It takes more than a roll of the dice to build a profitable business, let alone a beloved business. But Danny McDonald’s tactics have been right on the money and straight from the heart. The Portage la Prairie-based entrepreneur started Triple Seven Tours in 1995; ten years later, he knows the first names of his 1,800 regular customers and rings in annual sales of $400,000. At age 56, he has no intention of retiring, simply because he truly loves what he does.
Leisure travel has been this entrepreneur’s career staple. He has owned both a hotel and a motel, and he worked as a travel company sub-agent before coming up with Triple Seven Tours. McDonald recognized a niche in Portage la Prairie and its environs and went for it.
“I saw a real need for a bus tour company that could offer day trips to seniors who live in smaller towns,” he explains. “They really have no other way get out. They’re mostly widows — they’ve worked hard, now the husband is gone, and they just want to go somewhere, spend some money, have some fun.”
Corporate tours and sports team transport provide Triple Seven Tours with additional streams of revenue, but it’s this senior segment that puts the bread and butter on McDonald’s table. The company ferries the merry widows to destinations of their choice — from garage sales to nearby national parks. But most trips target the two large casinos an hour away in Winnipeg. Each of the eight communities Triple Seven serves has an appointed organizer who gets the ladies together and plans outings. It’s easy to understand why McDonald’s customers keep coming back. “In the winter or after dark”, he says, “I let the gals off at their doors. When they toggle the porch light switch, I know they’re safely inside.”
McDonald attributes his start-up success to Manitoba’s Heartland Community Futures Development Corporation. Assistance from CFDC included a week-long course to develop his business plan. (He’s proud that his exemplary plan was integrated into instruction materials.) He also received management consulting help and $40,000 in financial assistance to purchase his 25-seat bus. By 2000, he had paid off his loan, bought a second bus and established a satellite office in nearby Brandon.
McDonald is a devoted family man; his daughter and son both work full-time for Triple Seven. Every spring, he treats about 20 members of his extended family to a fishing trip in northern Manitoba. “Customers appreciate the two-generation tone of our business,” he says. “They never call us the second week in June — they know the McDonalds have gone fishing.” He applies his family values to the business; most of his tour traffic comes from repeat customers. New customers sign on through word of mouth. McDonald is amazed by the customers who write him signed blank cheques each year, with the instruction to fill in the necessary amounts.
With such a devoted customer base, there’s no need for general advertising. Three times a year he sends out a mailer to his database of 1,167 households, outlining upcoming events. Twice a year he runs a customer appreciation tour to the casino, with a Happy Hour and contests to win free trips and merchandise. McDonald also organizes cross-border tours to destinations like California, New York and Branson. He takes a few seats out of the back of the bus and sets up a lounge where passengers can play cards. About two months before a trip, he visits customer’s homes to take pictures and create biographies about their families and interests. He compiles these into a book that profiles each passenger, and gives it a relevant title such as Cruisin’ California or To the Bayou and Back. On the first day of the tour, each passenger receives a copy. “The book is a great ice-breaker,” says McDonald. “By the time we’re heading home, they’re getting each other to sign their books—just like high school.”
The appreciation is mutual. Customers invite McDonald to barbecues and family events. Each Christmas the gals swamp him with gifts and well-wishes. “Their cards mean everything to me,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever thrown one of them out.”
McDonald could write the manual on customer relations. He exudes integrity when describing what works. “Don’t try to smoke ‘em or gouge ‘em. Be honest,” he says. “I think that’s the most important thing to do. If there’s a problem, explain it to them. It’s the lie they’ll remember, not the glitch. And don’t paste on a smile. Your customers can detect when you’re not enjoying what you’re doing.”
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