Growing a family-run tourism business across generations and states

If you’ve seen or been on the green and orange Old Town Trolleys roaming the streets of downtown Washington, D.C. (and who has not?), then you’ve had a personal brush with Historic Tours of America.

And personal is how Co-Founder and CEO Chris Belland likes it. His is not just a family business in name. It’s how Historic Tours of America operates — with its customers, employees and its business partners.

“One of the great things about working with Historic Tours of America is that it is a family-run business,” said Scott Kinlaw, senior vice president and market executive for commercial lending at EagleBank. “It goes across multiple families and spans across multiple generations. And when you start working with them, they bring you into the mix and make you feel like you are part of the family too. If you’re talking to one member of the family, you’re talking to the entire business.”

Belland feels likewise about the team of people from EagleBank that support Historic Tours. “When Scott says that when he talks to me or my son, he’s talking to the company, we feel the same way about the bank … and that’s made a tremendous difference for us,” he said.

The direct communication has contributed to the business’s success, Belland said. Launched in the early 1980s with Co-Founder and President Edwin Swift, Historic Tours now has second-generation family members on staff and operates across seven cities in seven states, offering tourism attractions steeped in local history. In D.C., that includes the business’s Arlington National Cemetery Tours in addition to its Old Town Trolley Tours.

“We’ve grown pretty steadily over the past 40-some years,” he said. “We have about 1,400 cast members — that’s what we call our employees. It’s been an exciting road for us.”

Rethinking and redefining the business’s financial model

But growth has not always been easy. Take for instance, Historic Tours’ financial model. Originally, the company worked with local banks in each of the cities that it operates, which created a whole host of problems, Belland said.

“We had tried to do a syndication of banks. It became almost as cumbersome as having separate banks,” he said. “EagleBank raised their hand, ‘We can do this entire package.’ I have to tell you what a marvelous thing that’s been. We’re dealing with one group of people, one set of covenants. It’s been great for us to be able to plan our growth through one banking relationship.”

That move happened in 2018, and since then, Historic Tours has also partnered with EagleBank on property investments and fleet upgrades.

Historic Tours must be located right in the heart of the cities where it operates — “on the 50-yard line of where people are,” Belland said. “Some of these properties are right downtown, and downtown properties, of course, are extremely expensive. But we’ve been able to acquire them with EagleBank’s help. And the fact that EagleBank listens to our strategic needs has been critically important to us.”

Capitalizing on quick financial decisions

In D.C., Historic Tours also worked closely with EagleBank to refinance its Washington Welcome Center at E and 10th streets Northwest, across from Ford’s Theatre, and revitalize its D.C. trolley barns and trolley fleet.

The bank teamed with the business to develop a strategic vision and plan, Kinlaw said. “It was a matter of listening to their needs and our team developing a plan to meet those needs — a long-term strategic plan. Communication has really been the key and understanding their strategic vision and what we needed to do to accommodate that.”

Open and honest communications on a frequent basis are critical, Belland said. “When you need an answer as an operator, and you’ve got a bank who answers you quickly, it makes all the difference in the world,” he said. “We’ve been able to capitalize on those quick decisions and to continue our growth.”

When it opened for business as Old Town Trolley Tours of Key West, only 34 people took a ride the first day, Belland recalled. “We’re at a point right now to carry over three and a half million people on our sightseeing tours and attractions this year, so from 34 to three and a half million people — it’s been a great ride.”

None of the work with Historic Tours is one and done or transactional, Kinlaw said.

“The perspective we take from the start of a relationship is a long-term perspective,” he said, adding, “The fun part that I really enjoy is going around town and seeing the trolleys and knowing that we played a part in those.”

To discover more insights for entrepreneurs, startups and SMBs shared during WTOP’s Small Business September, click here.

EagleBank is an Equal Housing Lender and Member FDIC.

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