Capturing the Cannatourist

Early start, savvy advertising help Kush Tourism carve out new niche

Two years ago, Michael Gordon was contemplating a career change after working in print and digital media for a national magazine. He knew he wanted to get into the cannabis industry with the start of recreational sales on the horizon in Washington State, but he also knew he didn’t want to actually touch the product. “The idea of buying or selling cannabis was pretty scary,”

Gordon said. “We knew Colorado and Washington were going to be experiments, and people are still going to jail for doing things by the book – I didn’t want any of that risk.”

He’d been toying with the idea of starting a cannabis tourism business and had spent time researching startup costs, looking into state regulations and examining companies in Colorado that had already started taking people on marijuana tours. He saw a prime opportunity: People would be coming to Seattle to take advantage of marijuana legalization, and few would know what was legal, where to go or which products were safe. He could show them.

Less than three months later, he’d found a business partner in Chase Nobles, an entrepreneur he knew from their days in the professional kayaking industry, and the pair launched Kush Tourism. After some intensive preparation – which included securing transportation for tourists, finding insurance coverage and funding some initial marketing and advertising – the company’s bus took off on its first tour, a full five months before the first rec shop even opened.

Since the sale of marijuana wasn’t yet legal, the pair took their clients on tours of glass-blowing shops and to cannabis cooking classes, marijuana-themed cafes and the usual Seattle tourist attractions. That put the company in an ideal position to expand its tours when the first cultivation sites and stores eventually launched.

“Things kind of started slow and picked up over time,” Gordon said. “The first (retail) stores opened on July 8 (2014), and we saw an increase in traffic. It’s steadily been growing since.”

Arrive Early

Being one of the first businesses to offer a bona fide tour of Seattle’s grows, dispensaries and ancillary shops was key to the company’s early success, Gordon said. He advises anybody who wants to get into the marijuana industry to immediately write a business plan, find investors, secure real estate and move forward in other key areas of starting a company. Owners should plan ahead and prepare so they’re ready to open the doors once the industry emerges.

Jumping into an industry that was, and still is, in its infancy benefitted Gordon and Nobles because it gave them a chance to help lead and define their niche. So far, they haven’t seen a lot of competition spring up, but they know it’s coming soon. Being ahead of the pack is giving them a chance to refine their business, partner with cannabis growers and retail shops and build their brand.

“Certainly the first-mover advantage was key to us surviving the first few months of business,” Gordon said.

Advertise Professionally

The pair knew that starting a company from scratch would mean they’d have to do a lot of marketing, so they utilized some traditional advertising methods – sending press kits, distributing postcards and buying local television and radio spots.

They quickly found, however, that approaching salespeople and executives from media businesses required kid gloves, a strong sense of professionalism and lots of tenacity.

“If you approach a company and tell them you sell weed,” they often won’t listen, Gordon said. Instead, saying they ran a tourism company associated with the cannabis industry garnered more acceptance.

“It’s all about a soft approach,” he said. The key is “persistence and promoting (your business) the right way. Everything these days gets run up the flagpole from the sales person to the manager to the board of directors – that’s the process.”

The best advertising, though, didn’t come from a television or radio ad. When the company first launched, it sent press releases to several media companies, some of which latched onto its story. One local news report turned into a regional story, and eventually Kush Tourism was appearing in newspapers well beyond Washington’s borders – advertising the company would otherwise never be able to afford.

“That story was picked up globally – what is that equivalent to in marketing dollars?” Gordon said.
One thing he wasn’t ready for, however, was being recognized by friends and family members back home.
“I’m from St. Louis originally and I had a friend who said he saw me on TV,” Gordon said. “I thought, ‘Everybody in my life really knows what I do for a living now.’ I wasn’t quite mentally prepared for that step.”

Find Partners With Shared Values

Gordon and Nobles have continued to enhance their tour offerings, adding visits to a variety of different cannabis-related businesses and operations.

That’s required developing some strong relationships. Gordon said he doesn’t see these companies as simply business partners. Rather, they’re “brothers” who support each other since everybody in the industry, especially recreational companies, are all new businesses. Cementing solid relationship is important, but finding companies that share their values is equally vital, he said.

One stop on the Kush tour is at the Boro School of Glass, which touts itself as the largest pipe-blowing school on the West Coast with more than 20 full-time artists working in the studio. Boro shows tourists how it make pipes and offers glass-blowing classes. Once a month it offers a “community day” – free time in its studio for people who want an initial tutorial on how the artists make their products.

“This is the type of (company) I want to do business with,” Gordon said.

Kush Tourism takes its customers, or “guests,” on tours of everything from cultivation sites to facilities that perform liquid chromatography testing, in addition to dispensaries and retail shops. Most people on the tours are as interested in seeing how cannabis is made as they are in consuming it. The company also partnered with cannabis-friendly bed-and-breakfasts – hotels are less apt to work with Kush Tourism – in Seattle where their clients can stay.

“These aren’t a group of stoners just coming out of the closet – we’re talking about soccer moms and doctors and lawyers,” Gordon said. “These are the kinds of folks we’re seeing on our tours.”

Look for Ways to Diversify

Now that Kush Tourism is becoming more well-known and the company is growing – it’s up from two full-time employees to five – Gordon and Nobles are looking toward the future. They want to create a holding company that owns a portfolio of businesses. To that end, they’ve launched Kush Creative Group, which helps cannabis businesses find advertising and marketing avenues. They also have plans to expand into consulting.

While it’s been a quick two years for Gordon and Nobles, they know they couldn’t have made it this far without a little luck and good business acumen. But one thing that many people fail to understand is that, like any other industry, opening a cannabis company requires long hours and lots of blood, sweat and tears.

“You should be expecting to work your (butt) off,” Gordon said. “If you think you can come in here and it’s just going to be a gold mine, that’s not how it works. You need to be working twice as hard as the competition. As fast as this industry growing, it’s going to be well worth it down the line.”