Ever wondered what it’s like to run a travel business? How about running a travel business in the middle of a pandemic that’s halted travel for the better part of a year?
Just ask Isabelle Cossart, the one-woman show behind Tours by Isabelle—bilingual tours that show off the gumbo mixture of New Orleans culture, landscape, and wildlife to the world.
She’s been running tours in New Orleans for 41 years, after moving from France when she was just 21 years old. Her business has survived many unexpected events, from Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans, to 9/11 which halted travel throughout the USA, and more recently COVID-19, which has affected the entire world. She attributes her success to loving and caring about people, deeply.
Isabelle has, quite literally, turned (Meyer) lemons into lemonade, with the resilience and persistence required to handle the sweet and sour moments of working in travel, just like she’s built her business into what it is today. After inheriting a citrus orchard in Louisiana it sustained her throughout the pandemic—delivering the fruits of her labor to local farms and restaurants in her Corvette.
Going with the counterflow, as per usual, like when she turned the disaster of Hurricane Katrina into an opportunity to educate tourists on her tours about how the aftermath of flooding was a human-caused disaster, not a natural disaster. Feeling like a journalist, reporting the facts, with her sketches of the disaster area featured on the cover of the Wall Street Journal.
She’s an inspirational, visionary who makes owning a business feel relatable and real. We’re planning our next trip to New Orleans, how about you?
Listen to this episode of Girlboss Radio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or read the conversation below!
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Isabelle Cossart on Girlboss Radio:
Isabelle: Sorry, my frogs are never silent.
Puno: They’re so beautiful. We were just all chatting and I was just like, this is so dope.
Isabelle: We have thousands of frogs, and they know when it’s sunset, it’s like that minute where the sun is down. It’s like we say, in French, ‘Entre chien et loup’ which literally means between dog and wolf, when it’s not exactly night, and not exactly day, the French word for dusk. And at that precise moment, all the frog starts singing and it’s deafening—so loud. It’s like we’re in the middle of the jungle. I mean, this is the original growth forest. It’s a privilege to live here, it really is.
On what motivated Isabelle moved from France to the United States
Puno: So, let’s get into it. Nice meeting you finally. We’ve all been diving into your life and we’re just like what? It’s so good. So, you originally grew up in France, is that correct?
Isabelle: Yes. Ma’am
Puno: What made you interested in moving or coming to the United States?
Isabelle: Well, I was in my second year of college and I had 11 credits, I needed my 12th one, which was the English translation. I sucked, I was bad at English. So, my parents said try to go abroad and get your English better than you could finally graduate from college I was 20 and I applied everywhere I could to try and get a visa to be able to move abroad.
I received an approval letter and was accepted at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. It was 1974. I did one year as an assistant to the foreign language department at Colby College. That was my introduction to America. I spent one year there, it was a lot of fun. It was the first time I was away from home and my parents were very protective. I was discovering independence and having fun. I still have a cafeteria tray (don’t tell them) but it’s the tray we used to slide down the hill on the snow, you know? Oh, it was so fun. It was cool.
So, anyway, I was engaged to a French man, an engineer. I had a big diamond ring and then after one year in Maine, I thought he had become very boring. So, I gave him back his ring when I went home and just decided I had to go back to America because everybody said you can’t judge the United States on just Maine. You have to have another experience to know what America is. So, I started applying for another visa and I obtained one and moved to Louisiana to teach French in a public school for one year. I’d get a $200 stipend a month and my rent was $250 in a pretty bad neighborhood. So, that’s how I arrived in New Orleans. I just thought I was going to do another year in America. I did my year teaching elementary kids in a very poor, really underprivileged neighborhood downtown.
That was an interesting year. I learned a lot, but the kids, as hard as I tried, didn’t learn very much because they needed everything but French, you know. But I tried, so that was interesting.
On how Isabelle entered the tourism industry and started leading tours around New Orleans
Puno: So, you ended up living in New Orleans for 45 years after that. How did you get into tourism?
Isabelle: Well, I was always trying to find ways to earn a little income somewhere, but without a green card, it’s not easy. So, I replaced a girlfriend of mine when she got sick who was giving a tour on a big bus. I remember it was called Dixie Land Tours and it was a French group. I said I don’t know anything about what to say. She’d say, oh, just make it up they don’t know, they’re not from here, whatever, you know, just, make it up. So, I went to the public library on Loyola and of course there was no internet then. I studied some history books to have something decent to tell these people, you know?
