Ralph Velasco is Founder and CEO (Chief Experience Officer) of PhotoEnrichment Adventures (PEA), as well as a travel photography instructor, author and international guide. As such he’s organized and led more than 80 international tours, with a focus on photography, in destinations around the world, including India, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Baltics, Spain, Bhutan, Nepal, Turkey, Romania, Swedish and Finnish Lapland, Morocco, Iceland, Cuba, the Adriatic, Central Europe, Tuscany, Mexico and others.
Ralph is also the Creator of Tour Organizer Training, a free webinar and online course series where he teaches everyday people, just like you, how to make a living from travel. In this step-by-step program he shows participants how to organize and lead their own special interest tours, around the world, or around the corner.Ralph and fellow travel photographer, Ugo Cei, co-host the Traveling Image Makers podcast. He’s also creator of the My Shot Lists for Travel app for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch® (available for free on iTunes) and two years in a row Ralph was shortlisted in the prestigious Travel Photographer of the Year awards.
Question: So, Ralph, tell us a little about yourself and where you are right now with your business.
Well, my name is Ralph Velasco and I'm the founder of PhotoEnrichment Adventures, and the creator of TourOrganizerTraining.com. Over the past 10+ years I've been organizing and leading tours around the world.
In that period, and with very little outside help, I've planned, marketed, administered and led more than 70 international tours, plus over 100 local and domestic trips of varying lengths throughout the U.S.
I have one of those dream jobs, where I get paid good money, by great people, to organize and lead trips to some of the most interesting places in the world, including India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Morocco, Romania, Turkey, Iceland, Cuba, Mexico, Spain, Tuscany and many, many others.
Why should people take your webinar and online course series?
If you’re looking for a way to make real money from travel, beyond just affiliate links or the occasional FAM trip, then organizing and leading tours is one of the best ways that I know of to do that.
I’ve tried a lot of different things in my life, had many different jobs, but for more than 10 years now I’ve been organizing and leading tours around the world. This is the first time I’ve actually thought about it, but this is the longest time I’ve done any one job. I like to say that it only took me 45 years to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, but I guess some people never do, so better late than never, right?
Currently I’m what’s come to be called “location-independent,” which is really just a nice way of saying homeless, but in a good way. I’m on the road more than 9 months per year scouting, organizing, administering and leading the tours I get to create. I have one of those dream jobs where I make a full-time living from travel.
So whether you’re looking to earn some extra income by organizing and leading one trip a year, or perhaps you want to put together a series of tours in your own home town, there are many people who will pay good money to follow you if you can prove you’ll put together a great experience for them.
My goal is to help the participants of my program to create their dream life by getting paid to organize and lead special interest trips around the world, like I did, but to save the thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of mistakes that I made.
I figured this out on my own, and I’m sure others can, too, but boy do I wish there was a program like this available when I started out, it would have kickstarted my career and saved me a lot of headaches, to be sure.
THOUGHTS ABOUT TRAVEL INDUSTRY
What can you tell us about your travel background?
I’m a lifelong traveler, and I’ve been traveling internationally on my own, on and off, since I was 15, when I first studied overseas in Spain one summer. The next summer I was a volunteer in Peru, then the next summer a volunteer in Venezuela, and the next summer I studied for 2.5 months in Mexico City.
Back then, in the early 1980s, like anyone else with the travel bug, I had this grand idea that I wanted to be a travel writer and travel photographer, but there seemed to be very few people who were getting paid to do this, and to me it seemed like making a living from travel was about as likely as my becoming a rock star.
So I followed a somewhat more conventional route, which still didn’t involve my getting a corporate job, and my travel and photography career was elusive for many more years. It doesn’t have to be for you.
HOW I STARTED MY BUSINESS
How did you get started in business?
Seems like I’ve tried everything. I grew up in the restaurant business and so the conventional route for me was to have a restaurant of my own when I graduated from Indiana University.
Then after I sold that first restaurant I took a round-the-world trip for 5 months, came home and began selling real estate, then I managed a friend’s restaurant out in California, but eventually I went back to school to get my Masters in International Business, and this was back in Mexico City, my old stomping grounds.
It’s a long story, but after I almost got kidnapped in Mexico City, I decided I should probably move to San Diego, where my school was based, and so I finished up my degree there. Then I got my first “real” job as the marketing director for a division of a Fortune 500 company, making more money than I ever had in my life, but I was absolutely miserable.
Soon I moved back to Chicago and decided to get back into the restaurant business.
DELICATEZZA AND THE INFAMOUS YELLOW PAD
Tell us about the infamous yellow pad that got you started down the path to making a full-time living from travel.
