There is something incredibly thrilling about using a bicycle to explore a new city, it’s unfamiliar streets waiting to be discovered. That unfamiliarity; however, can lead to a lot of guesswork and map checking taking away from the experience and sense of freedom a bicycle is supposed to invoke. We caught up with Jeff of DC Cycling Concierge to discuss how his bicycle based business is customizing rides for people visiting DC so they can focus on enjoying everything the city has to offer.
Sounds like you know your way around D.C. Are you from the area? Although I lived here for a few years as a kid and have been coming to the National Bike Summit each year since 2000, I think I have soaked up most of my D.C. knowledge due to my natural curiosity. I moved to DC when I was chosen by my peers to head up the Alliance for Biking & Walking in 2008. Every time I move to a new community, I set out to do all the touristy-things in my first year. There are so many amazing things to see in D.C., and I still have a list several pages long of things I want to check out. As a longtime bike advocate, I’ve always enjoyed connecting with places and the stories that make them special. D.C. is overflowing with history, and nearly every corner or every other building has a story. I find my challenge is to filter that to best align with the interests of my guests.
What inspired you to start a bike-based business? It’s what I know and love. Since I rode my bike across the U.S. as a 21 year old, I’ve known that bikes are the answer to nearly all of our world’s problems. Two years later, I got to bike around the world on a Thomas J Watson Fellowship, and this really launched my bike advocacy career 25 years ago. I’ve also been fortunate to be the executive of various state and national advocacy organizations, including the Alliance for Biking & Walking. In 2014, my wife and I became foster parents to toddler twins. After four months, I decided to scale things back to be the primary parent (too much travel to be a decent dad),and at the end of that year, I notified the board of the Alliance for Biking & Walking that I was stepping down. When I stepped down in April of 2015, I didn’t know what was next job-wise. I thought a lot about what I loved doing and what I was really great at. I remembered giving a bunch of personal tours around DC for colleagues and friends. I especially remembered giving a night tour to the owners of VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations – major sponsors of the Alliance for Biking & Walking (and the Bicycle Coalition of Maine before when I was the Executive Director there) and even though this couple travel the world and get to bike and walk in the most amazing and beautiful places, they so enjoyed the 3-hour ride I gave them that they talked about it for years. Starting around July of 2015, I started kicking the idea around of being a “ride guide” and catering to the professionals with road or fitness / training rides, or casual rides around their schedule and meeting them where they were based. With a lot of great input and support from lots of wonderful friends, I launched DC Cycling Concierge officially in May of 2016.
Since your business is new and a new model, how has it be received? I’ve been grateful to get so much support and encouragement, and it is still a thrill that I get to take people for bike rides. I absolutely love it! I’ve been to plenty of hotels where the staff might look at me funny or dismissively when I introduce myself and DC Cycling Concierge, but I don’t give up. I make a point to just check back in to show I’m here and I’m friendly. It helps to have a fun story or two to share. My guests have been a blast to work with. I can tell a few may be a bit skeptical (sometimes a spouse or parent had the idea but it wasn’t universally approved), and I focus on that challenge to give everyone as good an experience as possible. I’m very proud that 100% of my reviews on Trip Advisor are 5 stars. In less than a year I moved up to the Top 10 of Outdoor Activities in the DC Region. My original idea was that I’d have a lot more triathletes-in-training and road cyclists and that the casual sightseeing rides around the mall would be more occasional. It has turned out to be the opposite of that, which is great because I’ve been able to delve a lot deeper into learning more history and become better equipped as a tour guide.
What type of bike(s) do you use to lead your tours? One good thing about being as passionate about biking as long as I have is that through the decades I’ve acquired an awesome quiver of bikes. Most of my rides are casual spins around the National Mall the Capitol Building and the White House. For these rides I’m riding my trusty commuter – a Breezer Downtown 5. I’ve upgraded it with a Civia Market Basket front rack and a Burley Moose rear rack, which allows me to mount the Piccolo trailer cycle for some of my younger guests. Once in a while when I have guests with little kids, I get to tour them around in our family cargo bike, a Larry Vs Harry Bullitt which gets most of its miles pedaling our twins (now officially adopted) all around DC. For my road / fitness rides, I ride my custom Firefly Ti road bike which is the fastest, lightest, most comfortablest bike of all time. For longer rides on the C&O Canal Towpath, I ride my CoMotion Americano with some wider tires. Every once in awhile, I get to ride my ‘01 Bianchi Pista fixed gear built up by the legendary Sheldon Brown.