And so, when I stepped on the bus and they gave me the microphone, I started explaining what I had learned. I saw all the things that they we’re doing wrong, you know? The big large vehicle size prohibited us from going under the big oak trees and in the pretty neighborhoods like Uptown, the Garden District, and the French Quarter, because you couldn’t turn the corner.
So, I figured, well, why don’t we do it in a smaller vehicle, and charge more? Why not? By that time, I had gotten married, so I had a car and it had four seats. I could start taking three people and one next to me, if I was going to do a tour. So, I tried doing that, but only in French, my English wasn’t good enough.
I would pull up at the back door of hotels because you know, it didn’t have all the right permits and everything like you’re supposed to. And then after a while the concierge at one of the hotels, she was a Swedish lady, she was really nice. I remember her name was Eva and she said, why don’t you do it in English? They’ll think your accent is great, no worries. I’ll send you some business if you do private tours like that. So, I started doing it in English and it worked, people liked it. And so that’s how I got into tourism—it was sort of by chance.
On starting her own small business
Puno: Wow. You also kind of had a little bit of a vision of how you wanted to do your company, right?
Isabelle: I just saw all the things that other people were doing wrong, like quantity versus quality. And I just thought there was a niche and nobody was doing that. So, with a vehicle that wasn’t so long and so big, you could show more, do more, pull over, you know? And you could be in air conditioning, cause it’s hot most of the time. I didn’t want to do walking tours, you know? That’s why I had the idea to use a smaller vehicle and charge a little more, to give people a lot more.
Puno: And so, when you started doing it, this was pre-internet. So how were you advertising? How were are you getting out there?
Isabelle: I printed a 10-page brochure with poems on Louisiana because I was targeting the French tourists. So, every time I’d go home to visit my mom and my family, I would go to the Marche and go sell to the big tour operators in Paris, mostly travel agencies. I’d tell them, look, you know, we can do this if you have corporate groups as I was mostly targeting groups at first.
I’d say, we could do one week in Louisiana. You spend three nights in New Orleans, one night in Baton Rouge, one night in Natchez, Mississippi, and then go West Lafayette and the Cajun Country. I was doing the French more than anything. And later on, I started doing mostly individuals and private tours, just whatever came I tried to do it.
On juggling her tour company, teaching and motherhood
Puno: And then at this point, you’re completely your tours full-time and not teaching?
Isabelle: Well I had a baby a year, so in between, I remember picking up the tourists, you know, with my big stomach. And then when I was doing bilingual tours because nobody was doing bilingual, but I’d have a French couple and an English couple and sometimes Spanish. In Europe we do that a lot. If you take the Bateaux Mouches on the Seine in Paris, they do trilingual, sometimes four languages, like this is Notre Dame say it in all the different languages.
So, I was doing that and driving with a big stomach, because I had real big babies every time. I would pick up the client and they would say are you the driver? And I’d say yeah, I can back up from the steering wheel, you know, to make room. And they’re like are you going to be okay? I’m like, I’m fine, my babies never come early.
On becoming bilingual doing tours in multiple languages
Puno: I guess in the beginning, when you first came here, you were worried because you only spoke one language, but you really own that you were bilingual.
Isabelle: Well, yeah, and Spanish too. I kind of learned here. There’s so much more of a necessity to speak Spanish here now, especially. Oh, it helps, you know, especially with my orchard business.
On the challenges of being an entrepreneur
Puno: So, what was one of the biggest challenges about running your own business?
Isabelle: It took 10 years to get my status as a citizen and five years to get my green card, and that’s with an attorney. So that was really hard. And then later on the permitting for all the different city permits you need. They put roadblocks and all I tried to do is give business to people and give jobs, so the red tape was the most difficult part.
Puno: How did you figure it out? Was it just charming the people?
Isabelle: You just smile, but you insist, you don’t give up. If you empower other people and tell them, please help me, I need your advice, people will. They’ll be like wow I can give advice to this person down there, you know?
Puno: When did you learn that?
Isabelle: Looking at my mom, you know. My mom’s amazing, she’s 90. She’s in France. She was biologique, which is how we say organic before the word was invented. She always made all of our baby food, made all of our clothes. She homeschooled all four of us. She taught me how much women can do, and she’s still my role model, you know? Everything has to be healthy, natural from nature. And you know, that was 70 years ago. Nobody thought that way.
On building a tourism business as a solopreneur
Puno: Yeah. I love that. So, going back to your tourism company, when you were building it, were you the only employee for a long time?
