Sunday, May 10, 2009

Little Ireland?

So NYC and Co (the marketing arm of the city), are coming up with a campaign to get people to visit the ethnic neighborhoods. I won't comment on the rationale behind this - that's for the Village Voice. They did do a pretty good job of picking out 9 neighborhoods - 2 from each borough, except Staten Island which gets one, with ethnicities representing five continents and about a dozen languages. And they even got at least 4 of the neighborhood names right.

Now, I am not a huge "true and proper neighborhood name" snob, who argues over the boundary of Crown Heights and Prospect Heights and gets upset when someone says "Clinton" on the West Side of Manhattan. I've always said on my tours that neighborhoods are only half an actual geographic location and half a state of mind. But there is a difference between a neighborhood name that will provoke an argument among New Yorkers, and a name they won't even recognize. And there's a least 2 in there that will make even a licensed NYC tour guide go "where?"

A quick rundown follows. This is only about the neighborhood names - not about if the map NYC & Co has represents the correct borders of the neighborhood. Writing about that would be a small book.


Astoria, Brighton Beach, Flatbush, Jackson Heights.


El Barrio/Spanish Harlem. I've heard some people, mostly older Puerto Rican residents of the neighborhood, refuse to call the place anything other than "East Harlem." Still, every New Yorker will recognize Spanish Harlem, and most will recognize El Barrio. However, I've never, ever, heard anyone refer to the place as "El Barrio" in an actual real life sentence, only in things like online neighborhood tourist guides. Being a tourist and asking someone "which way to El Barrio" will definitely invoke some snickers and eye rolling.

Koreatown. I've always heard it referred to as "Little Korea," but whatever. I think they probably figured there were already too many "Little x,y or z" neighborhoods on the list and went with Koreatown instead.

Little Italy. This is kind of weird. The neighborhood name is Belmont, but a lot of people say Arthur Avenue or Little Italy in the Bronx. But it's always "Little Italy in the Bronx," not "Little Italy." If you ask a New Yorker to meet you for dinner in "Little Italy" 100% of them, including those living on Arthur Avenue, will go to Mulberry Street.

Little Sri Lanka. OK, I'm going to confess I don't really know about this one. I know there's a few restaurants and a small community somewhere around the Ferry Terminal (St. George? Tompinksville? I'm not too up on Staten Island neighborhoods). I have zero idea if this area is referred to "Little Sri Lanka" by anyone other than NYC and Co. I'm going to ask a few Staten Islanders I know before I take it out of "questionable" and throw it down into "100% wrong." Regardless, I doubt one New Yorker in 100 could tell you where "Little Sri Lanka" is. And if you're going to make up a name, make it a little more euphonic than "Little Sri Lanka," which just sounds lazy ("hey Joe, what should we call that Sri Lankan area in Staten Island?" "I don't know Frank - how about Little Sri Lanka. Come on, the game's about to start"). Any ideas?

100% Wrong:

Little Ireland
. OK, this is just ridiculous. First, the neighborhood already has a perfectly serviceable name, which is Woodlawn. NYC & Co don't call Astoria "Little Greece" or Brighton Beach "Little Odessa" (which is actually used way more often than "Little Ireland"), or Flatbush "Little Jamaica." Now, you might say that it's because the above neighborhoods are actually pretty multiethnic, which is true, but so is Woodlawn. Second, fewer New Yorkers would probably recognize "Little Ireland" than "Little Sri Lanka." Third, if you want to get historical with it, into at least the 1960s "Little Ireland" referred to a different neighborhood in the Bronx - south Riverdale, near Gaelic Park.

And fourth, referring to a neighborhood as "Little whatever" generally means only the restaurants remain, if anything else even existed in the first place. There are no Koreans in Little Korea (or Koreatown) there are no Brazilians in Little Brazil, and there are definitely no Italians in Little Italy - not the NYC and Co. version of Little Italy, though, which still has a few. But there are most definitely Irish in Woodlawn - so holdup on dubbing it "Little Ireland" for a while.

For some in depth numbers on the suppositions in this last paragraph, check out my other blog.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Underbelly Tours

One tour that's been getting a lot of press lately has been the NYC Underbelly tour of the South Bronx, conducted by Curtis Sliwa, radio personality and founder of the Guardian Angels (remember them?). I haven't taken the tour so I can't comment on the content - some people like it, some don't. But what I am curious about is if this is a financially viable tour.

