This guide is designed to help you discover topics for local tours, programs and events. The logistics of planning, promoting and offering a walking tour versus a sit-down event are different. But the initial phase, the idea phase, is basically the same. Our focus here is on finding that great idea. Let’s get started.
The Big Why
Understanding why you want to offer the program helps you stay on course. Do any of the following reasons ring a bell? Put a checkmark beside any that resonate with you. Add a few notes about why that particular reason or reasons are important to you.
To increase visibility for yourself, your organization, destination or company
To make money
To draw people to a particular part of town
To showcase or raise awareness of a renovation or restoration project
To provide something fun and educational for the community
To celebrate your town’s history
To mark a special event
To learn a new skill
To enhance your credibility
Coming Up with a Concept
If you are the kind of person who generates lots of ideas and constantly floats trial balloons, this can be the most exciting and creative phase of tour and event development. If, on the other hand, you’re short on ideas, it can be beyond frustrating. Even if you’re drawing a complete blank, relax. You do not have to come up with an original idea. Combine several elements from the suggestions below then customize the material so that the program reflects your town’s or neighborhood’s story.
But I live in Dullsville
Think there’s nothing to talk about in your boring town? Think again. Most people don’t look closely at their surroundings, especially if those surroundings are very familiar. When I moved to a small town in Ohio, I saw potential for tours and events around every corner. The local folks, especially the lifelong residents, thought I was delusional.
The first program I created was Ghost Trek, an evening walking tour of downtown. Before I offered it to the general public, I took a group of residents on a free test run so I could practice my delivery and make sure the timing worked. Of course, I also wanted to find out whether they liked it. Their reaction was positive, but guarded. My favorite comment was, “Well, that was interesting, but who is going to do this? No one wants to take this tour.”
Ghost Trek has been running for a decade and is still going stroong. More tha 10000 people have taken the tour.
Use the following words as prompts for brainstorming. How can you relate these topics to your neighborhood or town? Write down at least 5 things that come to mind as you consider each topic. No editing. Just write. When you’ve completed the list, read over what you wrote. Did anything interesting surface?
Businesses of the past
Crime and punishment
Famous or infamous people
Old taverns and hotels
History of sports
Battles/Revolutionary War/Civil War
Structure and Theme
It’s time to make some preliminary decisions about how your program will work. Selecting a structure and theme will help you determine what belongs in the program and what doesn’t. It will also help you name and promote the tour or event.
In some locations, the appropriate structure and theme will be obvious. You’ll be able to quickly pull together a tour by focusing on your great old buildings, a historic cemetery or a particular neighborhood’s unusual story. Or you know you want to do a sit-down presentation on a particular house’s history or take an in-depth look at an ethnic community’s holiday traditions.
This may seem counterintuitive, but having an obvious theme is not always an advantage. Obvious can be dull, overdone and predictable. Quirky, weird and interesting are much better. Surprising is the very best element of all.
Here are some possible themes and ways to structure your material. Which would work best for your topic or the area you’re considering? Write a couple of sentences about why that’s the case. If you haven’t settled on a topic yet, use these suggestions as further triggers for brainstorming.
Window on the Past – Drill down on a specific time period. What was happening in downtown Mayfield in 1900? What was the Spring Valley home front like during World War II? How did the Fairview Heights neighborhood change during the Great Depression? What happened in Madison during Prohibition? What role did the residents of Belleville play in the Underground Railroad?
Evolution - If you zoom in on a small area or a single neighborhood, you can broaden the time frame. Two Centuries of Architectural Change in Cherry Hill. Pittsfield Eats - The City Market Through the Decades. Don’t miss the opportunity to take any tour or event that references food or beverages to the next level by including samples or tastings.
Spectacular Events – Our town is at the confluence of two rivers and has been flooded repeatedly over the years. We’ve also lost dozens of wonderful old buildings to fires. Those disasters inspired a tour called Fire and Water: Agents of Change. We traveled through downtown looking closely at buildings using old photos to discuss the impact fires and floods have had on the city scape. What’s happened in you town? Has it been plagued by natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes or tornadoes? What about riots, battles, fires or other types of human devastation? Does evidence of any of those events remain? How about vintage photos?
