Scaling a walking tour experience in a famous city like New York isn't only about competing for the masses. It might sound counterintuitive, but five entrepreneurs chosen by the Alliance for Downtown New York will have to do the exact opposite to stand out.
There are plenty of walking tours to Lower Manhattan. From Ground Zero Memorial Walking tours to Wall Street and Financial District tours, there’s a broad selection to book among online travel marketplaces like Viator and GetYourGuide.
Yet, the Alliance of Downtown New York believes the walking tours space in New York City is the ideal creative fodder for its walking tours incubator grants to bring a fresh focus to its parts unknown.
“In places like Manhattan, there’s a glut of standard walking tour companies, and so many ways beyond tours for travelers to spend their time and money,” said TripSchool CEO Mitch Bach, one of the program’s mentors.
“Developing new walking tours that stand out from the herd, they would need to explore routes that go far beyond the march up Broadway, touch the Bull, see the church tours that currently exist, breathing some fresh air into the current tour landscape,” added Bach.
Considering that 45 percent of the 12.1 million unique visitors to Lower Manhattan in 2022 were domestic visitors, with overall visitor numbers up 59 percent from 2021, there are plenty of locals looking to immerse themselves beyond the headliner experiences of Lower Manhattan. Alliance for Downtown New York data further shows that visitor numbers are still down 29 percent from the 17.1 million that visited in 2019.
As a result, the Alliance for Downtown New York is in the final stages of its Walking Tour Incubator Grant Program. Five walking tour businesses have been selected to receive up to $12,500 — $7,500 now, with a possible additional installment of $5,000 in a year, as a fully operational tour experience.
The selected entrepreneurs, who would fit the bill to develop compelling and original walking tour experiences, are set to enter the two-month program in preparation for launch in the summer of 2023 as they work towards designing an experience that can be sustained in Lower Manhattan.
Bringing Diversity to Lower Manhattan
“The average tour uses the same ‘trusted’ materials, often older texts and work, written by a very limited demographic of authors and researchers,” Padilla said. “However, the world has changed. Travelers now understand that so many individuals have been left out of the narrative and want to be immersed in those communities.”
Padilla added that it was a personal goal as a mentor “to impress the responsibility and power that should come with creating a tour.”
Chroma Pride Art in Brookfield Place. Source: Alliance for Downtown New York
“Very often, a tour, and more specifically, the tour guide, is the only meaningful interaction a traveler will have during their trip. There’s so much opportunity to communicate the full spectrum of a city, the good, the bad, the popular, and the lesser known, all with context and compassion,” Padilla said.
Stephen Oddo, the co-founder of Walks and another of the program’s mentors, said that the challenge was for these operators to find “unique ways to reach prospective customers, inundated with all the noise in a city like New York, with so much to offer from a historical, culinary, or sociocultural perspective.”
The selected entrepreneurs, well aware of the challenges facing the sector, described the objectives they’re want to achieve during the program.
Connecting with the best vendors
For Inside Out Tours, a speciality food tour celebrating artisan food vendors, it’s about targeting the high-end leisure and corporate market in this part of the city. Its owner, Stacey Toussaint, said the company already offers several tours of Lower Manhattan but that the toughest aspect is to create a unique product that highlights the diversity of New York City’s food experiences.
Toussaint said she expects the program will help the business connect to the best vendors Downtown Manhattan has to offer to target the high-end market with a tour product that highlights the diverse cultures in Downtown Manhattan and effectively targets this luxury market.
“I look forward to connecting with local businesses to understand what they can offer to potential clients. By developing artisan food experiences, we hope to attract this lucrative segment to Downtown eateries and restaurants,” Toussaint said.
Learning From Tourism Mentors and Experts
A compelling brand story, a coherent sales and distribution strategy, and having a clear point of differentiation, and point of view will make these tours stand out, added progam mentor Bach.
As an example, Christopher Street Tours wants to make LGBTQ+ history even more accessible through a unique glimpse into the early beginnings of New York and United States history and, subsequently, LGBTQ+ history.
“We are currently living in a world where the rights of LGBTQ+ people are being threatened on a regular basis. Hundreds of anti-trans and anti-drag bills are being proposed all across the country. It’s scary, but it also shows why this tour is more important now than ever before,” said Christopher Street Tours founder Michael Venturiello.