My general gut reaction is no. You make money one way in tourism - you cater to tourists. All guides have their particular interests, and love doing their own off-the-beaten-path type tours, but almost always the market just isn't there. Guides like to think they're educators, and that their job is to get tourists interested in the things they don't know. While this is a noble pursuit, it's not a money-making one. And for every person who's going to walk around the Bronx with Curtis Sliwa (or go on any other kind of niche tour), there's 1000 who want to ride a double-decker bus and see the Empire State Building.

Now, I'm not saying that these kind of tours can't be a somewhat profitable and enjoyable side-job (and Sliwa's pay-what-you-wish model can make you more money than a set rate, but that's another post). After all, the only investment you need is time and a little marketing. But it's certainly not something anyone gets rich off of. Even the most successful of the independent owner-operators only manage to create a full-time job for themselves, and sometimes not even that. And any kind of special interest tour generally has to marketed as extremely high-end and expensive in order to be profitable.

The more comfortable tourists get, the less they want tour guides. And many niche tours are things that appeal mostly to locals. The type of tourist that's going to want to go on a walking tour of the South Bronx - in my experience, this is generally the young Euro set - is usually going to be comfortable doing it by themselves. And locals? What kind of self-respecting New Yorker is going to be suckered into paying someone to schlep around their own town?

However, there have been a couple very successful niche tours - chief among them the Sex and the City Tour, and the Hip-Hop tour. Even though they have different subject matter, they have more or less the same business model: buses, minor celebrities as tour guides (Sex and the City guides have to be working actresses, and the regular Hip-Hop Tour guides are Melle Mel, Kurtis Blow, and Grandmaster Caz), and a subject that has the appeal to tourists of introducing them to a kind of real-life, make-believe land that they have only seen on TV before.

The question is whether or not this tour has the same appeal. Curtis Sliwa is a recognized name in New York, but I don't think anyone out-of-town would consider him a minor celebrity. And there's not the comfortability of a bus - instead you're using a combination of the subway and your feet. However, the third criteria they have in spades - maybe even enough to make up for the lack of the first two. Not only is there always a certain voyeuristic fascination for "how the other half lives" (best evidenced in the Favela Tours of Rio), but the less dangerous and more sterile New York gets, the more there's an interest in the days when it wasn't. And you can combine this with the fact that it's way easier to take people around to places like the South Bronx now. After all, no idiot would actually give a tour of somewhere where you actually have to worry about people mugging your tourists. While Sliwa advertises safety because he brings along one Guardian Angel for every two tourists, the reality is everyone would be perfectly safe with just him.

So will you actually see the "Underbelly?" Like I said, I haven't taken the tour, but I highly doubt it. That's not to say it's not a good tour. I love the South Bronx, and think it's a very underutilized tourist area for a lot of different reasons. And quite honestly, this is the only way to market this type of tour, because as offensive and annoying as it is, the ghetto appeal is the only real reason why 95% of tourists are interested in the South Bronx (there's the Hip-Hop aspect also, which in my mind is very different, but is basically part of the ghetto appeal for most tourists). But I will tell you this for all tourists out there: As a tour guide, and as a traveler, you cannot see the "secret" or "hidden" or "insider" (which are highly relative terms anyway) through anyone you can google and hire on the Internet, no matter how they market themselves. Cities are not that easy. Nor should they be. Invest some time and energy in a city and its people, and they will reward you - and usually for free.

If you want a good cultural tour of the South Bronx, call up The Point, which does an excellent Mambo-to-Hip-Hop South Bronx tour.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Players: Part 1 - Ticket Sellers

As I mentioned a couple posts ago, your tour starts off by buying a ticket. There's a million combinations - 2 day, 3 day, boat rides, helicopter rides, uptown, downtown. Generally, tourists will go for a standard all loops, 2 or 3 day pass. You can buy these online, through your hotel, through various travel agents and third parties, but the majority of people simply buy them from the guys hawking them on the street.

The first thing you need to know is that these guys are paid 100% (or very close to it) on commission. Because of this, they are the purest hustlers of anyone in the game, and have absolutely no loyalty to the company or to you, the customer. You can't really blame the ticket sellers - when the sales model of a business is "you don't sell, you don't eat" that's how it goes.

The take varies depending on the tour, but it's usually about 10 cents on the dollar of your ticket price. Of course, that 10 cents changes to a 100 cents if they can simply take your cash, put you on the bus, and never enter any records of it in the computer. If you're getting tickets for anything other than the bus ride this is tough, but if you're simply hopping on what's right in front of you, the guides usually don't care a whole heck of a lot about checking tickets. Get caught at that you're fired, but pull it off and you make a day's pay in 10 minutes. There's other, smaller, scams - charging for children's tickets instead of adults for instance - but all basically involve getting your cash and not telling the company about it.

