Over the last few months, I have spent countless hours surveying visitors and locals here in San Francisco trying to figure out the perfect combination of sights and activities to create the ultimate city orientation tour. Early on I discovered that there was a clear gap in the activities market for travelers that had yet to be explored. Yes, there are plenty of options when it comes to discovering a new city but do they really cater to everyone? Let’s take a look.

Travel Guides

There are a multitude of online (and offline) travel destination guides that you can download/purchase, or apps that promote self-discovery but from speaking with REAL people these were barely ever considered. Why I hear you ask… well as I have mentioned in previous posts it is becoming more and more apparent that we, as a society, have become inherently lazy. People simply can’t be bothered if left to their own devices.

While it may not seem like much to some of you, there is a substantial amount of effort required to a) search for a decent city guide b) download the guide to a mobile device c) digest the relevant information and d) go off and explore on your own.

travel guide

Bus Tours

So, I thought to myself, surely the big bus tours must be picking up the slack and providing the perfect solution. As it turns out they do serve a particular type of traveler. From my observations these people are typically tourists who require constant hand-holding or alternatively what I like to call ‘armchair’ travelers, here to take a photo of the major sites merely to tick off the fact they were there, without really wanting to step outside their comfort zone.

Alternatively, there is the hop-on-hop-off bus tour. I see this as a viable option for some people. It provides a generic overview of the city by traveling between the major touristic sites. The only problem is that there is very little information provided and none while you are actually pounding the pavement when it is most valuable.

big bus tour

So Called Local Experts

More recently, there is an entirely new type of ‘tour’ that has been getting a lot of coverage. The ‘tour with a local’ option, brought about by the popularity of companies like Airbnb, who promotes a sharing economy where people rent out their spare rooms or entire residences to visitors looking to save/make a buck, is now the hip trend in travel. The promise of paying to be shown around a new city by someone who lives there sounds great but has many fatal flaws.

Often over-priced, these ‘local guides’ are marketed as experts in their destination. The premise is that their knowledge stems from living and breathing the destination that they live in. While this assumption has some merit, who is to say that these ‘wannabe guides’ know everything there is to know about their own city. Let me ask you this – Do you think that you have the necessary skills to be paid to show someone around YOUR home city?


These people have no formal training in dealing with people (a prerequisite in my eyes) and there is no mention of first aid requirements, insurance cover or business protection. The only requirement seems to be local knowledge and can you honestly guarantee that? Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are plenty of trained tour guides that lack this local knowledge and fluff their way through tour after tour, but when you are marketing a service solely based on this fact I would like to see some proof.

The Creation of a New Style of Tour

Just to be clear, this is not meant to be an article bashing every tour option that is out there. I realize that all of the preceding options serve a purpose for some travelers and I’m sure there are plenty of people willing to defend them. What I do want to make evident is the fact there is no single solution for every traveler.

That being said I have been working on a slightly different style of city tour to try to fill, what I perceive to be the missing link for in-destination experiences….. tailored towards an interactive orientation of the city. From speaking with travelers it has become rather evident that time plays a huge factor in their decisions on what to do in a destination.

As I mentioned before, people are lazy…. but….the contradiction is that we also want to feel like we are not wasting our precious time, especially when we have spent a lot of money to travel somewhere. I asked a bunch of tourists and friends how long it generally took them to feel comfortable navigating a new city when they are traveling. Responses ranged from 1 – 3 days and were dependent on a variety of factors including:

  • Town planning (a grid system is much easier to navigate)
  • Ease of public transport
  • Any language barriers
  • Size of the city

I also asked what were the most important things that they would want to experience or learn while in the destination. These were the top responses:

  • Meet new people (locals and other travelers)
  • Learn about the local history and culture
  • Try new foods
  • Have fun

Combining these findings with the results from my previous survey I have come up with a customized tour experience that addresses many of these points.

The Independent Short-stay or Layover Traveler

This person/couple/family is only visiting the city for a very short period, from an 8-hour layover to a 72-hour stop and wish to maximize their limited time. They need structure but still want to maintain some flexibility in their schedule. They’re looking for the story behind the city, rather than just facts and figures robotically spewed out to them.

Big bus tours are not for them. They want to be in the thick of it, pounding the pavement and interacting with locals. Not only seeing but touching, smelling, tasting and most of all experiencing what the city has to offer.

Tourists not permitted

Our Solution

Monday marked an important milestone in the development of the Boutique Traveler as a tour company. Not only did I receive my new business license but it was the first time I have done a complete ‘dry run’ of the tour itinerary that I have been developing all these months.

I was lucky enough to bring a fellow tour guide along for the ride to bounce ideas off and give feedback. We used a GPS tracking app called LiveTrekker which allowed us to plot our course while making notes and pinning photos to certain stops along the way.

Without going into too much detail about the specifics of the tour (gotta leave some element of surprise) here are the basic differences from most of the tours out there at the moment:

This is a hybrid tour that will provide an excellent overview of the city. At the completion of the 3-4 hour tour, visitors should have a more thorough knowledge of the city’s history and a complete understanding of how to get around using different forms of transport.

For someone with a very short stay, the tour will give an excellent snapshot of the destination. For those who have a little more time, it will provide the perfect launching pad for deeper exploration.

They will have had the opportunity to learn about local life through the eyes of someone who lives in the city (other than the guide) and hear about their specific story.

Photography will play a huge role in the experience and the visitor will not only be shown where to take the best photos but also have the option of being the subject (no more having some random stranger cropping your head out of the shot).

Most importantly is that the person running the tour is a professional

  1. Guides will be fun and entertaining
  2. Guides will have a thorough knowledge of the city’s history and culture, providing specific anecdotal stories to make the information more easily absorbed in an often humorous way
  3. Guides will have photographic training as photography will play a key role in the experience
  4. Guides will have completed their Senior First Aid qualifications, have the appropriate insurances and hold all necessary licenses
  5. Guides will be fully trained on customer service, dispute resolution, time management
  6. Guides will adhere to a specific code of conduct and wear a uniform
  7. Guides must have been living in the city for at least one year

The modern-day mantra of “Travel like a local” assumes that people don’t want to be a tourist. I don’t think that this is the case though. There is a certain excitement that comes with the knowledge you are a tourist in a city. Our goal is not to replace the tourist experience with a local one but to blur the lines between the two experiences.

What’s Your Take?

So, there you have it! Things are really moving along now and I’m excited for what the future holds for our tours. What are your impressions of the tour that I described? Is this something that you would take? I am always interested to hear your feedback so please post any comments or questions below and I will respond as quickly as possible.

Thanks for reading!