This tour is set to explore the very first U.S. gay rights protest that took place at the U.S. Army Building in Lower Manhattan, political demonstration hotspots City Hall and Wall Street, and the heritage of Emma Lazarus, a queer poet who wrote The New Colossus, which now sits at the base of the Statue of Liberty,” said Venturiello.
“It’s rare to be able to work so closely with so many talented industry professionals to ensure your tour is successful before it’s even launched. I’m looking forward to their guidance during this process.”
Unique Neighborhood Point of View
Katherine Hill, founder, Vivace Tours, will look to design a Foundations of Faith experience for those curious about the religious history of early Manhattan.
“There is such a wide array of faiths and religions to explore — ranging from the indigenous Lenape’s nature-based spirituality to all different manners of Protestant sects, Catholics, Jewish sects, Islamic sects,” said Hill.
“And importantly, West African spiritual rituals that merged with early American Christian sects to form unique African-American churches. All of these co-existed and competed with what was arguably New Netherland’s ‘real’ faith, which was actually money, aka early capitalism.”
Hill said the entire concept of a tour that explores faith and religion in early New York is “novel.” She outlined how it would look to include threads around American history, sociology, political science, and economics for example.
A view of St Paul’s Chapel. Source: Alliance of Downtown New York.
Hill added the mentorship will help her “delineate ways to market not only to curious out-of-town visitors but also to downtown New Yorkers who are curious about a unique point of view on their neighborhood.”
A Clearly Defined Audience
Zeltner added that the incubator is super important to them as they want to turn this passion project into a business and scale it.
“My partner and I are passionate about travel and about New York City’s neighborhoods and their future. We have lived in more than a dozen places in the city, partly as a moving experiment. Showing people around the city, being asked for recommendations via Instagram, writing travel guide books – all that has become part of our lives.
“Now we’re looking forward to having amazing mentors on our side to learn about the travel and tour industry and how the tiny beautiful thing we have built can become something impactful for Downtown.”
Having done immersive audio walking tours on the side for years, Zeltner believes “it’s a proven concept and a good time to push it to the next level of being able to offer tours every day instead of every other month.”
Balancing Historical With the Modern
History needs to come out of the museum and into the streets, according to Captain Jonathan Boulware, President and CEO of South Street Seaport Museum.
“Our new walking tour will take guests on a journey around the South Street Seaport Historic District and into lower Manhattan to witness some of the most scandalous and nefarious places in our City’s history – from the founding of New Amsterdam to today – highlighting the hidden New York that is all around us.”
Boulware said the challenge is to balance historical perspective with modern cultural interests –– “creating something entertaining, while maintaining the museum’s standards for research.”
Developing a sustainable walking tour model must feel like a natural extension of the museum… to reach audiences outside the museum’s regular attendees, he added.
Defining Success Through Value
A defining factor for each fleshed-out vision is whether these walking tours will add new life to the neighborhoods for locals and visitors.
Bach further stated that walking tours are “quite hard to scale to immense profits, so there needs to be a deeper core reason why you’re doing this that keeps you motivated.”
“Early tour businesses often price their tours based on competition, and therefore compete on price, not value. The path to true profitability cannot be through the arduous route of trying to scale to tens of thousands of tour takers.”
Instead these tours need to stand apart and offer a different level of value in product and brand, through experience, he added.
While hard to benchmark, the program will also consider the positive local impact these tours will have on the area.
“How many local stories are shared, how many local businesses are pointed out or recommended and also the average spend generated by each tour ticket sold,” said Bach.
In order for a walking tour to flourish, added program mentor Oddo, ease of discovery and seamless online booking via direct and third-party channels were crucial.
“Together with strong partnerships with vendors and guides, the program would look to bring trust and consistently high quality to ensure good customer reviews,” he said.
With storytelling at their core, the experiences being designed looked to go beyond the majority narrative to sell tours, added Padilla.
“If you’re brave enough to run away from the majority narrative, you’ll have something truly special.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said the tours were set to launch in the summer of 2024. They will launch this year in 2023.
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Photo credit: Seaport District Entrance on Fulton. Source: Alliance for Downtown New York