Now, there's something else ticket sellers do all the time which is to tell you whatever you want to hear - and omit anything you don't want to hear - in order to transfer the cash from your pocket to theirs. You hear "buses all the time, boat ride, free museum, go anywhere in the city whenever you want to" but when you get down to what you can and can't do in practicality, you'll find you've paid for a lot you might not be getting. This isn't really a scam, but isn't really great customer service either.

Of course, the second thing you have to know is that nobody is at all interested in customer service. The tour bus business does not really have repeat customers, and as a result, customer service does not add anything to the bottom line - especially for the ticket sellers. As far as the ticket sellers go, you see the bus, they get your money and that's a wrap. Refund? They don't know the meaning of the word. What are you going to do, complain to the company? They don't want to give you your money back either. There's perhaps a little bit of concern for good word-of-mouth or online reviews, but as there's now only one company, that's pretty much not a worry anymore either. Once your money leaves your pocket, you have no leverage. My best advice is to always pay with a credit card, and don't be afraid to cancel the charges if you aren't happy.

I'm less familiar with the Red Bus (Grey Line), but the ticket sellers used to discount at the Blue Bus (CitySights) heavily, especially on the single ride night tour where every extra dollar is profit (it costs just as much to run a bus with 5 people on it as 50 people). It had gotten to ridiculous proportions until one time a guy who had already bought a whole bunch of tickets for his group from the hotel decided to ask about the prices with the guys on the street to see if he got a good deal. The street guys told him to return the tickets to the hotel, get their money back, come back to him and he'd sell them the tickets at a discount. The guy told the hotel, the hotel told the company, and the word came down that there was absolutely no discounting of tickets anymore. Doesn't mean you can't still bargain, but it's certainly not as-of-right anymore.

Ticket selling is a tough gig but you'd be surprised as how much someone can make. The top guys at both places made over 6 figures yearly. Now, that's an experienced person who knows the game inside and out and hustles all day, every day, 365 days a year - there's also plenty of guys who don't even make enough for lunch. But it's something I always point out as an example when people of a different kind of background complain about the lack of jobs and opportunity in New York. You want money? It's there - you don't need a fancy degree, connections, or any particular skill. Hell, you don't even need a Social Security Card or a firm command of the English language. All you got to do is throw on a yellow jacket, stand out in Times Square, and hustle like hell. So either get to it, or stop your complaining.

As with most everything in New York, the profession has its ethnic skews. A disproportionate number of the ticket sellers (and many other street vendors) are West African - just like a disproportionate number of the guides are Jewish, and the drivers Chinese, but those are other stories for other days.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

There Can Be Only One

Well, this is some news

CitySights and Grey Line are merging. The short story seems to be one combined company, 60/40 split monetary wise for Grey Line, 50/50 control. Mark Marmurstein (Jack Marmurstein, the owner of City Sights' kid) gets a shot at running the thing.

Preliminary Analysis: Well, I can't say I know a whole lot about the business side of the deal beyond what I read in the press release. Grey Line comes with a better brand, more assets, more profit, and better marketing contacts - all in proportions greater than 60/40 so on the face of it it looks like CitySights comes out the winner. Grey Line is a subsidiary of an international company, while City Sights is a local family operation, so it looks like Grey Line decided to take a short deal in return for not having a competitor with a recession coming. Or maybe they just got tired of managing it.

However, business aside, this is definitely bad news for workers (and tourists). Competition encourages redundancy, consolidation encourages efficiency. The amount of tourists might stay the same, but if only one company is running routes, then 50 tourists can be put on 1 bus instead of 2. The math isn't quite as bad as half as many buses, and in the summer when there's more tourists than seats it shouldn't matter too much, but there'll be a lot less work in the non-peak season, and less options for tour guides.

A very good analysis of the situation from the worker's perspective is here. It mainly concerns Grey Line employees.

There's be many more thoughts beyond this one - any guest posts concerning the situation are welcome.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Why your tour sucked

If you rode the Blue double-decker bus last summer, chance are at least some of the following you'll recognize. The Red bus is a bit better, but not by much - Add longer lines but less general chaos. Since I never worked for them I can't really comment too much - check out this blog if you want the inside scoop on that company.

