Cork woman: How I became an accidental tour guide

In this month’s WoW Bites! column, KATE RYAN talks to the woman behind Kinsale Food Tours, Suzanne Burns, about what led her to setting up her business
Cork woman: How I became an accidental tour guide

Suzanne Burns, of Kinsale Food Tours, who has a 3-4 hour private yacht charter option, in association with Sovereign Sailing, at Kinsale. Picture: Larry Cummins

FROM scientific researcher to wildlife guide to founder of Kinsale Food Tours, Suzanne Burns has built a dynamic food tourism business pretty much by accident!

They say what’s for you won’t pass you by, and her faith that things happen for reason has seen her through some tough times, building a resilient outlook that has stood her well as a woman in business.

Originally from Douglas, Suzanne, aged 47, left Ireland in 2005 with a degree in Zoology and a research masters in what she describes as, ‘little aquatic creatures’, and headed on her own to New Zealand armed with a work visa and an intrepid spirit.

“I had this feeling I needed to go there. I picked up some work for a while in the North Island working for a university but needed to get something more solid.

An opportunity arose for Otago University at Dunedin for Suzanne to work in sustainability and farming, getting a residence in New Zealand.

“What should have been a year working holiday year turned into ten years!” said Suzanne.

After a decade working as a researcher and wildlife guide, she felt it was time for a change.

“I was on a career crossroads. I’d gone from being a researcher to wildlife guide because I enjoyed that more, but if I wanted to progress, I needed to start my own business. I didn’t want to compete with any of my employers, so I had to figure out what to do.”

Soon after, during one of her wildlife tours, a chance encounter with a stranger who was visiting New Zealand for a marine conference from Canada, led to a conversation and the offer of a job at a whale watching company on Vancouver Island.

Suzanne at the waterside in Kinsale.
Suzanne at the waterside in Kinsale.

“The following day, I was on the boat again and I could feel this woman smiling at me. Eventually I got talking to her and within a few minutes she pulled out a business card. This woman, and the man on the boat before, were business partners. By the end of the cruise, she had offered me a job as well!

“I really wanted to go to Canada, I also really wanted to work with whales, but I never put the two together in my head. 

"I went over a few months later, living on this amazing boat, working as a writer and photographer with wild orcas, humpback whales, sea birds, dolphins, seals and sea lions.

“I learned more as a wildlife guide, photographer and writer than I ever did as a zoological researcher; it brought me straight to the animals and into their world. To be around them every day; it’s like knowing a person: you get to understand who they are, their behaviours and moods.”

After a summer of working a dream job, Suzanne planned to return to Ireland briefly before heading onto New Zealand for a final season there, eventually returning to Canada permanently. But events conspired against her.

“Every time I tried to get back to New Zealand or Canada, there were literal roadblocks in my way. I ended up spending the winter in Ireland with my dad, stony broke, cycling everywhere. I went from having these amazing jobs to working in a call centre on minimum wage and having seven-minute toilet breaks. It was a leveller.”

Suzanne kept going by thinking her situation was temporary and, come January, she’d be heading back to Canada forever.

“But then, I got a call from my boss in Canada. Even though they really wanted me back, they had to prove that no-one else could do my job - and basically it was the job that everyone in the world wanted. I was 40 at this point, and I remember asking myself: I’ve lived a lot, there must be a reason for all of this, hopefully it won’t be too long before I can make sense of it.

“But I felt stuck. I ended up creating my own job out of this pure abject desperation.

“I was looking into doing coastal tours at weekends and if there was any way I could make a business out of it. 

 Suzanne Burns, of Kinsale Food Tours, who has a 3-4 hour private yacht charter option, in association with Sovereign Sailing, at Kinsale. 	Picture: Larry Cummins
Suzanne Burns, of Kinsale Food Tours, who has a 3-4 hour private yacht charter option, in association with Sovereign Sailing, at Kinsale. Picture: Larry Cummins

"I did that for a year and a half, then one day I went to a business meeting in Kinsale in the Blue Haven: I was incredibly sick at the time and really didn’t want to go, but Cian [Walsh, Suzanne’s partner] encouraged me to go.

“It was a start-up meeting run by Bank of Ireland and Kinsale Chamber of Tourism and they wanted to find out who was doing what in the town. I said I was doing coastal walks, and someone said would I consider doing food tours. But I was so sick, I just brushed it off.

“A week later, a company rang me and said they had heard I was doing food tours in Kinsale, that they had heard it from Hal McElroy, the then manager of the Trident Hotel. He had heard of me from Jacqui Dawson who had been chairing that start-up meeting.

“None of them knew me from a bar of soap but went off and told these travel agents in London about me. I just thought this was bananas! 

"Literally a door was swinging open, and I’d be mad not to walk through it. I thought, they seem to have decided I’m doing food tours, so I guess I’m doing food tours, and that’s how it started!”

Suzanne launched her first food tours in March, 2017, and it quickly became a must-do activity in the town for locals and visitors alike.

“In the first year, I did about 50 tours, and I was very happy. I ran tours morning and afternoon, seven days a week and pretty much whenever people were booking.”

Suzanne’s original, now flagship, tour is the Town Tour, a four-stop guided walking food tour of Kinsale and designed like a walking meal with a starter, snack, main course, and dessert. Guests meet some of the townspeople and learn about the history of Kinsale and its many quirky tales. All was going very well, until Covid began to make its presence known.

“I was one of the first businesses in Kinsale to experience mass cancellations. By February, 2020, I had 200 tours pre-booked - 60 of those were large groups and it was scary handing back so much money in refunds. My partner, Cian, says for creativity to flourish you need time to be bored and space to think. I had plenty of that; time to sit and take a cold, hard look at my life and business and have a clear head to make decisions. It gave me mental space and clarity to figure things out.”

Suzanne used the time wisely and reworked her tour offering so that, while the Town Tour was off the menu for a while, a reimagined Foraging Tour included a gourmet picnic and a chance to learn about edible coastal plants as well as seaweeds and shellfish, and proved to be a summertime hit!

In 2021, with the Covid still around, Suzanne went one step further again and created a premium gourmet Yacht Charter Tour working with Sovereign Sailing.

“Yacht Charters came about because of ongoing problems accessing venues. I contacted Sovereign Sailing and thought a tour was a great idea. 

"Coming up with a creative solution to a problem and having the latitude to do that when it’s your business, is wonderful.”

Learning lessons from Covid, Suzanne says her Town Tour will now be available Monday to Friday only.

“Venues get too busy at weekends; staffing is still a problem and I want to make it as easy and seamless for venues. Going into them at weekends when they’re slammed is not right, so foraging and yacht charter are available weekends instead.”

This year is looking good for Suzanne and Kinsale Food Tours. Bookings are going well, and she has taken on two guides for the Town Tours, while she can focus on the Foraging and Yacht Charter tours as well as the day to day running of the business.

“I love being my own boss, I’ve worked for myself longer than anyone else and I’m by far the best boss I’ve ever had. I love working in Kinsale and the venues I work with who have been so incredibly supportive of me over the years.

“I love the creative aspect, that people can have random requests and I can work it out for them; and I love meeting the people that come on the tour - we just have the laugh! It’s a really happy space - people are on their holidays and looking to have a great time, and you’re sharing that with them. That’s a real privilege.”

MORE ABOUT THE TOURS

Town Tours: two tours per day (morning and afternoon), Monday to Friday, 2.5 hours.

Foraging Tours: available everyday year-round, time is tide dependent, 2.5 hours.

Yacht Charters: time and price on application.

All tours are subject to availability.

See www.kinsalefoodtours.com

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