Tourists have long populated city walking tours in droves, and now they’ll have to make room for locals as they try to get new perspectives on the places they call home. Many walking tours now target locals and keep them at the center of their business models.

Skift talked to three walking tour companies in New York City, a place where tourists scramble to see as much as they can and locals always look for something new to explore. Each company said locals are vital to their business models, with two of them saying their tours are designed specifically for locals while also suiting tourists.

Walks of New York, an offshoot of Walks of Italy, says 50-70% of its customer base is from the tri-state area of New York City, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut.

“New Yorkers are showing people around the city all the time, so we thought ‘why not focus on locals,’” said Stephen Oddo, co-founder of Walks of New York. “We try to get as many New Yorkers as possible on tours first.”

Oddo and his co-founder, Jason Spiehler, have shown New Yorkers their tours are worth taking, but the same isn’t true for Walks of Italy, where Italians aren’t as keen to learn about their own backyards. Spiehler said about 65% of tour participants in Italy are American, and most of that them are from the New York City area.

“Big tour operators in Italy focus on the English-speaking market, and walking tours are often more accessible in the U.S. than in Italy,” said Spiehler. “If Italy did a campaign targeted towards locals, maybe walking tours would become popular, but so far locals just aren’t interested for the most part.”

New York City recently launched a new campaign aimed at getting locals to “see your city,” and U.S. cities and states’ tourism boards increasingly turn to locals to act as brand ambassadors and help drive visitation.

Walking tours often miss this key demographic — locals who have the most vested interest in places along tour routes. Big Onion Tours founder, Seth Kamil, says most walking tours make the mistake of thinking tour participants are one-time customers. That isn’t true for his company, which he says sees customers return for four or five tours on average and 40% live within 40 miles of Manhattan.

“We present ourselves the same regardless of who the client is, but the key is to understand the differences locals and tourists have,” said Kamil. “Don’t assume base knowledge, don’t over patronize and don’t oversimplify. The key is consistency.”

Urban Oyster Tours specifically designs its tours for locals, and uses these customers as a benchmark, given that half of their participants are New Yorkers.

“Tourists are kind of hard to sell to, particularly if you’re a small walking tour company,” said David Naczycz, Urban Oyster’s founder. “Most visitors to New York are funnelled through very traditional channels. If you go on to Expedia, the major operators like Big Bus are the ones who come up first, and to find Urban Oyster, they have to really dig.”

Besides locals, millennials now occupy tour operators’ discussions on how to keep tours fresh and different.

“Millennials don’t get excited about a city walking tour,” said Spiehler. “They get excited about a pasta-making class, for example, and learning about ‘what people do here now.’”

Technology on Tours

Walking tours of the past only had the guides as sources of information during tours. Today, smartphones and other connected devices are ready to help factcheck any tidbit a guide offers. But tours aren’t concerned they’ll soon be replaced by an app, instead they’re embracing the technology.

“We don’t compete with devices, and the rhythm of our tours is friendly to social media,” said Naczycz. “There has to be a rythym where you’re talking to them, then taking a break, as this makes it pretty easy to engage with social media. We’re not monopolizing their time, since we want them to engage with their social audiences too.”

The tours point out guide apps aren’t necessarily as current as a human tour guide is, or as flexible in knowing what to do when problems arise. Still, some tours use other kinds of apps to keep customers engaged and interested.

“Last year we stopped printing paper maps, and started using an app called citymaps, and we created maps for all our tours on this app,” said Naczycz. “We found that people always wanted to have a map and wanted it for later to know how to get around. Half the people on our tours actually download it, and particularly millennials use it.”

Walks of New York understood customers’ sensitivity to using too much data to access social media while on tours when Wi-Fi isn’t available, which led them to offer mobile Wi-Fi hotspots on all of their tours.

Behind the scenes, tours face challenges with managing online bookings. Big Onion uses XOLA for bookings, and Urban Oyster uses Get In Sell Out.

“If you book through our website we feel Get In Sell Out is a quality interface,” said Naczycz. “If you book through GetYourGuide, for example, that’s not plugged into my inventory system. Viator is starting to fix this problem, and we link with Viator’s application programming interface (API) now since they show us our live inventory, but I’m not aware of other sites that do that.”

Most people book Big Onion’s public tours 10 to 14 weeks in advance and private tours up to six months in advance. Naczycz said 25% of Urban Oyster’s customers book tours greater than a month in advance and almost all of them are tourists, and 40% book within one week of the tour.

Photo Credit: An Urban Oyster tour group on a Brownstone Brooklyn tour. Urban Oyster Tours