First, you were accosted on the street by a ticket seller promising the world (or at least New York) or maybe it was recommended by the Concierge. Stops everywhere, buses all the time, hop-on and hop-off to your hearts delight for three days, one low price. Throw in a cruise and a museum admission. Your questions were met with a heavily accented "yes, yes," you figured "what the heck" and bought. You might have even bought thinking that in addition to the tour part, that it was a great way to get around town. No paying for cabs! There's a fairly good chance the ticket seller claimed his credit card machine was broken and wanted cash. He printed out some strips of paper or gave you some tickets and pointed you to a bus on a nearby corner. And that's when your tour started to suck.

A bus came along, but didn't stop. Then an empty bus drove right by you. Another come along, but the guide tells you it's full and drives off. The ticket seller has disappeared or obviously doesn't know what's going on. Finally, after an hour, you manage to get on. This is going to be great! You sit down, ready for the tour, and hear some partially intelligible words through a static filled microphone by the guide. You get up to ask a question and the tour guide yells at you to sit down. A good thing you did also, because the bus is barreling along, and all of sudden stops short, almost throwing the guide over the side. Even though you bought the ticket because of "hop-on, hop-off," you're scared to get off, because you don't know if a bus that isn't full will come along again.

Well, at least the weather is good, and the view is nice. Riding along on a double-decker tour bus can be pretty fun. You wish you could hear though - there's someone jabbering away loudly in Italian next to you. You try to motion to the tour guide to ask them to be quiet, but he shows absolutely no interest in anything but talking into the broken mic about how this is a service profession, and you shouldn't forget to tip. And then it starts to rain.

At first it isn't bad, but when it starts to come down you decide to go downstairs. If you're on the Red bus, you're thinking that it would be nice if there were windows downstairs. If you're on the Blue Bus though, you're still wet thinking it'd be nice if there were a downstairs at all. Instead your tour guide gives you a flimsy yellow "poncho," and tells you there's not enough when you ask for two.

But it's OK. You've got a 48 hour pass, all the loops, the works. 48 hours is a long time. You're still ready for more (once it stops raining). And you don't have to worry about how to get back to your hotel - the bus goes in a loop, so you just stay on until you get there.

Except the tour guide kicks you off before your stop. He seems to kind of glance suggestively toward the box labeled "Tips," and offers you a grudging "thanks" when you throw in a buck. You ask how you get back to your hotel, and are told to walk, take the train, or take a cab. This is the end of the line. You could have sworn the ticket seller told you the buses run 24-7, but no, they stop in the early evening - you must have mistaken the "24-hour ticket" for "24 hour buses." The tour guide points you around the corner - maybe you can catch a "night tour" that will take that'll take you there. The line is down the block, but the buses seem to be filling up quick. Finally it's your turn - except when you get on the bus just sits there half-full. You keep asking when you're leaving and you keep getting "in 5 minutes" every five minutes. Finally it takes off and you learn this one isn't hop-on, hop-off. You got a two-hour tour, but not a ride back to the Hotel.

The next day though, it's a little less crowded. You decide to hop off and see the sites. You have a free museum ticket, but you're told the museum's closed. That's OK, you can still catch the cruise. The guide tells you that the cruise only leaves 3 times during the day, but you might make the last one if you hustle, and points you down the block. After 10 minutes walking, you reach a desolate industrial area, but you haven't hit the water yet. Another 10 minutes, you find the cruise terminal. The boat is taking off. No refunds or exchanges for tomorrow of course, but you can pay $40 for another ride. Instead you choose the $10 cab ride back to midtown. It sure would have been nice to know the times the boat leaves and that the museum was closed - you could have arranged it all perfectly.

An altogether unpleasant experience. You want your money back. You ask the tour guide about this, and he tells you to talk to the ticket seller. The ticket seller tells you to talk to the dispatcher. The dispatcher tells you to find the original guy who sold you the ticket, but how are you going to do that? Then he tells you to cancel the charge on your credit card, but you paid in cash. Exasperated, he tells you to call the office. You get a machine, leave a message, and never hear back.

Now, your tour could have been much different, without even a lot of effort. It could have been a pretty good experience - a smooth ride in frequent buses, space to sit, an intelligible tour guide more interested in pointing out the sites than asking for tips, an honest business transaction at the beginning where how the buses work and what you're getting are clearly spelled out, and you don't feel like you got hustled. But that's the thing - the double decker tour guide game is one big hustle. There's a reason why everyone acts the way they do, and it's not because they want to make your life miserable. It's simply because of how the business is structured. I'll spend the next few posts trying to explain.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

How to deal wth racists

I am not a gay Uzbekistani. However, today I played one on the tour.

