Talking Small Biz: Their profits should be seen in Context

Spouses Paul Bennett and Lani Bevacqua own Context Travel. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
Spouses Paul Bennett and Lani Bevacqua own Context Travel. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 21, 2013

P AUL BENNETT, 42, and his wife, Lani Bevacqua, 42, of Southwest Center City, own Context Travel, on South Street near 22nd. Context, which started in 2003, had $3.8 million in revenue last year. It's a network of scholars in archaeology, art history and culture who design and lead in-depth walking seminars for small groups of curious travelers in 23 cities worldwide. Bevacqua oversees the website and advertising, and Bennett manages finances and staff. We spoke with Bennett.

Q: How'd you come up with the idea for Context?

A: My wife and I are cultural travelers. We quit our jobs and bought a sailboat and lived on it for two years, sailing to Central America and Europe. We learned a lot and started a business. Most tour companies have a big group and you follow a guide with a script but no expertise.

Q: What's the business model?

A: We pared groups to six persons. We got rid of the tour guide and picked up the expert. We don't require you to buy a multi-day package tour. It's all a la carte. A person says, "I'm going to be in Shanghai five days, and I want to do a three-hour walking tour one afternoon." That's all we do. We don't book hotels, airfare.

Q: What do the tours cost?

A: In Philadelphia we'll do a six-person, three-hour walking tour, led by a Ph.D. scholar, either private or group. So a group walk is where you buy a space and join others for $70 per person. A private tour, where you bring yourself and up to five others, is $315.

Q: Who's a typical client?

A: Professionals, doctors, lawyers and financial executives, between 30 and 70 years old.

Q: How many employees?

A: We have docents and full-timers. The docents lead our tours and are independent contractors. We have about 300 at any one time. Most are academics and they're in a city for two years working on a Ph.D. We have 10 full-time employees, plus me and my wife.

Q: Philadelphia's the main office?

A: Yes, with other offices in London, Paris, Rome and Istanbul.

Q: What's the biggest challenge you faced growing the business?

A: One challenge is to inspire staff to work with docents and dream up great walks. The other is training docents. We have an academic on retainer half the year who runs workshops. Some docents are natural teachers and others have passion but lack communication skills.

Q: You're also a B Corporation?

A: We have a foundation and invest in projects that mitigate the negative impact of tourism or provide travel to kids who otherwise cannot afford it. We have a scholarship with an inner-city charter school in Sacramento and we take a couple high-achieving students and teachers and send them to Europe for a cultural boot camp. We got a grant in 2012 from Aramark Foundation to do tours for Philly school kids.

Q: Where do you see Context in five years?

A: I'd like to see us in 40 cities and to triple our revenue.


 


On Twitter: @MHinkelman

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