Jeff rides his a Larry Vs Harry Bullitt while taking a family on his Monuments at Night tour. Photo by Kip Pierson Photography
You’ve taken some pretty high-profile clients on tours. How did you attract their business? Since my business model focuses on the guests, I get to meet lots of cool folks. I’m serious that all my guests are VIPs, but I like joking that some of them are a bit better known. I’ve taken Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for a couple of rides and that has been a lot of fun seeing first-hand how his fame gets him amazing access and how hilarious it is to watch people’s reactions when they first spot him. You can watch their faces flash from “Hey, that looks like…” to “No, that can’t be…” to “Holy Sh!t! – THAT’s Arnold Schwarzenegger!” in the span of two to 10 seconds.
What was Arnie like? He was a lot of fun to ride with. I wasn’t super impressed at first when he blew past me at a traffic light changing to red, and I had to chase him down. However, I came to realize that when you are that famous, standing still for even 30 seconds draws a crowd and there’s plenty of gawkers shoving their phones in his face. On our first ride, we were near the White House when we saw a squad of bike cops on a training ride, and he went out of his way to wave and say thank you as we passed. One of them chased us down a half-mile farther and asked if he would be willing to come back and take some pictures with the whole squad. He very kindly agreed. As soon as we stopped in front of the White House, a pretty large crowd started moving in. His security guard riding with us turned his bike sideways and asked folks to step back and give him some space, and I instinctively followed suit. Two seconds later, there were a dozen Secret Service agents surrounding us, and I realized I was now in “the bubble.” On our second ride we went to the U.S. Capitol Building where it was unusually quiet. As soon as Arnold was spotted, a security officer snapped to attention, saluted and asked, “Is there anything we can do for you? SIR!” The Governor replied that yes, he would like to go in. They ceremoniously unclipped a little chain at the bottom of the Capitol steps and we walked up to the front door. Of course it was locked, and as soon as he tried opening it, a new level of scrambling took place with the security and their radios. The Governor jokingly pounded his meat cleaver of a fist against the massive door and shouted, “It’s the People’s House – Let us in!” We were all cracking up. Just then, two black Suburbans pull up to the steps and out jump eight security guys in suits with ear buds and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who waves and shouts up, “Hey Arnold, come on in, I’ll give you a tour!” Lets just say it wasn’t the typical tour, and we got to go places you can only go with a member of Congress. Most of all, I was impressed with how vocal the Governor is around his environmental work. When climate change came up in our conversation, I thanked him for the work he did as Governor of California to set some of the best standards in the nation and lead to help combat climate change. He started dropping stats about the GDP of California and the U.S. and how he and his team proved skeptics wrong who said you can’t be green and have a growing economy. Even though I’m not a fan of his movies (like my dork brother), I gained a lot more respect for him and was impressed with how smart, fun and funny he is.
Do you lead many tours during the winter months? I had a few this winter, but I didn’t expect many. In my initial business research, I was grateful to see that D.C.’s visitation rockets up in March and stays pretty solid through November – a perfect alignment with the biking season. December through February are slow months in general and thankfully gave me some time to do some cool consulting work. D.C. is quite mild, and it’s part of what makes biking here year-round awesome.
“It surprises many visitors how easily we can escape the urban scene to roll out on some sweet back roads and country lanes.” Photo by Kip Pierson Photography
How is business doing? I had modest expectations for my first year and planned on learning a lot…and I did. Each month was better than the prior month through October. This year has been amazing. I partnered with the League of American Bicyclists and helped sponsor the National Bike Summit in early March and led nine rides, so I knew it was going to be a busy week. What surprised me was how many clients I booked that same week that weren’t associated with the summit. I ended up pulling several 20 hour days and did as many as four rides / tours in one day. I also had a team-building ride with Cisco, my first corporate client. I don’t want to jinx myself, but this year is off to a great start, and I’m psyched to be getting clients who are booking me three, four and five months ahead of their travels.