Isabelle: Yeah. And I’m back there now, so that’s good. I’m just not 21 anymore, but I could pretend. You do everything. I remember they didn’t have cell phones, of course, for a long time. So, I had what they call the repeater radio in my one van, which was a horrible poo color, you know, it was one of those brownish colors.
Puno: They loved that color back then…
Isabelle: You remember they had fridges like that. But anyway, that was the color of my first van and we called it the Golden Goose because it did well. I had the repeater phone in there, which was like a radio. You’d have to say ‘over’ and ‘roger that.’ I would confirm all of the business for the next day while I was on the way back from the previous store and the people were taking a nap in the back and that way I could reconfirm so when I got home, I could take care of the babies and I wouldn’t have to start working again. So that was a good trick.
I think I had the first cell phone radiophone made. And it was like a heavy thing it looked like an elephant, it was so big and heavy remember. Anyways, I had that so that was helpful. I remember I paid a thousand dollars for that thing back then.
But to answer your question, communications and just planning ahead, I’m very lucky cause I’m always thinking the next thing, which is exhausting sometimes, but it’s really hard to be in the present. I’m always thinking what’s next and it helps for this work.
Puno: I feel like with tourism, everything is always, or you’re always working in unpredictable situations. When you were taking care of your kids, was that all on you? Did you have help?
Isabelle: Well, my husband was an alcoholic, so it was kind of a lot on me. I had wonderful help from a lady from Cuba that I could bring the babies to. And I remember I tried to do mostly half-day tours because I’d have to run home and nurse the baby because I wanted to breastfeed. She would call me, and say he’s crying, hurry up. And I’m like, just please don’t feed him. Just don’t give him a bottle, I’m coming, I have so much milk. Please, just hold on.
And so, she’d walk outside, hold the baby until I got there so I could nurse the baby quick, and then go back to work, you know? That way I was able to nurse them until they were two—all of them—because it’s so much better.
Puno: All of them. How many babies?
Isabelle: Four in five years. I’ve got 13 grandkids now.
On when she felt like her business was successful
Puno: Congratulations! I was going to ask you, when did you feel like you hit a groove with your tourism company?
Isabelle: Oh 2018 was the best year. It was amazing. I did over $2.3 million in sales. It was an amazing year. I think because it was the tricentennial of Louisiana. So that brought a lot of publicity to the city. I had 15 driver-guides working for me. I have only driver guides. I don’t like having a driver and a tour guide. It’s better if you do both because, for one thing, I could sell one more seat. The difference between 11 people in the van and 13 is easy, you double your profit, and the last two people are pure gravy.
So, I had four full-time office people who were wonderful, so I can’t wait to rehire them. I mean, they text me periodically and I try to keep them holding on we’re going to be back in a little bit. It’s been one year, it was on Saint Joseph’s Day—March 19 will be one year since everything just went into hibernation.
Puno: So, your tourism business started in, well, it was in 1979, 43 years ago. But it wasn’t until 2018 that you felt like it was like the best year. Was there a time in the beginning or earlier that you were like, I’m going to keep doing this, this is working, this is something that you love?
Isabelle: I always knew that. Because I love talking and I love people and you can do both. I mean, I would probably do it for free. I need the money, but I love it so much and I was able to find awesome people who felt the same way about Louisiana. I have the best tour guides. These guys they know so much. They’re like historians and you have to have knowledge, but you also have to be able to share. It’s just like any teacher, the fact that you know the material doesn’t make you good at communicating. And actually, I think maybe one-third of my people were school teachers first.
Puno: How did you find these amazing people?
Isabelle: They find me because I treat them better than other companies. They know their worth and they deserve it.
On all the struggles, emergencies, and natural disasters that have happened in the world, in the USA, and in Louisiana since she started her business
Puno: A lot has actually happened from 1979 to now. The big thing that happened in 2001 was 9/11.
Isabelle: People were afraid to travel. So, we lost a lot of work. But it came back, it just took holding on. And of course [Hurricane] Katrina in 2005. Everything stopped for more than a year, but it was only Louisiana—it was only us. It wasn’t the world. It was a good trial period to learn how to survive this COVID thing, you know. Fifteen or 16 years later it was a good lesson—it was hard, but we did it.
On how she coped with the repercussions of people being scared to travel after 9/11
Puno: And when 9/11 happened you had your business, but there was a little bit of a lull?
