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Main Spotlight: Historic Walking Tours are Perfect for the Uncertain World of Today


September 9, 2020 | Main Spotlight: Historic Walking Tours are Perfect for the Uncertain World of Today | By: Ron Cook, distrx CEO and Co-founder

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning, and your Main Street is just waking up. Your reopening is going fairly well, all things considered, but you really hated having to cancel your Saturday event. Every year it had always been a huge success, with visitors coming in from surrounding towns, many staying overnight, providing much-needed traffic for your amazing local businesses. Without the event, the weekend is pretty quiet, with only a few brave souls taking advantage of a promotional offer at a local bed & breakfast. At breakfast, a couple learns from the B&B owner that your Main Street is rich in history and that you offer a historic walking tour with stops at 15 historic structures, all with a story to tell. They know that a self-guided tour is the perfect activity in today’s COVID world. But it’s 9AM on a Sunday, and your visitor center is closed. Ironically, earlier this year you updated and reprinted tour maps and brochures – a major hit to your meager budget – but they are in a rack at the visitor center, which will not open again until tomorrow.

As this scene plays out at Main Streets across the country, it highlights the bigger question. With a “new normal” in the age of the COVID pandemic, how we can we offer activities that are safe for residents and visitors, but still fun and engaging? Our goal is always to bring traffic to the district and our local merchants. Think about it: in the digital age, how do our Main Street visitors access information? It’s a simple answer really, one that is quite literally in the palm of your hand. Working with Main Street Directors to create effective strategies to tell our communities’ stories, I often ask myself: Would my parents pick up a printed brochure? Maybe. Would I? Not likely. Would my kids? Definitely not, and they might ask: “What’s a brochure?” Most of us, and especially today’s “digital natives” rely on our mobile devices to find information about virtually everything, and your Main Street is no exception.

Of course, the other problem with the Sunday morning walking tour scenario is the concept Google refers to as “right here, right now.” Your visitors don’t want to hear that your Main Street office or visitor center will open at 9AM Monday, and it’s certainly not reasonable to expect you to operate 24/7. But today’s mobile consumers are not sitting at home looking for information about your Main Street on desktop computers. They are on their way or already driving down Main Street, wondering where to park and looking for things to do, places to eat, and information about all that your community has to offer, including your walking tour. They are not interested in scheduling a tour, and oh, by the way, they expect that complete, comprehensive tour information will be easily accessible from their smartphone. But of course, you already knew that.

Returning to our Sunday morning walking tour visitors, why not offer the tour on mobile devices? Not only does it eliminate the need for expensive printed materials, a smartphone walking tour offers a better tour experience, with scrollable pictures, detailed descriptions, and audio narration. Better yet, with current COVID restrictions, a self-guided tour allows participants to complete all or part of the tour anytime they like, while still observing social distancing and other restrictions. As I outlined in last year’s article on the subject, visitor feedback has shown that it is the narration that makes the tour more engaging and immersive. Finding the perfect voice in your community with just the right accent, inflection, and texture can also provide their personal historical perspective and local color, with facts and tidbits through generational experience and rich storytelling.

Not only can walking tours connect visitors to your downtown, but they can also connect your downtown to other Main Streets. For example, you might consider partnering with other nearby Main Street communities and creating a tour that extends across several contiguous communities. Of course, no one will take that entire tour, at least not at one time, but they may well choose to visit stops within a specific area of interest. With a mobile device-based tour, visitors can choose what and when they visit. Plus, mobile technology can provide district directors a list of tour participants and their feedback, creating a perfect opportunity for a thank you or invitation to upcoming events.

We live in uncertain times and in an increasingly digital world. Why print maps and brochures when every visitor has a mobile device? It is time to present the rich history of your Main Street to today’s huge mobile audience. Especially with current concerns and restrictions, it’s a great way to offer your visitors a safe, memorable experience.

About the Author

Ron Cook is CEO and co-founder of distrx, a mobile marketing platform and application designed specifically for Main Street communities. A graduate of Georgia Tech, Cook holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and is author of Dog Dreams: Fact & Fantasy. A former college Dean, he is a popular and dynamic speaker on using technology to share the Main Street story.