The easiest, most non-directly-confrontational way to deal with the people who had mentioned that they had gotten their hot dog from "that immigrant guy," was simply to be "an immigrant guy" myself. Since I'm white and have no discernible accent (for character purposes, I had left Uzbekistan when I was 5), sometimes the tourists feel OK letting stuff like that slip. I threw in the gay part just for fun.

Now most tourists , even the bad kind of tourist, are not racist. But there are various levels of ignorance that are shown on the tour - mostly by Europeans, who don't really have a great sense of what is or isn't appropriate, rather than Americans. In addition, Euros sometimes have kind of a voyeuristic fascination with black and hip-hop culture (and especially Harlem) that makes me cringe a little.

But occasionally you get some unapologetic backward Americans. Not 1960s style racist, and without any real malice, but who say things like "look, a real life Chinaman" (I kid you not, that is a direct quote from a tourist while driving through Chinatown), or wear a "welcome to speak English" T-shirt. Or the person who asked my Canadian girlfriend on the tour "do you have blacks up in Canada like we do here?" And it's less what they say - it's more their reaction to what you're saying.

It's weird to deal with this. You've got a job to do, and you can't very well stop the tour and give them a lecture on inclusivity and tolerance and such. There's really only two things to do - start the general spiel about how great New York is for its diversity, or make yourself into the object of their prejudice so that the tourists feel like assholes and reconsider their thinking.

The first one is pretty fun - after my general spiel, my kicker is usually "it doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, whatever walk of life, there's a place for you in New York. There's even a place for Republicans - there's an entire Republican float in the Gay Pride Parade every year (which happens to be true). It's function is to make the point to the tourists that they're in our city, and they need to behave respectfully in it. I don't go take a tour of Mississippi and talk about all the rednecks around, don't come here and talk about "those immigrant guys."

The second one is easier said than done of course. I can pass myself as an Uzbekistani immigrant, or even half-Puerto Rican if I have to. And since I actually am Jewish, the laughing and pointing at the guys in the funny hats with the beards and curls (which happens a good amount) is also pretty easy for me to deal with. I routinely talk about my boyfriend if I get funny looks when doing the spiel on the Stonewall riots in the Village. But of course it's tougher when the object of ignorance is someone who I have no hope of reasonably approximating.

I don't act any different from how I usually do, or even do much of a different tour - in fact, part of the point of doing this is showing the tourists that just because someone happens to look and sound like them, they can't assume they aren't "that immigrant guy," or whoever else they might think it's OK to subtly ridicule. It's not a perfect solution, but it's the best one I can come up with. And it's always a lot of fun.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Horse Drawn Carriage Ban hearing tomorrow

Horse Drawn Carriage Ban Hearing at City Hall tomorrow - 1:00 PM

Some quick thoughts on the whole thing.

The ban itself: You can read the rationale for and against yourself. I personally don't think they should be banned, but I do think a few more rules are needed, and that the carriages shouldn't be allowed out of Central Park (except perhaps Central Park South) at any time.

The bills: There's two bills - a bill to ban the carriages and an industry bill raising the maximum rate to $54 from $34 for a half-hour, and establishing some new rules. I don't think the industry bill is perfect, but I do think the new rules are needed, and raising is fair considering it's been decades since it was raised. I'm actually kind of torn on this. Horse Drawn Carriages aren't like cabs - they're a novelty, not a basic part of the city or a serious means of transportation, and novelties don't need price controls. If someone wants to pay a million dollars to clomp around in Central Park at 3 miles/hour, who am I to say it should be illegal?

On the other hand, I can't stand how every entertainment-related activity in this town has doubled in price over the last 5 years, and seeing one more go this route kind of gets me in the gut a little bit. In addition, there definitely needs to be transparency in pricing. It doesn't so much matter what the price is, just that it's listed and room for shenanigans are at a minimum.

My personal solutions is that the price cap should be raised, but tipping banned. Aggressive solicitation of gratuities is one of the worst things about the tourism profession in New York (there'll be a lot more on this later), and the Horse Drawn Carriages are by far the worst offenders.

The Politics: PETA (the big sponsor behind the ban) was smart to go after a high profile, but small and unorganized industry. If nothing else, they'll get some publicity and fund-raising appeal out of it.

Avella is probably sponsoring this for much the same reasons - the chance to get some publicity, fund-raising opportunities, and volunteer manpower (all of which he desperately needs) behind his Mayoral run.

If I'm the Horse Drawn Carraige industry, I'm super-pissed at Council Speaker Christine Quinn as the entire industry is based in her district. Maybe there some politics or process involved I don't know about, but if your councilwoman's the second most powerful elected official in the city, you aren't supposed to have deal with bills to ban your entire industry.

