Walking tours provide distinct experiential learning that you can’t get any other way

As incentive travel continues to be a critical tool for retaining and motivating talent, planners are looking for ways to make excursions more meaningful and memorable. One of the simplest ways to do so is by employing a local organized walking tour.

Smart Meetings spoke with representatives from three leading walking tour companies about how tours can help to truly transform a meeting experience.

A walking tour is a minor commitment in terms of both budget and time, but a major investment in your attendees. They can get a closer look at the true culture of the destination by seeing areas they never otherwise would have explored.

The next time you’re planning an incentive trip, or any destination meeting, don’t underestimate how much a walking tour can turn a routine meeting experience into one that expands attendees’ worldviews and leaves a lasting impact.

Read More: Behind the Scenes of Incentive Travel


Headshot of Andrew Luan ExperienceFirst
Andrew Luan, Founder and CEO of ExperienceFirst

“Oftentimes, when people travel, they’re looking for connection. The way to make that connection is through contextual understanding.”

Andrew Luan started ExperienceFirst Walking Tours in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. At the time, he was working as a trader for Deutsche Bank. When a friend visited from Vancouver, he joked about Luan giving him a Wall Street tour. Luan, however, took his request seriously. Upon conducting extensive research, which included taking other tours of Wall Street, he found that nobody was talking about the recent crisis. “I thought this was a travesty,” he says. “How can you not talk about the biggest financial event to impact our lifetimes?”

Andrew put together a tour for his friend centered around the 2008 crisis. From there, word spread amongst friends and family. One friend, who was a professor at Columbia Business School, brought his colleagues and some members of the financial media. Soon enough, Luan saw they had published a story about his tour. It was unlike any tour these people had ever been on.

Luan quit his job, resolving to see where he could take this newfound passion. He took groups to two major investment banks and ended with a trading game as a fun team-building activity that stimulated what it was like to do open trading. “When you come to Wall Street, it’s really just a series of buildings. It’s not that exciting to look at,” he says. “As someone who’s familiar with the financial markets and went through experiences there, I can share a personal connection.”

Real Experiences Make for Engaging Tours

ExperienceFirst walking tour
A walking tour with ExperienceFirst

The type of tour that ExperienceFirst provides is right there in its name. Luan says, “Memories are formed when you have an intense emotional reaction. That intense reaction is usually caused by a connection you have formed with that location—because something clicks within you. You find common ground and gain a new perspective–that aha! moment. Meeting planners who want to create an impactful event can look to walking tours for this kind of interactive connection.”

An insider perspective is at the center of ExperienceFirst’s tours. As Luan’s organization grew, he began to hire tour guides around New York City: a professional actor would lead tours of Broadway; a 9/11 tour would be led by a person who witnessed that devastating day. “We believe that a tour guide who is a local, whether they’re an expert in their field or are very familiar with the area they’re speaking about, can provide context and connection for the visitor.”

Now, ExperienceFirst holds walking tours all over the United States and in major international locations like Paris. These tours are always interactive, and the team is careful to make sure they never feel like a walking lecture. They want customers to feel like they are in a distinct, three-dimensional space, and have all their senses engaged as they gain historical understanding.

Read More: 4 Tips for Making Incentive Travel Meaningful


Headshot of Lisa Chen ToursByLocals
Lisa Chen, CEO of ToursByLocals

“What a great way to treat your team. They’re going to take away these memories and it’s going to help them remember you and your company.”

Lisa Chen, ToursByLocals CEO, says that the company’s goal is to humanize travel. As an experienced traveler herself, this mission is near and dear to her heart.

When she joined ToursByLocals, she found a company that provides both travelers and guides with a connection like no other. ToursByLocals offers “a direct line to local experts [by] pairing travelers with guides that help shape lasting memories.”

Tailored Tours

Guides are highly vetted, and run commissioned, curated and often completely customizable tours. ToursByLocals helps guides to build out their profile and itinerary and continually coaches them to meet and exceed expectations.

“You might find a tour guide that has particular expertise—maybe they were a former chef or a gallery curator. You might like something about a tour that we have on our website, or simply like someone as a tour guide,” Chen explains.

Once customers choose their guide or tour, they can communicate through the ToursByLocals platform with their guide to adapt the tour for their needs. Perhaps the group wants a sitting break, or a meal incorporated. Maybe one member is a vintage collector; the guide can take them through local vintage shops.