Isabelle: Not a little bit. There were just about no more tourists. People were told not to travel. Our visitors come by plane and people were scared of flying.
Puno: So how did you make money then?
Isabelle: Well, you just spend less. I didn’t have to lay off anyone. I wasn’t as big yet. So it was, it wasn’t as hard.
On inheriting a citrus orchard and turning it into a lucrative second business
Puno: Was this around the time that you had inherited your orchard?
Isabelle: 2002 is when I brought the property here and it had 25 trees. A doctor from Beverly Hills had a three-line little thing in the newspaper saying there’s a property for sale on the river. We thought we were going to downsize because the kids were all in college, but this place was way bigger.
It upsized, which was pretty interesting. My ex-husband put it in my name. I didn’t know it was only in my name. I was too busy. But it was a good thing because he was trying to avoid things problems with the IRS, from a business he had that had failed. So, he put in my name to cover himself.
And then later on when he left all of a sudden, the judge said, well, what are you fighting for custody of trees, orange trees? I’ve never seen people fight for custody of trees before. She was hilarious. She said why are you arguing? This is only in your name. So, don’t argue, just it’s yours. Like what? So, we were very surprised. I was happily surprised.
That’s how I ended up with a property. In the meantime, he had planted hundreds of trees so I ended up being with 632 citrus trees that I knew nothing about how to take care of the trees. I already had another business. So, I had to learn. These beautiful trees, they give this incredible fruit, right? Cause it’s right on the Mississippi River, rich silt, the best topsoil—alluvial soil—just the perfect balance of acidity for these trees. Apparently, that’s what they need. And it was great. So, I had to learn because of all the fruit on the trees, what do you do? You can’t let them rot that would go to waste. My mother would kill me. I can’t waste anything.
So, I started giving them to my friends at the yoga studio and my neighbors. And then one of the neighbors said, my husband is a chef—I gave him some of your red grapefruit and he wants some for the restaurant. And I’m like, “bling” I can make money with this.
And so, I started figuring out how much to sell them for, and I would start bringing them to his restaurant. And then he talked to the other chefs cause they all know each other, it’s a really cool community and everybody started wanting my citrus because it was such quality fruit. The Meyer lemons are just huge and everything of mine is big—all my kids were 10 pounds and all my fruits are huge. I can’t grow anything little. I’ve been selling the citrus every year between Halloween when the season starts until Mardi Gras. So, from late October till late February.
Puno: And so, it was depleted at least for this year or two, but then you had this orchard business.
Isabelle: It’s perfect, I stayed busy. It’s good.
Puno: So how did you manage this, with that? Was the seasonality helpful?
Isabelle: I wouldn’t mind having fruit all year, but yeah, kind of was. On Mondays, my helper from Honduras tells me, okay we probably have about 80 pounds of lemons this week. And from looking at what’s in the trees we probably have a hundred pounds of blood oranges, which are awesome.
So, I texted all the chefs—I have a whole list, you know, I’m organized. And it’s like an auction. The first one who texts me back gets it and I always sell out. Tuesdays we weigh, I use the tour van to get all the boxes and then I come and we load up. I got a little scale and we just weigh in the garage, all the fruit, and then on Wednesdays, I deliver.
Puno: With your tourism truck?
Isabelle: Yeah, with the tour van! And I also have a Corvette. I’ve always had Corvettes. I like to go fast. Sometimes I deliver with the vet when the van’s already busy on tours and people love that, like wow what a delivery vehicle you know?
Puno: Was there anything from your tourism business, like any skills that you acquired from there that helped you run this orchard?
Isabelle: It’s the same principle. You charge more, but you give so much more quality versus quantity. I don’t have a whole lot. I don’t take a whole lot of tourists. I don’t sell a whole bunch of citruses. But I charge a premium because I give a premium. So, it’s the same thing.
Puno: It’s a choice though, you know, as opposed to growing and scaling really fast and going for quantity versus quality.
Isabelle: No, no, you don’t want to get too big. No, I learned. My first husband’s business went bankrupt and I had to declare bankruptcy because of that because he grew too fast. He had too many stores and it just too much. It helps to be a control freak,, cause then you could manage the quality. If you’re too big, you can’t.
On how a business in slow travel can be successful
Puno: We’re trying to do that here on this podcast, where we want to show that people who desire to grow slow are just as successful.
Puno: Why do you think it’s so much more?