The Prediction: There's no way this passes. PETA rallies, Avella grandstands, and the bill gets bottled up in committee. Eventually the industry bill passes but with some stronger regulations and maybe less of a price hike.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

So you wanna be a tour guide... Part 2 - licensing

Now, you can't just decide you want to be a tour guide and go to it, like you might decide to be a bartender, or actor, or traveling salesman. You've got to have credentials. All tour guides are required to have an active license from the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs - the same guys who license everyone from tattoo artists to hot dog vendors.

To get the license you've got to jump through a few hoops - pay the money, currently $50 for a two-year license, get a certificate saying you don't owe child support, and pass a test, which is also $50. So yes - tour guides do know what they're talking about (mostly). Even if you're not a working guide, having a license is a little bit of a point of pride. It's a quick, official way to become an credentialed expert in New York. Well, expert might be a bit of a stretch. You can get a tour guide license without an 8th grade education, much less a history degree from an accredited institute of higher learning. It's kind of like becoming a Deacon in the Church - you're still a layperson, but an acknowledged layperson.

The test is kind of silly. It was pretty easy until 2003 (to put it in perspective, I passed after living in New York for three months). Then they decided to amp it up a bit. However, instead of just making the test harder, they also decided to make it into a lecture. So now some of the questions are a page long and don't really have a whole lot to do with the answer, but it is a better test in general.

People always ask me how to study for the test, and I have only a few quick suggestions.

First, ignore the DCA's lazy advice to read the Blue Guide. It's out of date, a reference book that you don't really "read" and has a couple of egregious errors in it anyway (the Flatiron building was never the tallest in the world, for starters).

Second, learn where and what the different museums are.

Third, go over the commercial traffic rules - a lot of being a tour guide is knowing where you can take buses - and know what streets in Manhattan go which way.

Fourth, casually read over the NY Times City Section from 2002 - that's when the test was written, and a lot of questions are taken from the articles.

Do this, and have some good, general New Yorker knowledge, and you'll be fine.

If you really want to ace it though, you can go right to the source. The entire thing was written by Justin Ferate, so maybe you should just drop him a line. I actually wrote kind of a snotty letter to him and DCA after I took the revised test, as it mostly consists of him showing off (as you can tell from the sample questions), but once I had a class with him and learned he took people the back way through a hole in the fence to the Vanderbilt Mausoleum in the Moravian Cemetery in Staten Island, I decided he was OK.

Now, the test is 150 questions. There's two different "passing" grades for the test: 97 and 120. Originally they were going to make all current guides take the test and pass with a 120, instead of grandfathering them in. When there was an outcry over this, they grandfathered in the existing guides, and lowered the passing score to 97 - but you still get a little star by your name as a special mention if you get a 120 or higher. You can check if your favorite tour guide got the star here (.pdf file).

Whether you need to be licensed or not in all practicality is a different story. Almost all large or mid-sized tour companies will check to make sure you're licensed, although a few unlicensed people have slipped through. Now, in a pinch the Blue Bus will throw someone on top of the double-decker who can't even speak English, much less is a licensed guide, and I wouldn't be surprised if some other companies did the same. Some folks let their licenses lapse out of laziness or lack of funds - one of the dumb things the DCA does is make the renewal date April 1st - right after the dead season, when a lot of guides are struggling to come up with the $50 for renewal. I've run into people who've been suspended from the large companies for letting their license lapse. On the other hand, just looking over the list right now there's at least one working (and very good) tour guide I know who has let his lapse without any apparent consequences.

Smaller outfits are a bit different. I know of at least one, high-end company that doesn't bother to get their guides licensed. And out-of-town guides rarely, if ever, get licensed (the legalities of them conducting tours is still fuzzy). Enforcement isn't like Rome (which as I've mentioned, is the only city with more cynicism toward tourists than New York), where roving bands of undercover cops patrol the center of the city, protecting the jobs of the officially designated guides. I've heard of the DCA doing license checks exactly once in the last decade. If you're a casual part-timer, it's really professional pride that dictates a valid license, not practical concerns.

But licensing itself is only a reflection of knowledge, and a limited knowledge at that. And knowledge is just one tool - and generally an overused one - in a tour guide's arsenal. A lot of guides think "most knowledge=best tour guide" and if you God-forbid find yourself in a group of more than a couple guides, you are guaranteed some "whose tour guide dick is bigger" competition regarding who knows the most about the city. But knowledge counts for less and less in this day and age of wikipedia and google. And there's certainly no guarantee that someone who has the little star (120 and above) by their name is a better guide than someone who doesn't, or even someone who flunked the test completely. And I know of zero tour operators that require, or even give preference to, someone with the star by their name.

