DC Stories: Blue Fern Travel
Bringing to light the unique flavors of the District and the history that goes along with it, Blue Fern Travel curates food (and soon fizz) tours that elevate a mosaic of establishments to visitors and locals alike. We spoke with Co-Founders Mary Collins and Stefan Woehlke to discuss how they got started, the challenges they’ve faced, and what’s next!
Tell us about the company’s beginnings and evolution!
Blue Fern Travel (BFT): Before starting our food tour business, we were able to travel a fair amount—but always on a budget. We noticed that a lot of the money that tourism generated would often stay within the industry itself and wouldn’t necessarily reach the destination’s surrounding communities. So that inspired us to build something that would help folks on a budget travel to DC, while also making sure that money spent stayed in DC. That led to the first iteration of the business plan: Blue Fern Hostel. We then ended up winning second place in a business competition which got us our first startup capital! What we ended up seeing was that unless you owned the hostel building, running the business was just not financially viable. Although we secured some investors, we eventually had to do that proverbial pivot.
Our mentor noticed that something we would always mention were the tours we planned to create and offer to hostel guests. He said to us, “you seem to get more excited about the tours than the hostel.” And that is really where starting a tour company came from! We began as Carpe DC Tours focusing solely on food tours, but eventually evolved the name to Blue Fern Travel as we expanded locations and tour offerings.
Sharing meals was one of the ways we felt most connected while traveling, so we aspire to do the same in DC by showing folks who travel here the culture and food unique to the city. Especially given how nationally-focused the tourism tends to be here, we saw that the District as a city itself was being ignored. So, something we really try to highlight through our tours is what exactly makes this city so special beyond the National Mall—the locals themselves, with food being the carrot on the stick!
We both have backgrounds in anthropology, which definitely influences our approach to the different tours we offer. Folks are always surprised with how much local history and cultural stories we weave into our tours. Our ultimate goal is to breed a sense of curiosity so that when folks return home, they also want to learn more about their own communities!
What supporting the community looks like in your business?
BFT: We pay full price for the food featured in our tours and we tip. Something we’ve found shocking in our market research is how often other food tour companies haggle down the price paid to the partnering restaurant (as a compromise for exposure), and then don’t even tip for the service those restaurants provide! So, it’s ingrained into our business model to prioritize supporting the community we’re showcasing to our participants.
We are proudly DC’s only one-for-one food tour, meaning a portion of every ticket sale goes to Bread for the City to help them feed someone for a full day. As a company focused on food tourism, it made sense for us to partner with an organization that functions as a food bank. We want to make sure that money coming into DC through tourism gets distributed throughout the city. Over the years, we’ve been able to fund over 25K meals in partnership with them!
How have the tours and your business changed with the pandemic unfolding?
BFT: We were all there, but just to emphasize how quickly and severely it hit—literally from one week to the next our partner restaurants were 100% closed and all of our tours were completely cancelled. There were certain weeks where we’d open our email and we couldn’t even think straight because of what was happening. It definitely took a while to figure out what to do next but having an airtight budget and really good bookkeeping kept us in shape to quickly apply for relief loans as soon as they were released.
There were some silver linings though, we had space to really take a look at our mission and be creative. We couldn’t jump into doing live virtual events right away because we have kids at home, so we made it work for us by doing pre-recorded stuff instead. We also put together and sold boxes from local Black-owned businesses, with a portion of each sale going to organizations addressing police brutality. If anything, we’ve built a lot of wonderful partnerships during the pandemic that we’re excited about!
One thing we’ve certainly learned is the necessity to diversify our client base. Typically, we’ve marketed to a tourist base, meaning people usually find us on TripAdvisor. But, locals aren’t necessarily poking around TripAdvisor’s DC recommendations.
So, we’re working on programming and services that appeal to and engage locals as well. Our beverage-focused Fizz Tour in Ivy City at all the distilleries around there will start later this year in summer or fall. Think: elevated bar crawl but with plenty of history and background on the neighborhood and production process!
What are some upcoming projects you’re excited about for Blue Fern Travel?
BFT: We’re really excited about creating more content this year for our YouTube channel! It’s something we’re learning how to do as we go, but as a business-owner you always have to keep challenging yourself to try new things. At first it was kind of uncomfortable to be in front of the camera, but as you learn video editing you realize you can just cut out the awkward parts and no one will know. We’re definitely excited to be experimenting with a new platform for us that helps share the history and under-told stories of the city to an ever-growing audience!
We’re also very excited about having rolled out our Cherry Blossom Festival Flavor Pass. and potentially extending the life of the Flavor Pass concept throughout the year—stay tuned!
Mary Collins and Stefan Woehlke,
Co-Founders of Blue Fern Travel.