perfect. There are always trade-offs, right? So, I think it depends on the mood of an individual, their preferences, budget, and time of year.
Personally, I would like to visit Toronto, Canada to see the site of my great-great-grandfather’s brewery, the Don Brewery, at Todmorden Mills. In 1821, he opened a brewery and distillery along the river that operated for nearly 30 years before it burned down. I found out about it two years ago from my grandmother, (who passed this August) when I told her I was working on building my brewery just before COVID broke out. I thought it was a neat coincidence to learn that my ancestor opened a brewery 200 years before me. There’s a historical marker for the site, and one building still stands today. A local brewery in Toronto made a beer from one of their old recipes, and I’d like to try it when I explore my grandfather’s hometown.
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
Yes, we have created many new experiences that enable guests to connect in ways they wouldn’t on a traditional tour. Our new haunted pub crawls are a great example of this, but our food tours, brewery and distillery tours are also a fun way for people to get together and have a great time. At the Lizzie Borden House, we’ve added several opportunities for guests to connect and share their experiences with the outside world through written or video accounts of their experiences.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
For running a business and for the products and services offered, these all apply in keeping people coming back for more.
- Keep it simple. Do this for all stakeholders and your internal team. Communication and the checkout process needs to be clean, simple, fast, and easy.
- Make it fun. If it’s not fun or engaging to others, there will be no demand, and nothing else matters.
- Have a local feel. Whether a guest is local or visiting, they want to know about where they are. If they can learn something new, that’s a positive point. But of course, they should have fun at the same time.
- Know your audience. Having a range of experiences for different demographics and desires is important. You don’t want too many choices, but you want just the right amount!
- Continuously evaluate and improve. I’m a believer in continuous improvement in every aspect. You have to take this approach to adapt to changing consumer preferences and market forces.
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In addition to building and operating several businesses and creating job opportunities for many people, I created and oversaw a nonprofit business accelerator dedicated to helping entrepreneurs and startups for five years. I have supported various charities like the Innocence Project and Institute for Justice. In efforts to support Ukraine, in 2022, I founded the Ghosts of Liberty, which provides training and supplies to help Ukrainians defend their homes. I’ve proudly given time and resources to help Ukraine, completing two trips and two months in the country. It has been one of the most rewarding and moving experiences of my life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 😊
I think it’s more important to talk about what people have done or are actually doing. An idea for a movement is a great start, but actions speak louder than words and actions drive actual change. As an entrepreneur, I am in a position to help people in need. In 2022, I founded Ghosts of Liberty, an organization designed to supply and train small numbers of citizens in Ukraine with the means to defend themselves and their families. I was inspired to start this initiative after my experiences in the Marine Corps. I joined the Marine Corps in my final year of high school just after turning 17. Once overseas, I met a veteran (Ivan) who opened his mind to the history and struggles of Ukraine, sparking my passion to seek out help for Ukrainians. Additionally, I have founded, financed, and ran a non-profit called Ignition Center for six years, which helped many entrepreneurs and raised millions in seed money.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Readers can also get updates from our website www.usghostadventures.com/.
Be sure to check your city for your local haunted house ghost tour!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.