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Innovative City Tours

If you’ve ever found yourself nodding off in your motorcoach seat during a driving tour of a destination, don’t feel too bad about it — you’re not alone. Some traditional city tours are boring enough to put anyone to sleep.

Fortunately, a host of entrepreneurs with innovative ideas have entered the local tourism market to breathe new life into city tours.

Destinations across North America have a wealth of sites to see, people to meet, food to taste and drinks to sample. Traditional city tours have been limited to looking at buildings and monuments as guides spout historical facts — an experience that fails to deliver the vibrancy of host destinations. But the new city tour operators are out to change all that.

Today’s travelers can find tours to fit many special-interest and activity levels. From running tours to culinary adventures and even “brew bikes,” a new generation of sightseeing promises experiences that are exciting and innovative.

The traditional city tour is dead. Long live the new city tour!


Columbus Food Adventures

Columbus, Ohio

As all things culinary continue to surge in popular culture, food tours are springing up in cities across North America. In Columbus, Ohio, a startup called Columbus Food Adventures aims to take travelers deep into the culinary enclaves of the city for experiences that are much more detailed and enriching than a typical city tour.

“We started Columbus Food Adventures in 2010,” said owner Bethia Woolf. “Most food tour companies just focus on doing walking tours, but we have a wide range of tours. We have eight different itineraries that we do routinely. We also do a lot of van tours that include food trucks, taco trucks and ethnic food.”

Tours of downtown and distinctive districts such as the Short North and German Village are always popular with visitors who want to get an overview of the city’s highlights, Woolf said. But her company has also found success in taking groups to sample food at Somali restaurants and introducing them to establishments that serve “Columbus-style” thin-crust pizza. Other options include an “alternative eats” tour, an all-desserts tour, a meat-lovers tour and a coffee-themed tour.

Food tours work best with small to midsize groups that won’t overwhelm the restaurants and purveyors being visited, Woolf said. But the company has found ways to make a tour of the city’s food scene more interactive — and even competitive — for larger groups.

“We put together custom itineraries for groups, and one of the things that is really popular is organizing food-based scavenger hunts,” Woolf said. “People compete in teams and get information about the neighborhood. They visit some of the businesses and taste and smell things, and pick up treats along the way.”


Free Tours by Foot

Multiple Destinations

Stephen Pickhardt has found a formula that allows tour participants to pay lower-than-usual prices for tours while the tour guides earn more than usual and provide better experiences. He calls it Free Tours by Foot, and he operates the tours in a number of popular destinations around the world.

“These are pay-what-you-like tours,” Pickhardt said. “The tours are technically free because nobody has to pay for them. If you like a tour, you pay what you want. Some backpackers will pay a couple of dollars, while empty nesters will give you $20 a pop. Usually, we find people paying about half of what our competitors are charging.”

Pickhardt has a number of key advantages over his competitors. He markets exclusively online, relying on customer reviews on Trip Advisor and Yelp to help get the word out, and he doesn’t have to pay commissions to concierges or travel agents. And he also has a team of guides that are highly motivated by this business model.

“Our guides have to be entertaining and engaging and make the tour an experience instead of a history lesson because their income is not guaranteed,” he said. “But the guides get paid much more than average on this model.”

Instead of seeking out traditionally trained tour guides, Pickhardt tries to identify people who are local arts, theater or history buffs, and who are talkative and likeable. Guides with those special interests have helped the company develop exciting themed tours in various cities.

“In D.C., we have a Lincoln Assassination walking tour,” Pickhardt said. “We have a Hard Side of the Highline tour in New York, a Lincoln Park Blues tour in Chicago and a Jack the Ripper tour in London.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.