Walking Tours Perspective

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What works in Savannah may work in Providence

An Analysis of Savannah Walking Tours

Walking tours can be a hard sell in our fast-paced automated society.  Some believe that walking tours seem antiquated, low tech, and dull.  At the same time, some people discount the economic benefits of walking tours. Despite these views, well planned and properly run walking tours can be cutting edge, educational, entertaining, and generate revenue. Today, tour operators are bringing ambulatory sightseeing into the twenty-first century by incorporating state-of-the-art technology, employing passionate and knowledgeable staff, and rekindling the pleasure of this traditional mode of sightseeing.

Walking tours serve as important city ambassadors that provide the community with numerous economic, social, and cultural benefits.  They contribute to the economy by creating jobs and generating customers for local businesses.  Whether guided or self-guided, walking tours require employees to design, promote, deliver, and maintain the excursions. They also stimulate the economy by bringing customers to local restaurants, hospitality and transportation providers, and shopping venues along and around the tour route.  Some patrons may be local whereby they rediscover the community and small businesses located near the walking tour.  Other patrons will come as tourists discovering the area for the first time or making the area a repeat vacation destination. In these ways, walking tours become an important partner in supporting the local economy.

Further, walking tours enrich the community’s social and cultural vitality. They provide educators with an interactive method to teach people of all ages about local history and culture. They also promote local pride and communal bonds.   They help residents in the surrounding area assign worth to their community’s heritage and attractions thereby encouraging stronger ties in the neighborhood.  When considering all these advantages and the rich history and diverse cultural fabric of Providence, it seems unusual that walking tours in the city have not garnered more support and interest. Perhaps walking tours in Providence suffer from inadequate advertising and lack of broad public appeal. Nonetheless, Providence could learn much about how to design successful walking tours by examining what works in other areas.

The city of Savannah, Georgia appears to have mastered the industry as more than ten private companies provide walking tours.  After researching Savannah’s walking tour options, success depends on four important factors. First, walking tour organizers should offer a variety of themed excursions that appeal to diverse groups and ages.  Second, the tours should be well designed, easily accessible to patrons, and partner with local businesses.  Third, the tours must contain engaging and interactive elements that keep the patron’s interest and urge them to share their experience with others.  Lastly in order to appeal to tech savvy patrons, walking tours should offer mobile device applications and virtual tour options. 

In Savannah, offering walking tour patrons a collection of themed tours fosters customer satisfaction and repeat business. The city offers a variety of privately operated walking tours that showcase historical sites, architectural and horticultural displays, cemeteries, histories of famous residents and cultural transitions, culinary hotspots, and urban legend.

After exploring several Savannah websites and tourism blogs, testimonies emphasize patron appreciation for themed tours.  Some visitors comment that even after going on general tours of the city, they found subject matter walking tours such as the Colonial, Civil War, and Women of Savannah themes very appealing. For those patrons looking for less history and a more paranormal experience, ghost tours fit the bill.  As a result, extending patrons options allows them to select a tour based on their personal interests and streamlines customer expectations.

 When people invest time and money for a product or service they expect satisfaction and Savannah walking tours demonstrate that successfully delivering an enjoyable and informative experience rests with knowing your audience.  In addition to an efficiently planned route and professional staff, providing a quality tour involves thinking about the audience’s needs and abilities and communicating aspects of the tour in appropriate and clear language. Many Savannah walking tour operators accomplish this by informing potential clients the tour’s specific attractions, dates and times, location, parking options, average number of participants, duration of the excursion, and rest stops.  The Savannah Walks company offers tours in multiple languages. Operators also make suggestions about which tours are beneficial for students, mature audiences, or senior citizens. Some inform patrons that the journey will be rigorous or a leisurely stroll. Others tell the patrons if cameras, food, or other amenities are permissible.

Savannah walking tours offer value and obtain accolades by providing more than the customer expects.  For example, many tour companies collaborate with local businesses and organizations in the surrounding community. Some tour operators schedule rest stops at neighborhood Ice Cream or Coffee Shops as well as suggest restaurants, watering holes, and retail shops in the area.  Some operators build relationships with local hotel concierges, the chamber of commerce, local historical societies, and university activity centers.  Other operators engage the community by offering discounted tours to local residents, repeat customers, and students or by planning fundraising and group tours for community organizations and businesses.