So in the early 2000s I’d just moved back to Chicago from Southern California and I opened my second restaurant. I opened it in May of 2001, and then just a few months later we had 9/11, and since my restaurant was in downtown Chicago, people in the heart of the city were a bit scared and so business dried up pretty good. I came to the conclusion that to keep the restaurant alive I had to introduce catering into my offerings and so that became a very big part of my business, but I was still hanging on by a thread.
Just then, around 2002, I was introduced to digital photography, and I used to take my new Kodak Easyshare 1.5 MP camera and I’d go out and shoot around the area of my restaurant to clear my head before lunch. It was a beautiful part of the city, near the Chicago River and the Merchandise Mart.
I really enjoyed this new way of photographing and immediately saw a market for teaching people how to make the most out of their new digital cameras, which were becoming ubiquitous. I knew the money wasn’t to be made in selling images, but in teaching people how to use these new devices, but I didn’t want to be just teaching the camera, either, as there were plenty of people doing that already.
So, as I was coming up to the end of my initial 3 year lease for the restaurant I had to decide if I was going to sign another 5 year extension, or sell the restaurant and get out. Like I said, I was hanging on by a thread, and so this was a fairly easy decision to make. I found a buyer, paid off my credit cards and barely broke even, but now I was free, although I had to decide what my next step would be.
Sooo, I took out a yellow legal pad and wrote down on the left side of the page what I disliked about the restaurant business.
1. Had to have employees.
2. Had a big rent to cover each month.
3. There was a ton of money tied up in inventory.
4. I had to work in a hot restaurant and came home smelling like a French fry every day.
5. I was selling something that people consumed and could get sick on, so there was the liability issue.
6. And for the most part every day was pretty much the same.
So on the other side of the page I wrote the opposite of those things and said this is what I want to do, I want to base my next business around this.
I didn’t want employees and only wanted to have to count on myself, I wanted to be able to work virtually from wherever I was, not have any inventory, I wanted to be outside, I wanted each day to be different with little routine, and so I thought I could create some photo walking tours and teach people about travel and photography.
Eventually I took a job as a financial adviser, just so I could move back to Southern California where I could organize and lead my photo walking tours year round. Soon I decided to create and teach travel photography courses at the local adult education centers in Orange County, and at some of the local universities, like Saddleback College and University of California at Irvine extension.
I started to develop a list of clients that I worked with regularly, and eventually created a portfolio of over 20 tours throughout California. Soon I was doing overnight trips to Joshua Tree National Park, and to Death Valley. Then, so that I could get a free trip home, I started organizing 4-day tours back to Chicago where I’d bring groups and show off my home town, which I loved, and so did the people.
Next I was approached by a very large travel company to offer tours through them and so my first international trip with a group was to the Central European Christmas Markets, which was great fun. That was in December of 2009, and since then my company has grown by leaps and bounds and currently I’ve organized and led more than 70 international trips around the world, and over 100 domestic trips in the U.S.
GOING FULL TIME IN TRAVEL
When did you decide to go full time into photography and travel?
My last “real” job was as a financial advisor from 2005 to 2008, but while I was doing this, at night and on weekends I was teaching people how to use their new digital cameras and presenting travel photography courses throughout Southern California, where I was living at the time.
If you know anything about the stock market, then you know what happened in September of 2008...we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. By then I’d created a foothold in the local travel photography and walking tour business, so I decided this was the sign I was waiting for to get out of the financial services industry and into doing what I loved, which was teaching travel and photography skills.
This of course didn’t happen overnight, and I like to say that it only took 45 years to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, because it wasn’t until I was 45 that I went full time, so it’s never too late.
What made you decide to shift from organizing and leading tours full time to teaching people how to organize and lead their own trips?
It comes down to the fact that I want other people to experience the life that I’ve created for myself. I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world because I get paid to travel the world with wonderful people at the best times of their lives, when they’re on vacation.
I was also looking to diversify my business, and I love to teach, and so I started thinking about what I know that I could teach people. The obvious thing was travel photography and travel skills, which I’d been teaching for over a decade now, but it seems sites for improving your photography and travel skills are a dime a dozen, and so I started to remember back to the fact that I’m often asked by people how they can do what I do. And so I started to jot down all the necessary steps for organizing and leading a great trip and the outline alone came out to more than 12 pages single spaced.
I knew I was onto something when I looked at what I’d come up with and realized that I could save people hundreds of hours, and thousands of dollars, in mistakes I made, and time I wasted, by packaging what I know into a step-by-step course that showed people exactly how they can organize and lead their own special interest trips and make a living from travel.