Isabelle: It gives me a lot of pride to think that people will get the best oranges. You know, I don’t use any chemicals, no pesticides, no herbicides. Ladybugs, spiders, and red ants are everywhere, but they help. It gives you a lot of pride when you come and you have this whole box of just amazing looking fruit, even though some have little blemishes and stuff, but you know they can use the skin. They can zest. Some chefs put it in a powder and put it into the pie mix and it gives so much flavor.
Well, with the tours it’s kind of the same. I’m not going to pull up with a big bus full of 56 tourists at one time. But the people I’ll have, they’ll appreciate the fact that they can ask questions. With a smaller group, there’s so much more interaction.
You adapt and you pay attention to what they are interested in. So, even though you say the same history and the same stories, you know, what is a Creole, what is a Cajun, what’s the difference, but you tune it differently according to who they are and what their interests are. If you have kids, you’re not going to say the same thing. Different audiences will require a different proportion of the speech to be according to what their cultural background is.
On her business surviving Hurricane Katrina
Puno: So, you just talked about Hurricane Katrina, which happened August 29, in 2005. And I grew up in Houston, so I know…
Isabelle: You saw a lot of us come over there.
Puno: I don’t think people remember. I mean, if you’re from the South you for sure remember how devastating it was. But can you describe how devastating it was for you?
Isabelle: My oldest daughter was expecting her second baby. Her due date was just the week after that. I decided to leave and I remember I had taken a lot of bottles of water with me, a couple of the shotguns, you just didn’t know on the road. I had the van and piled up with all that I could for three days because we just brought things for three days. We never thought it was going to last longer than that, and we wouldn’t have to be far. My husband had said he was going to stay, which was crazy. I got to Baton Rouge and settled in my son’s dorm at LSU university. And then my husband called me and said, well, they are saying I should leave. So now I want to leave. Come and get me.
I had to go back all the way down and interstates were all one way. I had to go the letter roads and it helped that I knew the plantation drive because it was right along there. And I knew all the little roads from my work, so that was so helpful.
A few times the police and military said, lady, you are going the wrong way and I said no, I’ve got to go get my husband now he wants to leave. So, I came all the way back and got the dogs and got my husband. And then we started following everybody, driving. Opposite of the way everybody was going, you know, but that’s me. I always go counterflow anyways.
And then when I got there, my daughter says, I think I’m in labor. we didn’t know the hospital in Baton Rouge, she didn’t have a plan. She didn’t have any baby things. And sure enough, she had her baby the night of Katrina. And that wonderful girl is now almost 16 years old. She’s great. She’s very happy. Her name is not Katrina.
I remember going to Walmart in Baton Rouge and fighting with some other lady for a little crib, a little portable crib. There were a lot of people in the Walmart parking lot in Baton Rouge, who were just there, there had no place to stay, no hotel rooms.
And I remember when you were in the Walmart, you could tell who thought they were going to be staying there a long time and who didn’t realize they were going to be stuck a long time because some bought plastic silver and some bought real silver, you know, and that kind of told you who thought they were just there temporarily or not.
That was just so eerie. We were there a long time and when I was finally able to come back home part of my roof was gone and it had rained in the house—there was lots of beautiful blue cheese mold on the walls.
Puno: Oh, no.
Isabelle: But everybody’s home was like that. But we didn’t flood, we were lucky. It just rained in the house. No flooding here cause I’m on the river and the river’s 19 feet above sea level when you’re on the riverside. It was a little scary. The fridge was full of rotting stuff. So, we put everything in big bags and buried them. Cause there was no garbage pickup and you were on your own, there was no 911.
Puno: How long were you on your own for?
Isabelle: Well we weren’t allowed to stay. We could just come and check things out and leave because there was no water, no electricity and you couldn’t get gas for the generator.
It was probably about a month and a half, six weeks in the dorm in the student dorm with a two-year-old. And of course, there’s zero business. But my vans were okay—I think then I had like three or four vans at the time. The gas had been siphoned out, but that’s okay, somebody must have needed it.
Puno: So at least your vans are okay.
Isabelle: Yep, but there were no tourists. Butthe thing is, New Orleans wasn’t completely flooded. They don’t realize the French Quarter is built on the riverside so its high ground. The French quarter never flooded, and the garden district never flooded. All the plantations were great. The swamps were great, because they always flooded. So, you could do tours, but all people wanted was to see the levee and floodwall breaches. Can you take us? They’d ask, and I’m like, you want to see the disaster? Yep. That’s what we want to see. What we saw on TV is what we want to see. The levee breaches.