In our fast paced society many customers expect to be instantaneously stimulated through visual, audible, intellectual, and emotional prompts. Tour guide Savannah Dan believes that walking tours should be both educational and entertaining. While many of Savannah Dan’s customers rave about his knowledge of Savannah, just as many reviewers praise his entertaining qualities. People seem to enjoy his southern gentleman costume complete with a pink and white seersucker suit, bowtie, and black and white wingtip shoes. For added appeal he communicates his tour in a Southern accent and peppers the narrative with local humor. 

Using a different approach, some walking tour guides encourage the patrons to understand social change or appreciate local flavors. Architectural guide Jonathan Stalcup, supplements his walking tour with visual aids that show the progression of different building styles over time.  Savvy Savannah Tours give patrons the opportunity to sample Savannah cuisine and music at local restaurants and pubs.  Therefore, walking tours should provide not only interesting narratives and visuals that inspire thoughts and feelings, but also provide opportunities for personal contact with sites and area culture.    

Another feature to consider when planning walking tours concerns the guide’s knowledge. Offering vetted information can determine the reputation of a walking tour. Interestingly, Savannah offers a travel guide licensing test in efforts to maintain tour guide integrity and preserve quality for tourists. On August 11, 2013, the Savannah Morning News explained the design and content of the test.  Some past test-takers commented on the rigor of the test. Clearly, the city has made efforts to insure the guides operating in the area possess college-level knowledge.   

In order for walking tours to remain competitive, the public’s demand for high tech services must not be ignored.  In Savannah as well as other cities, some walking tour operators incorporate virtual tours and mobile apps into their menu of services.  Virtual tours work well for attracting customers outside the area, educational presentations, and reaching out to handicapped or housebound patrons.   The See Savannah tour company equips guides with a tablet full of images for the patrons to view during the walk. 

Mobile apps accommodate people that preferred to take a walking tour on their own and at their leisure.  These mobile apps generally offer more detailed narratives about a specific site or attraction.

In spite of the many positives features Savannah walking tours offer, some patron reviews express dissatisfaction and disappointment.  The majority of critical reviews stemmed from poor customer service, problems with fees, and the tour guide’s inaccurate information. One customer wrote they were charged full price for a toddler.  A few other customers complained that the guide’s lack of historical knowledge was compensated with corny jokes that became annoying. Other customers complained that phone inquiries to the company were not returned. Considering my personal observations of walking tour websites, some seem too confusing or do not provide enough information.

In retrospect, examining Savannah walking tours provide a useful model for creating of walking tours in Providence.  After all, Providence has built in features that accommodate walking tours.  Providence possesses a rich history, a vibrant artistic community, numerous architectural displays, and beautiful landscapes.  Further in the past few years, newspapers and magazines have encouraged tourists to visit Providence. In 2008, the New York Times ran a piece on Providence in its travel section title “36 Hours in Providence.” The report listed The Rhode Island Historical Society walking tour as a worthy attraction.  In the May/June 2012 issue of Yankee Magazine, columnist Justin Shatwell wrote a feature story touting Providence’s appeal to walking sightseers.

This inquiry shows that Providence’s economy and community could benefit from more professionally run walking tours.  Providence should take advantage of its many historical and cultural attributes by offering a variety of themed walking tours that appeal to diverse groups and ages. 

In addition to providing well designed tours delivers by knowledgeable guides, walking tour operators should focus on the needs of the patrons.  Also ensuring longevity involves establishing partnerships with local businesses and organizations. Creating advertising networks, building relationships with community, economic development and travel and tourism organizations, and educational institutions is a must.  The operators should offer repeat customer incentives, encourage profile articles in newspapers, magazines, and other local publishing.  Finally, the tours must engage the patrons and incorporate mobile and internet technology options.  


For More Information

Email: mvalletta@publichistorians.org


  About the Author:



Local Historian

History instructor at Rhode Island College and Roger Williams University.

Historical researcher for the North Burial Ground Project




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