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Nebraska Entrepreneur Turns Being "That Guy" Into A Successful Small Business

According to his friends, Alan Rust is “that guy.” He’s that guy you ask when you want to go to the best restaurant in the city, hoist a few in the best brewery in town, or hit the best bars for a classic cocktail. He’s that guy who knows the local chefs and isn’t shy about making recommendations. And he’s that guy who doesn’t just know all the hot spots in Omaha, Nebraska – he knows them in the many cities he’s lived in over the years, too!

In his previous career Alan spent decades in retail where he gained experience doing every aspect of business. But when the retail industry became unstable, he decided it was time to strike out on his own.  His friends were quick to point out what type of business he should start – an experiential based tour company.  In June 2017, Alan and co-founder and friend Dakotah Smith started American Tour Company in Omaha, Nebraska – locally known as Nebraska Tour Company. American Tour Company also operates tour companies in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Colorado.

Nebraska Tour Company initially focused on culinary tours. Alan knew many of the local restaurant owners, chefs and bartenders in Omaha and encouraged them to partner with him on 3-4 stop walking tours where participants could sample tasting menus from some of Omaha’s most unique restaurants. But that’s not all – they could also learn about the venue’s history, information about the local district, and even get to meet the chef whenever possible. The most popular tours showcase Omaha’s historic Old Market district and the eclectic Blackstone District. Alan chooses his tours carefully. “For all tours I start researching online and finding out what the most popular districts or most historic districts are. Then in each city I go and discover them for myself, walk around and talk to people. The district we focus on needs to be walkable. The majority of our tours are walking tours. The district has to be safe, interesting, and can’t be too far to walk.” Alan also has high standards for his culinary tours. “The restaurants have to have understandable menus, great ambience and friendly staff. We want to take guests to unique restaurants with a great local story.” These tours also benefit the local restaurants. “There’s studies that show when people take a food tour of a new city, they will go back and order the full meal. We get them in the door so they can experience it and possibly come back. I’ve had venues tell us that because they were on a food tour, they’ve had participants come back for a holiday sell out because they enjoyed it so much.”

When a historical tour company in Omaha was going out of business, Alan saw it as an opportunity to add historical tours to his business model. He inherited their business and brought on their staff so that “we had a team of history experts. That’s where the balance of culinary and history came from. It’s been a very unique business position to be in – it gives us a great diversity of tours, and we can provide food and history for corporate clients that want both.”  Alan also offers self-guided tours. When booked online, customers get access to a web page that goes through 15-20 historical landmarks. They can see pictures of the landmark in the past and in the present, read about how it came to be and its historical significance. Then they can either walk, bike or drive the tour route.

Alan also engages in business to business sales – he frequently works with large companies to do corporate tours and events, and even to do “Welcome to the City” tours as part of executive recruitment.

Alan’s entrepreneurial journey hasn’t always been an easy one, but his passion for sharing the local stories of the community and promoting local restaurants, landmarks, museums and artisans has kept him going through the hard times. “It hasn’t always been easy. I was in the stage until the middle of 2019 where I was still working other jobs. At the end of 2019, the business was supporting me, but then in 2020 that all changed.” Luckily, however, the business has not had to be put on hold. Offering self-guided and outdoor walking history tours has allowed his business to maintain some operations since March. “The history [tours] in 2020 saved us. We’re only 60% down in 2020 – which in our industry is a great thing. There’s many businesses in our industry that are closed. On average tour businesses are down 76%.”

And of course, there are the usual challenges of being an entrepreneur. Challenges like not knowing where to go to find support services that specialize in assisting small businesses. Not knowing about the myriad of business regulations until a specific issue arises. Not knowing how to tailor a business plan for investors. Luckily for Alan, he sought out the assistance of the Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC), one of the resource partners of the U.S. Small Business Administration. “They helped us design our formal business plan as we were getting ready to ask for our first investor. Honestly, there are software and websites you can look at to do a business plan, but it was invaluable for us to work with NBDC to help us not just know the outline of what we needed to do, but to perfect the content that we were using and how it was structured,” Alan said.

Challenges aside, Alan enjoys being a small business owner. “For me, because of my business, it’s the freedom of time and the ability to go and discover new places and things. It’s all about bringing exposure to the city, to the other local businesses. That’s what we’re all about.” Alan has this last piece of advice to budding entrepreneurs: “Don’t put it off. That’s the biggest thing that people do. There’s so many people out there with great ideas but they are too worried to do it. While you have the safety of another job, start doing the research. Start it as a side hustle and find out if there’s viability for your idea and then make the decision. Don’t not do it because you’re scared. There are so many people and friends that you have that may have advice for you or have gone through similar situations – talk to everyone about it, they will be ready to help.”

Company Name: 
American Tour Company
Omaha, NE