Isabelle: I started to try to get to all the places where they had been breaches, 13 places. And I started an itinerary that I found an old map. I drew arrows to all the breaches that I could get to.
I still have the maps in my van. I made copies and I show them to people every day because they don’t understand what happened.
People needed to understand it was not a natural disaster. It was a human disaster. The government did it. You know the levies were not breaching. What breached were the floodwalls that were not built at the proper depth. So, I found things in the local newspaper, The Times-Picayune and I cut them out and I went to Kinko and made copies. So, everybody would see what exactly happened. I almost felt like I was a journalist—like I had to bear witness. I had to tell people this what happened, and this is why it happened, and this is why we should rebuild a certain way, not the way it was built wrong.
So I started the Katrina tour to explain that to people. And then on December 27, 2005, I had my pen and ink drawings on the front page of the wall street journal, which was really ugly.
My mom and dad were coming from France. They were at Houston airport and my dad called me and said your picture is on the cover page of the Wall Street Journal, in French he tells me. And I’m like, dad, you sure? They don’t have pictures? Well, you’re drawing. Wow. Really? What did they say?
‘Lady does disaster tour.’
Wow. Doesn’t sound very nice, but okay. I mean, maybe it’s better if they talk about it. And then, and they all started, you know, cause they all talk to each other.
USA Today and all the interviews and the local TV channels and then Connie Chung and Maury Povich. She wanted to interview me and I went to the local channel that’s their affiliate in town. So, they could interview me there and she said, how do you dare take advantage of people, misery? Do you realize you’re profiting from all these people’s all terrible situation? You are just making money from this.
Sensationalism, you know, and before I could explain the importance of people understanding the real story of why1800 people died in New Orleans and how the government built these sheet metal piling at the improper depth under the floodwalls, and it was their fault that these things broke. It wasn’t the earthen levee, it was the floodwalls, and this is where it happened before.
Before I could explain that I needed to bring awareness so people would know all over the country and political people could help and send funds for New Orleans—she cut my mic off and I couldn’t talk.
Puno: Oh my gosh
Isabelle: I was so angry. I had to tell people the true story. Everybody thought it was one neighborhood, the ninth ward. No, it was 13 places. Katrina did not discriminate. The only people, the category that was hurt a lot more than others were the older people and people with their pets. It had to be told what happened and whose fault it was. Even if you can’t sue the federal government and the core of engineers it’s still their fault that it happened and it should be known, so they don’t do it again. And we’ve watched them.
The BBC even did a piece 10 years later. It just won’t go away. I had to give the Katrina tour for years and it’s like, what are they going to want to see beautiful things? The stories, the history, the garden district, the swamps. When will people want to see beauty again? I mean, we had to keep our nose in the mess for years.
We would just go over and over the real destroyed part of the city. It’s sad. One of my tour guides, she’s gone now, poor thing, but she lost her house and the oil spill in Chalmette. She was flooded, lost her home, and then she could never go back home because of the Murphy oil spill in her neighborhood when Katrina moved some of the tanks and the fuel invaded a whole neighborhood. She had to give the Katrina tour and she would pass in front of the remains of her house and show people, well, this is where I used to live and I’ll never be able to go back, you know?
And I asked them, do you girls want to keep doing this? It’s got to be so hard on you. I didn’t lose my house. And they said, no, this is the only thing we have left from before you can’t take that away, don’t stop. We have nothing left of our normal life from before but this works, so don’t stop. It was like my responsibility to keep it going, so at least they could still have their job.
Puno: Your guests that were going on these tours, were you able to show them the truth? How did they walk away?
Isabelle: That’s all I did nonstop. Yeah, absolutely. And, and I would always end the tour by saying please tell your Congressman, please tell your Senator. You know, we need help. New Orleans needs this to be fixed, not just a Band-Aid fix to fix where the wall is busted. The whole thing needs to be fixed. It’s built everywhere at the wrong depth, not just where it broke.
You can’t just do a Band-Aid fix. Please tell your congressmen, and some people did. So, you know, we tried to play a part in awareness. That was a mission kind of.
On the state of Louisiana and New Orleans now, post Hurricane Katrina recovery
Puno: So, has it changed, or is it still the same?
Isabelle: Yeah! Not everything’s rebuilt, but what’s changed is at least people are not asking every day to go see the disaster. Thank God we could show beauty again, you know?
Puno: You’re like left turn!