Unifying Topic – Build your program on a common theme such as ghost stories or mid-century architecture. Or use specific business types as a unifying element such as Brookville’s Lost Taverns and Hotels. Programs which cover the seedy side of your town’s history - prostitution, murder, smuggling, illegal gambling, gun running, pirates, corruption - are perennial favorites.
Unifying Activity - Structure your event around a participant activity such as photography. Offer a Victorian Architecture Photo Walk or a hold a photo scavenger hunt where all the clues relate to the area’s historic buildings and sites. Upgrade the experience by inviting a professional photographer to come along and give participants tips on how to take great shots of old buildings.
Open House – If you can get access to several buildings, you can create an open house style tour. You can visit private homes, historic buildings, churches, commercial properties. Use your imagination. Post a volunteer or staff person at each location to serve as that building’s host. The tour participants travel at their own pace from stop to stop where the host tells them about the building and its past. It’s critical that you give the hosts good background information on their locations. It really helps if you can find old photos of the various stops.
The Combo Platter – Sometimes despite your best efforts, a theme never appears. Don’t despair. Create a combo platter. Tell one ghost story, cover one big crime, discuss the history of a few buildings via old photos and show ads from businesses that used to be in the area. If you’re doing a tour, explore a normally overlooked place like a basement or an alley. The advantage of this approach is you’ll get a feel for which material your audience likes best, information that will come in handy when you design your next tour or event.
Still No Ideas? Crowd Source It!
If you just cannot find a theme, ask people what type of tour they’d like to take, what part of town they’re curious about or what aspect of local history they’re interested in. Post the question on Facebook or Twitter. If you have a blog, write a post about what you’re considering and open it to comments. If you work for an organization or attraction, put a survey in your newsletter or on your website. Ask people you run into casually. Their answers may surprise you. When you know a lot about a topic, it’s easy to assume others do too. People may be thrilled with something much simpler than you imagine.
Once you have identified one or more potential themes, it’s time for a scouting mission. Take a stroll through the area or areas you’re considering. Try to look at your town as a tourist would, as if you’re seeing it for the first time. Snap a lot of pictures.
As you’re exploring give your curiosity and imagination a workout. Ask yourself the following questions.
Is the architecture in the area you’re walking through interesting? Interesting and beautiful are not necessarily the same thing. Are all the buildings similar? Is there an odd building that seems to be from a different time or that doesn’t fit for some other reason?
What is hidden in plain sight in your town? Are there blackened shingles or singed bricks on the buildings? High water marks? Remnants of train or trolley tracks? Fragments of walls or old foundations? What do these clues reveal about the past?
Special Notes for Planning Walking Tours
Walking tours work best when they focus on a small downtown, a few blocks of a large downtown or a specific neighborhood. Your tour should last about 90 minutes, 2 hours at the absolute outside. Being aware of the tour’s length will help you focus on an appropriately sized area. Not too large; not too small.
You don’t need dozens of stops. Fewer interesting or surprising stops are much better than lots of boring ones. Depending on how far apart the stops are, how much you have to say about each one and whether or not you are going inside anywhere, 5 or 6 may be enough.
Most people don’t bother to spruce up the backs and sides of buildings. Venturing down alleys and into these less-traveled areas can be like stepping into a time machine. Discovering something new, especially in a familiar place, is a fun and interesting adventure. It’s sort of like being a detective or an urban archeologist for a little while. People love taking photos in these unexplored areas too.
Are there ghost ads, the painted signs that cling to the brick walls of old commercial buildings, in your area? What products or businesses did they advertise? Does the ad reveal anything about how the building was used?
