The “Go to Hell!” walking tour of Hell’s Kitchen appeals to just about anyone: history buffs, locals, foodies, mafia enthusiasts, photographers, even accountants.
As tourism businesses continue to expand and evolve, so does the demand for authentic experiences. Big cities like New York offer loads of tour options for travelers, but smaller companies are often overshadowed by double-decker buses and large group tours that gloss over some of the city’s best out-of-the-way spots.
To dig deeper and supply more personal perspectives on the big-city experience, travelers now can turn to Local Expeditions (www.local-expeditions.com). Launched in late 2015, it’s redefining the standard tour-company business model, all with a savvy, queer New Yorker at the helm.
The way Local Expeditions’ founder Nancy Blaine, explains her idea for the business, it sounds a lot like the way many of us host visiting friends. She recounts how she brought a group of colleagues for a walk on Manhattan’s High Line elevated park, with a break for wine in a friend’s garden apartment, followed by an intimate dinner at a small, favorite SoHo restaurant. She colored the walkabout with her own tips, anecdotes, and insights, inspiring them with an insider’s take on the Big Apple.
In effect, she’d taken them on her first Local Expeditions outing. An avid traveler herself, Blaine decided to venture into the tourism realm with a new kind of company that leads “anti-tours.” That is, she want- ed local residents to curate and steer their own expeditions based entirely on their own interests, passions, and unique expertise.
She came up with a sharing-economy business model inspired by that of Airbnb, offering direct benefits to the guide, the guest, the company, and for her venture, a charitable organization. The breakdown is totally transparent so potential guides and guests understand the deal. The company website breaks it down: A tour costs $40 per adult (free or discounted for kids), with a maximum of ten guests per tour. Fifteen percent goes to Local Expeditions, five percent to a local non-prof it (chosen by the guide), about ten percent spent on a mid-tour refreshment; the rest (70 percent) belongs to the guide.
Tours run two to three hours, and are now covering parts of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, though Blaine plans to keep rolling out new tours to other boroughs, New Jersey, and, eventually, more cities, parks, and attractions outside the Northeast.
What most sets apart Blaine’s “expeditions”—the term she prefers instead of “tours”—are the small-scale journeys that make out-of-towners enjoy New York like locals do. But Blaine says about half of all Local Expeditions’s guests are New Yorkers themselves, which means her self-starting guides are revealing pockets of Gotham even residents are curious to learn about.
The intimate nature of a smaller tour holds plenty of appeal for most. Ultimately, however, it’s the private access or specialized viewpoints that are attracting a growing number of guests which is a direct result of guides injecting their own creativity and enthusiasm.
“I actually don’t like tours that much,” says Blaine. “They feel like memorization. What I want our guides to be doing is talking more about what they love. So the experience is much more relaxed. It’s much more personal.”
For example, Blaine explains why her two top expeditions are such big hits. One is the “Go to Hell!” walking tour of Hell’s Kitchen. A licensed guide and popular food blogger named Ziggy, whose large following helps promote his frequently sold-out tours, lead it. His humor and personal knowledge of the Midtown-Manhattan neighborhood appeals to “just about anyone: history buffs, locals, foodies, mafia enthusiasts, photogra- phers, even accountants,” reads his expedition description.
The other hit tour is a testament to Local Expeditions’ real-deal NYC connections. “SoGo Gardens” is a spring/summer seasonal expe- dition led by SoHo resident and award-winning landscape designer-builder Rebecca Cole. For it, Cole leads her group on a leisurely walk to view the lovely gardens (plus one dog park) she’s designed at sever- al boutique hotels in the neighborhood.
“To me that’s the best of Local Expeditions, when somebody can say, ‘I do this thing, and now am going to show you what it’s all about,’” explains Blaine. “And [Cole] is a really successful designer. She’s not talking about history; she’s not talking about anything except the work that she does. So I wouldn’t call hers a typical tour—it’s an expedition.”
New York, like many cities, requires a tour-guide license for indus- try professionals. Blaine says about 95 percent are her guides are licensed. However, she does not recruit guides, and encourages ama- teurs to join the Local Expeditions team and share their one-of-a-kind perspectives. If they’re not licensed, she’ll often help get them certified.
“Licensing makes anybody a better tour guide, but I want people to sign up with a passion,” she says. “I don’t want people to just sign up to make money and be a tour guide. I make it very clear that we are not tour specialists.”
She points out that most other tour companies (many of them with taglines like “tour like a local”) are led by company managers who direct what their guides show, do, or say. Some of those packaged tour- company guides, by contrast, also curate and lead their own tours for Local Expeditions.
For the most part, Blaine tends to stay out of her guides’ way, con- sulting only on an expedition’s logistics. She prefers to tell potential new guides, “This is your flexible income, and you get to choose your schedule, but you also get to design your tour.” Blaine emphasizes, “It’s up to them, and they follow their own passions.”
The result is a brilliantly diverse assortment of ways to better under- stand New York as a fantastically rich, wild, often surprising metropolis. One month’s Local Expeditions calendar is loaded with an array of choices, like Blaine’s own “Ferry to DUMBO” expedition that starts aboard an East River Ferry, followed by a CitiBike ride, then a walking tour of Brooklyn’s DUMBO historic district.
Other expeditions explore the Victorian architecture of the Flatbush neighborhood, some of the secrets of Central Park, an enlightening stroll across the 59th Street Bridge, a photography walk in Coney Island, and why Queens is “the world’s borough.”
Born in Connecticut, today Blaine is a three-decades-strong New Yorker, avid traveler, and an out-and-proud lesbian who says diversity and open-mindedness are inherent to her growing business. Some of her guides are queer, and for June Pride month, one of Blaine’s comedian friends launched a weekly LGBT tour of the Village called “This Used to Be Gay.” More gay-centric tours may join the calendar.
Blaine reiterates that the individual talent leading Local Expeditions is a lot of what makes it special.
“My favorite part of watching this company grow has been the quality of guides we have attracted,” says Blaine. “Because of the flexibility this platform offers, many of our guides are actors and actresses. We’ve been very lucky to catch the attention of a recruiter at the career center at the Actors Fund, who promotes us to actors who are looking for part-time work. It’s such a win-win situation. Who is more comfortable in front of an audience than an actor?
“We’ve also attracted artists and writers. When I imagined this company in my head years ago, I always hoped the guides would be New York City artists, in all their many forms. I think it really exemplifies New York. I also think they tend to be wonderful and quirky story- tellers, which is what we are looking for.”
Blaine expects her guides to reveal hidden corners of New York that would not make it into an average (or any) guidebook, and to impart their knowledge without an agenda or a script. The goal is to illuminate and inspire guests whether they’re from the other side of the neighborhood or the other side of the globe. In a poetic turn, the company goal now applies to its founder.
“I think the biggest surprise for me is that the entire way I look at the city has changed,” she says. “It’s really quite remarkable, especially for somebody who’s been here 30 years. But I look at these buildings, and notice in photographs [that we use for social-media promotion] certain things I haven’t noticed—ever. I’ve always believed that the more you learn the history of something, the more you love it.
“[Through expeditions] I see things all the time that always existed, but are completely new to me. It opens my eyes even more to a great city with a huge past,” she says. “It’s given me a way to fall back in love with the city.”