How I became an accidental tour guide

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FROM scientific researcher to animal guide via founder of Kinsale Food ToursSuzanne Burns built a vibrant food tourism business somewhat by accident!

They say what’s for you won’t escape you, and her faith that things happen for reason has seen her through tough times, building a resilient vision that has held up well for her as a businesswoman.

Originally from Douglas, 47-year-old Suzanne left Ireland in 2005 with a degree in zoology and a research master’s degree in what she describes as “little aquatic creatures”, and traveled alone to New Zealand armed with a work visa and an intrepid spirit.

“I had this feeling that I needed to go. I found work for a while in the North Island working for a university, but I needed to get something more solid.

An opportunity arose at the University of Otago in Dunedin for Suzanne to work in the field of sustainability and agriculture, securing a residency in New Zealand.

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

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

“I was at a career crossroads. I had gone from researcher to animal guide because I liked it more, but if I wanted to progress I had 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.

Shortly after, on one of his 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 in a whale watching business on Vancouver Island.

Suzanne on the waterfront in Kinsale.

“The next day I was on the boat again and I could feel this woman smiling at me. Eventually I spoke to her and within minutes she pulled out a business card. This woman, and the man on the front boat, were business partners. At the end of the cruise, she also offered me a job!

“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 a few months later, living on this incredible boat, working as a writer and photographer with wild orcas, humpback whales, seabirds, dolphins, seals and sea lions.

“I learned more as a wildlife guide, photographer and writer than ever as a zoological researcher; it brought me directly to animals and their world. Be around them every day; it’s like knowing a person: you understand who they are, their behaviors and their moods.

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

“Every time I tried to go back to New Zealand or Canada there were literally roadblocks in my way. I ended up spending the winter in Ireland with my broke dad cycling all over the place. I went from those amazing jobs to working in a minimum wage call center and having seven-minute bathroom breaks. It was a leveler.

Suzanne went on to think that her situation was temporary and that in January she would return to Canada forever.

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

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

“I was looking to do weekend coastal tours and if there was a way to make it a business.

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

“I did this 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 kick-off meeting organized by the Bank of Ireland and the Kinsale Chamber of Tourism and they wanted to know who was doing what in the town. I said I was doing coastal walks and someone said I would consider doing food tours.But I was so sick I just brushed it off.

“A week later a company called me and said they had heard I was doing food tours in Kinsale, they had heard it from Hal McElroy, then manager of the Trident Hotel . He had heard about me from Jacqui Dawson who had chaired that kick-off meeting.

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

“Literally, a door was opening, and I’d be crazy not to walk through it. I thought they seemed to have decided that I was 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 city for locals and visitors alike.

“The first year I did about 50 tours and was very happy. I was doing morning and afternoon tours, seven days a week and pretty much whenever people booked.

Suzanne’s original and now flagship tour is the City Tour, a four-step guided food walking tour of Kinsale and designed as a walking meal with starter, snack, main course and dessert. Guests meet some of the townspeople and learn about the history of Kinsale and its many quirky tales. Everything was going great, until the Covid started to make its presence known.

“I was one of the first companies in Kinsale to experience mass cancellations. In February 2020 I had 200 pre-booked tours – 60 of them were large groups and it was scary to return so many money in refunds. My partner, Cian, says that for creativity to flourish, it takes time to be bored and space to think. I had plenty; time to sit down and to take a cold, hard look at my life and business and to have a clear mind to make decisions in. 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 city tour was off the menu for a while, a reinvented foraging tour included a gourmet picnic and a chance to learn about edible coastal plants as well as seaweed and shellfish, and turned out to be a summer hit!

In 2021, with the Covid still present, Suzanne went even further and created a high-end gastronomic Yacht Charter Tour in collaboration with Sovereign Sailing.

“Yacht Charters came into existence due to persistent issues with site access. I contacted Sovereign Sailing and thought a viewing was a great idea.

“Finding a creative solution to a problem and having the latitude to do it when it’s your business is wonderful.

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

“The sites are too busy on weekends; staff is always an issue and I want to make it as simple and transparent for sites. Going there on weekends when they’re slammed isn’t okay, so foraging and yacht charter are available on weekends instead.

This year is looking good for Suzanne and Kinsale Food Tours. Bookings are going well and she has hired two guides for city tours, while she can focus on foraging and yacht charter tours as well as day-to-day running of the business.

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

“I like the creative aspect, the fact that people can have random requests and I can solve them; and I love meeting the people on the tour – we just have a laugh! It’s a really happy space – people are on vacation and looking to have a good time, and you’re sharing that with them. It’s a real privilege.

LEARN MORE ABOUT TOURS

City tours: two visits per day (morning and afternoon), Monday to Friday, 2h30.

Foraging visits: available daily all year round, time depends on the tide, 2.5 hours.

Yacht rentals: time and price on request.

All tours are subject to availability.

To see www.kinsalefoodtours.com

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