Me? I could have been grandfathered in and skipped the new test, but as the DCA let currently licensed guides take it for free, I shlepped down to their offices on Lower Broadway. I scored a 123 and got the little star - but I had to take it twice.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Prince of Tides

Just call him "The Prince of Tides."

Between John Mason's moniker as the "Prince of Tour Guides" and the fact that he works on the Circle Line boat, I don't know how the New York Times didn't come up with some variation on that title for this piece.

It's a great article - if you read closely, you can tell the entire theme of the article is the disconnect between tourists and guides. Those of us in the profession certainly nod knowingly at lines like "the film references seemed to excite passengers much more than the historical ones."

I've heard Lee Gelber refer to himself as the "Dean" of Tour Guides but never heard anyone referred to as the "Prince" of Tour Guides before. I've got to come up with a good title for myself - Prime Minister of Tour Guides? Vizier of Tour Guides? Archbishop of Tour Guides? Any other suggestions?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Near the Coliseum, the horse-drawn carriage drivers were glum. “Business has dropped about 35 to 40 percent compared to three or four years ago,” said Fabrizio Manzone, who charges between $65 and $135, depending on the route.

Tourists “will all go out for a pizza,” he said. But when you’re trying to save, “a carriage ride is the first thing you drop from the list.”

Oh man, this is hilarious. They're talking about the exact same subjects in Rome as I've been talking about - pizza, horse drawn carriages, and the idea that getting tourists to drop as much money as humanly possible should be the #1 goal of the industry, if not the entire city.

Rome's one of a very few cities I've been to that has close to the same cynicism that we do. We've both discovered tourists are stupid, and have decided that exploiting this is worth sacrificing everything else - including our dignity. Other big tourist destinations - Paris and Rio both immediately come to mind - certainly are happy to make a buck off of visitors, but don't let their town degenerate to the level of kitch and pandering the way parts of Rome and New York do.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Pedicab Crackdown?

I've driven the Pedicab a few times - it's a tough, tough hustle. It's a similar gig as driving a regular cab - you rent the cab for x amount a day, and make what you keep. And just like a cab, if you get a ticket, that's yours. In the article it's implied that a $200 ticket isn't enough of a deterrent. Really - that's at least a good day's profit for a driver. You go schlep 500 pounds of tourist around in a rickshaw for 10 hours for free and tell me it's not a deterrent.

I've only taken one out if there's a pedicab tour already lined up for me that covers the cost of renting the thing. The owner (if he's responsible) covers insurance and repairs. If the weather is awful (super hot, raining), then you get more work, so you're always out driving in awful weather. Physically, it's not so bad - kind of tough on the legs, but there's a lot of gears and you can take it easy if you have to, as long as you don't have to go up any inclines. It kind of resembles driving the truck of bicycles.

Pedicabs are in a weird no-man's land between bicycles and cars. The don't break traffic laws with the casualness of most bicyclists in New York, but they sure don't follow them to the letter. They were unregulated for a while, until the city finally came up with a licensing scheme. Still, they're much, much less regulated than the horse drawn carriages or regular taxicabs - most notably on pricing, which is 100% negotiable (the carriages and taxis both have set pricing). Riding them is mostly a novelty thing - they aren't really that great for getting from point A to point B in a timely and economical manner. They cost about 3x as much as a similar taxi ride, and unless traffic is really, really bad, are going to be about the same speed or slower.

Working in the business, you hear a lot of rumors about various tensions and issues between different people, different businesses. Some people told me the Horse Drawn Carriage guys hated the pedicabs because they took their Central Park business, and were behind the push to crack down on them. Others told me it was the taxi drivers that hated them, and were behind the push. Others told me it was the Central Park Conservancy. It's probably some combination of these, and other, factors. Still, 2609 tickets? That about 9 tickets per pedicab per year. I ride my bike with impunity all over town, and have only gotten 2 tickets in my life, both of which were thrown out of court.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

So you want to be a tour guide... Part 1 - Intro

Being a tour guide is not at all a bad job, if the circumstances of life are right. There are some people for whom it’s great. Unfortunately, these are usually not the people who are actually doing the job.