Why take walking tours?

Walking tours provide an opportunity to experience a place in a distinctively intimate way. Chen says, “You can get a sense for the energy. You gain a deeply enriched understanding of the place you’re visiting.”

It’s also invaluable to her as an oftentimes solo female traveler. “Doing these walking tours at the start of my work trip is actually really important for me because I feel more comfortable and confident. I can ask, ‘Should I stay away from here? Is this place safe at night?’”

Walking Tours for Groups

When it comes to meetings, walking tours can provide a host of benefits.

A walking tour with ToursByLocals
A walking tour with ToursByLocals

Chen remembers an instance when she was attending a small meeting in New Orleans. Though it wasn’t in their itinerary, their planner encouraged them to take a walking tour to check out the area. Right before the tour, her team had an intense planning session where they struggled to reach a consensus.

“When we reconvened after that walking tour,” she says, “the entire energy had changed. The bond that we made through the tour allowed us to be even more productive when we came back. We were able to break through in some of the places we weren’t able to earlier.”

Read More: Incentives Mean Experiences


Headshot of Nicola Cox from Walks for Walking Tours
Nicola Cox, Director of Sales at Walks

“10 years after someone does a trip, they might remember the airline—if they’re a frequent flier. They can probably remember the hotel room, but they may need to google the name of the hotel. But they’ll remember what they did. They’ll remember their favorite moment, what they saw, the culture, the food, an activity.”

Walks’ Beginnings

Walks was founded by two Americans, Stephen Oddo and Jason Spiehler. When the two met in Rome, neither had any experience in walking tours, but together, they had eclectic educational backgrounds in history. They began to hold free tours outside the Coliseum simply by calling groups together from the crowd milling about outside. They saw a market for tours, and this inspired them to set up a company.

Oddo’s and Spiehler’s love of doing tours remains at the center of all the company’s decisions and actions to date.

The Heart of the Company: Tour Guides

Nicola Cox is director of sales at Walks. The company prides itself on its good relationships with their guides. Cox says, “You can do all the selling and marketing and planning, finance and organizing, you can get the best access, you can put together the best itinerary, but if you don’t have a great guide on the day, your clients aren’t going to have a good experience.”

Their guides are very specialized and do tours based on their skillset. “We’ll have an archeologist on Pompeii, and a chef who does the pasta class. And we have some gold stars who can maybe do a little bit of both, lead city tours and activities. It’s really about them doing what they love, and that comes across to the client.”

What Makes a Tour Special

Cox explains that there is certainly a culture around seeing the top sites. “These are often the reasons people are inspired to go. These are the iconic images they see. They want to go there, and we want to take them there. We excel at that…but I don’t think it’s enough to just skim the surface and see the big sites.”

the statue of Giordano Bruno in the Campo di Fiori in Rome
The State of Giordano Bruno

Cox shared a story of her own experience on a walking tour in Rome, during which the tour guide showed the group a statue of Italian philosopher, poet and cosmological theorist Giordano Bruno, in the Campo di Fiori. To her, it looked futuristic—almost like a Star Wars Jedi. The guide explained that Bruno had been sentenced to death by the Catholic Church in the 1600s. He was burned alive in the Campo di Fiori because he proposed ideas that weren’t found to be true until centuries later, such as the idea that stars were actually distant suns, and all with their own planets. The statue places his toes just slightly over the edge of the pedestal, which shows how forward-thinking his ideas were. And nobody would ever know unless the guide told them, because it’s not visible at the site of the statue, but Bruno faces directly towards the Vatican—as if he’s staring them down for all eternity.

Cox says, “I’ve been to Rome probably 20 times since that tour, and every time I walk through [the Campo di Fiori] I feel just a little bit more connected.”

Why Take Your Group on a Walking Tour?

In terms of business travel, Cox says, “If you’re going to fly your staff around the world to come to a city, they’re going to be excited about it. And if they arrive, then go to the meeting room, then leave, you’ve failed, really.” Though it’s not realistic to pay for an extra one or two nights for business travelers to explore, finding an affordable and time-efficient way to work in an experience really is a game changer. Tours are exactly this.

“[Walks] can do tours that will get the very best of the city’s essence in an adept amount of time and in a financially astute way. It’s benefiting your budget and your time—because time really is money. It’s also benefitting your employees and making them feel valued.”

Read More: Top 10 International Cities: How Groups Can Enjoy the Old and New