Do you attract much business from D.C. locals? The vast majority of my guests are from across the U.S. and around the world. I have done several small group rides with area concierges from hotels, my favorite local shop – The Bike Rack and with some Watson Fellows here in the D.C. region. At the beginning of each ride I share my goal is for each of them to learn at least one new thing. What I hear back at the end is that at nearly every stop they’ve learned something new. I feel privileged to have been able to delve into some of D.C.’s rich history to help people appreciate the city in a new way. I totally love it when I find out a story and learn the history of an old building or a park I’ve biked by a thousand times. Many of my guests will ask me great questions, and those can be great avenues to investigating and learning more.
How do you promote your bike-based business to attract out of town customers? I’ve experimented and am still learning what works and what doesn’t, but my most solid leads are from concierges at hotels. They are amazing people who love working with people and connecting them with experiences they will enjoy. I like to think I’ve been a good addition to the scene for them too.
Is Washington, D.C. doing much to promote and attract bicycle tourism? I’m also totally grateful to have a city that has made a lot of infrastructure gains – some pretty impressive ones in the 9 years I’ve lived here. There are so many great trails, protected bike lanes, and standard bike lanes that even my most concerned guests remark how easy and even comfortable it was. As a former non-profit director, I’m also a believer in working with the organizations in the space. Before I earned my first dollar, I upgraded my long-standing membership with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) to become a business member. I absolutely see my advocacy work carrying forward in my new business. As an advocate and board member of Adventure Cycling Association, I have always appreciated the power of bicycle tourism as a tool for economic development and opportunity. Most of my customers probably wouldn’t even consider themselves “cyclists”, but by giving them an amazing experience and casually highlighting that the bicycle is the best way to see D.C. or anywhere in the world, I hope I’m converting some folks. With over 25 years of bike safety training and experience, I have adopted a super low-key approach to gently teach and demonstrate safe bicycle driving. I’m also a member of the Washington Area Concierge Association (WACA) and Destination DC. I’ve been able to do a lot of volunteering with the DC public schools, and I have donated tours to area non-profits and schools. In fact, on one of the days I rode with Governor Schwarzenegger, I spent the morning taking several dozen second graders biking in Rock Creek Park. A girl with cerebral palsy got to be the VIP of the ride and sat in the front of my cargo bike and acted as the “line leader” for all her classmates. I don’t expect my volunteering to help with marketing – I do it cause I love it. I can make a difference, and I’ve always believed it helps to build up the good karma. My “inner city” school kids get the same commitment and energy as my paying customers.
Jeff takes advantage of the impressive bicycle infrastructure DC has put in place while leading a tour.
What’s next for DC Cycling Concierge? I have lots of ideas, including working with conventions and annual meetings that convene here in DC. I’m still a history student soaking things up, and I am developing new theme ideas from a civil rights tour to “The Burning of Washington” tour which will retrace the invasion of the British in the War of 1812 when they burned the White House, the Capitol Building and every federal building except two. ( Fun fact: A crazy thunderstorm blew in, extinguishing all the flames, damaging some of the British ships and forced them to flee.) I’m pretty focused on learning how to do better and dialing things in, but long term, I’m interested in expanding what works with DC Cycling to other cities. I regularly have people telling me how much they love the idea and how they wish there was a Cycling Concierge in other cities they travel to, so I look forward to someday leveraging my great network to help realize that.
Do you have any advice for aspiring Cyclepreneurs? I’ve always been incredibly passionate about bikes. Aligning your passion with a need or opportunity can be tricky, but there are plenty of opportunities out there. I also think talking with others, keeping an open mind, and remaining flexible while testing out your idea is super important. When I first started researching other private bike guide / tour models like this in 2015, I found very few examples and even those were quite different. Yet last year when I launched DC Cycling Concierge, three other bike tour businesses simultaneously popped up in the region – each with their own focus. Some cater to foodies, others to rural routes and vineyards and one focused on family rides. We all have a slightly different focus and target audience, and I’ve been really psyched to get to know and collaborate with some of them. So noodle on your ideas, be honest about what you love AND what you are good at, consider the weaknesses, and if you can address those, don’t be afraid to go for it. If you can have fun doing it, you’ll always feel that joy. Even things I’ve done that have failed, I’ve known I gave it a good effort and still fondly remember the fun I had.
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