Isabelle: Yeah. I mean, still like last week I did a city tour for a family of four and they were very interested. I think they had family in Holland. So of course, there’s a lot of similarities with Holland, how they fought the North Sea successfully, but they put their money where their mouth is. They have a whole ministry of water management which we don’t. We need to, especially now with the sea level rising. I did do a little detour into one of the levee breach areas by the lakefront, they saw that. And if I see people are interested in that, we could always add that because it’s part of history.
Puno: And I think you do it also from such a good place that you can be reminded that you are part of helping local government make better decisions.
Isabelle: Yeah. Absolutely local and federal.
On how she has handled running a business during a global pandemic
Puno: Well, I also want to be sensitive. I don’t want to just talk about disaster after disaster. But I’m just like, you just handle it with such grace and I can still hear it in your voice how much you love what you do still. So, one last thing about disaster which is the most recent one that we’re all still in which is COVID.
Isabelle: It’s getting better. It’s getting way better. I was able to give work to one of my tour guides. And then it’s just doing all the office work in between when I get all the breaks when people are on the fast airboat, and they go with the captain to see the alligators. I have just a half-hour to do all my bookings for tomorrow, but it gets a little heavy, and I love giving them work. You just give to people, but they give back so much, they really do.
Right now, I’m getting passionate people. A lot of people in health, like nurses, traveling nurses. We have one on tour today. Doctors who finally can get a break, they haven’t had a break for one year at least. So many of the health professionals are finally getting a few days off and when they come here and you have them, you’re like I have one day!
My goal is to make them happy and think about interesting things in history and the beauty of Louisiana for one day. So, they don’t think about all their issues. And they’re just passionate, you know, about relaxing, having fun, being together and doing something great and safely because I make them wear a mask in the van and I have a shower curtain behind me I’m like in the cockpit.
I just feel a responsibility. I mean, they’ve given me one day that they off that they haven’t had so much time off and I have to make them happy and forget their troubles. And I do. And at the end of the day when you see how relaxed they are, and sometimes they take a little nap on the way back, and you’re like, I did it, you know, they, they just had a good day. So that’s a good job.
Puno: And it’s not just like one good day, it’s an experience for the rest of their life.
Isabelle: Oh yeah. Because we take pictures of them. And then in the evening, I text them the pictures of them on the airboat with the captain in the garden by the flowers, and they they like seeing their pictures and remember. It’s like a memory they can keep. I love doing that at night. And then it’s a little trick, I send them a link to write a review after I send them the picture and it works. You know, it’s just a little trick. Why not?
My father-in-law was Cajun and he told me something that I always remembered that helped me, that was, ‘lache pas la patate.’ That means don’t drop your potato. Like you’ve got, a sweet potato in your hand and it’s burning, right? You got to juggle and keep it up just until it cools off, just juggle. Don’t drop it, you know? And then when it’s cooler, you can eat it and you’ll not be burning anymore. Lache pas la patate just don’t drop your potato. That means to hang in there, you know, in Cajun talk. And I love that, that’s what we do.
On the lessons she’s learned from dealing with so many unexpected events
Puno: I feel like that’s kind of the lesson that you always have to go back to from just dealing with all of these unexpected events.
Isabelle: Right find a way to survive. New Orleanians are perfect at that. You know, we’ve always had epidemics in Louisiana since the first Europeans came. I mean, yellow fever was terrible. You didn’t know how to fight it for two centuries, nobody knew. How did you get yellow fever until 1905? And so, you know, we have a hard-enough time fighting COVID when we know what causes it, they didn’t know what caused yellow fever. People were dying. People have always had to fight troubling things like that down here. So, I think it’s in the earth.
On how COVID-19 is a different kind of unexpected event
Puno: In what ways is COVID different from what you’ve previously gone through?
Isabelle: Everybody was involved. Everybody. 9/11 America was involved. Katrina was just New Orleans. But this time it’s everyone. That’s how it’s different, it’s everyone. You just have to be one of the first ones back up. So that when people have time off they can come and relax here.
Puno: I’m going to come.
Isabelle: I wish you would, it’s fun!
Puno: I mean, I love citrus. I have my Meyer lemon juice because apparently, it’s very good for
Isabelle: It’s good for everything!
Puno: And I learned how to make lemon curd recently. I was like, this is good.
Isabelle: No, I can’t cook. I don’t want anybody to think I can cook. Cause then I’m going to have to. No way, I don’t have time for cooking.