A very satisfying tour can be structured around finding, photographing and deciphering ghost ads. If you want to encourage audience engagement – and you should want to do that – you can talk about whether the old ads should repainted and restored. Some towns have freshened up their old ads and turned them into tourist attractions. Is that a good idea or should the old ads be left alone to continue weathering and fading? What do the tour participants think?
If you are considering a tour of a residential area, approach it the same way you would a commercial one. Ask questions. Was the neighborhood always residential? What about neighborhood businesses like grocery stores, cafes and movie theaters? Are there apartments, schools, churches, synagogues or just houses? Do the houses look like they were built about the same time? Are they the same architectural style or is there a mix? Do they have yards, gardens or big trees? Did anyone famous or infamous ever live in the neighborhood? As you plan the tour route, be mindful of the current residents’ privacy and make sure tour participants stay on public sidewalks.
The Inside Story
As you make your way through the area on your field trip, notice the businesses currently in the neighborhood. Do you know any of the owners? Could you get access to a normally off-limits area of one of the buildings for the tour? Is there a creepy old basement or a back room where they used to sell bootleg gin?
Are there any spaces that could function as a venue for a sit-down event? Could you develop a slide show of vintage photos of downtown and present it in one of the old buildings?
If you’re interested in a building that is normally open to the public, a hotel lobby or a bar for example, contact the manager and arrange a meeting. Tell the manager about the tour or event you’re planning, what the subject is, etc. Determine details such as the date, time and likely number of participants before you have this conversation. Ask for permission to bring your group on to the premises.
If you represent a nonprofit, the business, building owner or manager may be willing give you access to support your organization or group. If not, you could offer to share a portion of the tour or event receipts. Another possibility is to designate the business the program’s official sponsor in exchange for access, in which case you would include their name and logo on all your promotional materials.
Organize Your Thoughts
After you complete your scouting mission, use this section to record your thoughts.
What was your overall impression of the area you’re considering?
If you’re planning a tour, list all the potential stops
Draw a simple map of the proposed tour route.
Are there any alleys or old passageways?
Are there any issues regarding sidewalks, parking, safety, etc?
Are there any ghost ads or other evidence of old businesses?
Are there any obvious clues to or remnants of the past like old foundations, train tracks, singed bricks or high water marks?
Are there any buildings that seem to be out of place or from the wrong time period?
Anything else odd, interesting or unusual?
Is there any place that you can go inside? What’s the address? Who is the contact person? Contact info? Do you think they will expect to be compensated?
What questions do you have? Where can you find the answers?
After you complete your local scouting mission, consider venturing a little further afield. Find a walking tour in another part of town or a neighboring town. Be a tourist, travel incognito and participate in that tour. If you’re planning an event, locate a similar program or a program in the type of venue you’re thinking about and attend.
The people offering the tour or event don’t need to know why you’re there or what you’re up to. Keep an open mind and see what you can pick up. Sometimes learning what doesn’t work is more valuable than learning what does.
Record your impressions, lessons learned. Anything you want to add to your tour or event? Mistakes you want to avoid?
The Name Game
As soon as you settle on a theme, start jotting down possible names for your program. The program’s name is like a newspaper headline. It should grab people’s attention and pique their curiosity. Call it something like Secret San Jose or The Wilmington History Mystery Walk. If you’re working on a combo platter, call it something like The Pleasantville History Sampler. You’ll be using the title in promotional pieces so don’t make it too long. But above all, please, please make it interesting.
Write your title ideas, even single words.
Creating a tour or an event is like baking a cake. The basic elements of structure, place and theme correspond to the flour, eggs, and butter in a recipe. Good cooks, and smart program designers, know how to tweak recipes to make them better. Adding chocolate transforms a plain cake into a rich, delicious one. Substituting cinnamon, walnuts and raisins yields a totally different concoction. Pouring the batter into cupcake tins creates dozens of little cakes instead of a single big one.
Neither successful programs nor beautiful cakes happen by accident. You exponentially increase your odds of creating a fun and lucrative tour or event if you think things through in advance. And once you have one successful program under your belt, putting the next one together will be a piece of cake.