On running both businesses and how they’re doing today
Puno: How are you running Tours by Isabelle and Isabelle’s Orange Orchard? How’s that going today?
Isabelle: Well we’ve finished for the season of citrus. So, it’s only a matter now of just taking care of the trees and pruning and throwing away the dead branches. We had a bad freeze on Mardi Gras day, so we had to be sure they had their little feet covered. I went and got wood chips from my neighbor and we covered their feet. And then I was able to put on all the baby trees, some large contractor garbage bags on three bamboos for bamboo sticks, because the leaves can’t touch the cover or else, they freeze. So, we saved them all—the baby trees were good. You just do one step at a time.
It’s like how they always say the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t like that. I like to think that it’s stairs. You go up, but you only get the light, like on your forehead, like a miner to see one or two steps ahead. You don’t want to look at five steps, it’s too hard. Just one step at a time. It was the same with cancer—I had breast cancer. You just do one surgery at a time. Don’t think too far, because you’ll be overwhelmed. Just think about now’s crisis, otherwise, it’s too hard. Just a little two steps at a time.
On her best advice for anyone starting a travel or tourism business
Puno: Do you have any advice for anybody who wants to start a travel or tourism business?
Isabelle: I think customer service is key. If you’re very responsive to people, whether emails, phone calls or texts just don’t wait. People want right now. They want everything right now. It’s so important to respond quickly to people. So, customer service. And then after the sale too, you know, I send them the pictures, they always like that.
You find something they like and you just keep doing it repetitively, you know, little things, not, not a big deal, a little present, or offer a discount in the future for next tour or. I always make sure I spell their names correctly, people really appreciate that. Especially when they have unique names. You know, spell it exactly. Cause it’s like a little paying attention to that person. And always put a little something, like if I know that if they talk during the day about having children or they have twins—anything special that you picked up, I’ll make a note of it so I remember. And I say it again when I send them a message, you know to come back with your kids one day or just something personal, a little trait to that person that you pick up on, you remember and then you tell them and they feel like you really paid attention to them and you did.
On Isabelle’s personal definition of success
Puno: So here at Girlboss, we like to explore what success means to our guests. I’m pretty sure your definition of success is probably changed.
Isabelle: Yeah. It’s not about money. It’s feeling useful. Like what I was telling you about people who’ve given so much—health workers, emergency people who finally get a day off and the end of one day when you’ve had them on a tour and they’re relaxed and they don’t think about their worries, that’s success.
Don’t tell anybody, but I would do it for free cause it makes me so happy. It makes me happy to make people happy—basically, everybody’s the same way. To be useful and that I’m thinking I see that I will be able to give at least a few of my people their job back soon.
I see the bookings are trickling in more than they’ve been. The people that depend on me to bring them work, like the boat captain on the airboat. It’s a different destination, and museums we bring people to. If I stop, then they won’t have that. So, I can’t stop.
On if and when she’ll retire
My dad always wanted me to retire, but shoot, he didn’t retire until he passed. When he was 86, he still worked. So, he had no business telling me to retire. I’m not going to retire. What would I do? There’s too much to do and I have to do it, and I’m good at it.
I think women are so much more powerful because they’re flexible, we’re flexible. I always tell people it’s like a Cypress tree, you know? Cause we talk about Cypress trees a lot when we go to the swamps, they’re amazing. The wood is rot-proof practically. It’s fire-retardant. When lightning will strike the top of the Cypress trees and won’t burn all the way down, just burns the top then it stays alive.
Cypress in French is La Cipriere, it’s feminine because it’s flexible and it’s soft, but it’s so durable. I think that’s what women are, like a Cypress tree. It bends, it doesn’t break. None of the Cypress trees broke at any hurricane. They bend and they come back up, you know, and they find their vertical because if they’ve bent by the storm—and I have one of them like that over—there it’ll stay bent because it was really hurt by the storm. But all the branches find their vertical. We have to find our vertical and we do that. And you could still be flexible and strong that’s because they’re feminine, I love that about Cypress.
Puno: Thank you so much, Isabel. You are so beautiful.
Isabelle: Well, you’re welcome.
Puno: Thank you so much for talking about everything that you did. I’ve learned so much, I’ve been reminded so much about, the hot potato and that you need to just keep it in your hand.
Isabelle: Yeah, just keep dribbling. It’s too hot to hold. So just hold on.
Puno: Thank you so much.
Isabelle: You’re welcome. It was a pleasure. I love talking.
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