First of all, you have to realize that you aren’t going to get a “job” as a tour guide. When people think of a job, they think of something with steady hours, a set schedule, and more or less the same paycheck every week. That’s not tour guiding. Tour guiding is a hustle – lining up a series of gigs through the year. You work, you get paid (usually). You don’t work, you don’t get paid (definitely). The tour guiding business is seasonal and heavily dependent on the economy, so you are also. You’ve got to hustle hard and save when the going’s good, and try to survive when it isn’t.

You’ll probably cobble together some motley patchwork of bus work, group tours (mostly school groups) through independent operators, and maybe a steady gig at a museum, church or other institution if you’re lucky, with a small smattering of private and specialty tours you hustle up directly.

The double-decker buses are the meat-and-potatoes of tour guiding. They’re also the steadiest employment, although steady is a very relative term. They cater to the lowest common denominator of tourists, and everyone involved in this business – management, guides, ticket agents, even the drivers - is generally concerned only with trying to squeeze every last buck they can out of them. A fellow guide once called me a “tour guide grunt” for hustling 14-hours days on the things in the summer, but I made more money in 5 months than he made all year.

The people who are best suited for tour bus guiding are college students. Other than maybe being a lifeguard, this is the best student job you’ll ever get. Work outdoors in the summer, cracking jokes and flirting with girls, getting to educate and entertain people. Make a ton of money in three weeks on your winter break. Maybe hit the bus on weekends in the fall if you need some extra cash – one good Saturday of working hard will probably net you 250 bucks. You want to take the Spring semester off to go backpacking across South America? No problem – come back in April or May, get off the plane, take the train to midtown and you’ll be on a bus jabbering away in 20 minutes. You’ve got to hustle hard, you’re treated like a Mexican day laborer, and finding 5 minutes to pee is a luxury, but you can make money. You get no vacations, health insurance, or respect from the company, tourists, or anyone else, but hey – you’re young, healthy, and it’s a hell of a lot better than working McDonalds.

The problem in New York is that we have one of the biggest talent pools in the world – which leads to a lot of overqualified people in every job, in every field. Your cab driver was an engineer back in his home country. The sous chef at your neighborhood restaurant ran the swankiest joint there is in whatever mid-sized American city he came from. The guy serving you coffee at Starbucks just got his MBA. So while college students are generally best suited for the buses, you are much more likely to have an out-of-work college professor conducting your tour.

And this is the root of the dysfunction of the tour guide profession, or at least the low of end of it. Everyone in this city is qualified, everyone is smart, everyone is driven. The difference between the people who make it and the people who don’t are connections and social adroitness. If you’re lucky, you’ve got the first type of guide: lacking in connections. They’ve just moved here, are probably trying to make it as an actor, hustling and hoping until they’ve been here long enough to build up some relationships and try and catch a break. If you aren’t lucky, you’ve got the second type: lacking in social adroitness. These aren’t necessarily bad guides – if they’re having a good day, they can be really informative and entertaining. But there’s a reason they aren’t holding down a 9-5 as an architectural historian, and that reason isn’t because they don’t know architectural history inside and out. It’s because they’re crazy.

Now by crazy, I don’t mean they should be institutionalized, and I certainly don’t mean dangerous. But I do mean more than eccentric (which is a characteristic of every tour guide, if not every New Yorker). And I’m not saying all tour guides are crazy – I’m not even saying most are. But I am saying that craziness affects tour guides in a significantly larger percentage than the general public, and the further down the guide ladder you go, the more crazies there are. And this craziness is not helped by the fact that they're probably some sort of frustrated intellectual dealing with, well, the type of people who take double-decker bus rides. So you do the math.

More on the other gigs, and the types of guides they fit forthcoming.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

St. John the Divine Tours

No not for you - only for us tourism professionals. And it's free, while you'll probably end up paying 15 bucks. It's called a FAM tour for some reason - I think it stands for Familiarity Tour - the point being tour guides get familiar with a place for free, and then bring tourists there who pay. Going on these tours is the best (and really only) perk of the business. All tour guides love New York, love tours, and love stuff for free.

For those of you in the biz (or who could conceivably fake it - I don't think they'll be checking licenses at the door):

Tourism Professionals
Cathedral Seminar 2009

The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine invites you to learn about
and explore the richness of this brilliantly restored, historic New York
destination through a series of FREE TOURS created solely for
tourism industry professionals.

Tuesday, January 13th:

10:30am - 12:00pm
Cathedral Highlights
Explore the Cathedral's bustling nave and serene chapels from end-to-end
now that the post-fire restoration has been completed. Learn about the
history, architecture, art, and social programs of this great sacred
space. If you have never joined us for a Cathedral tour or wish to
brush up on general information now that the whole Cathedral is
accessible once more, this program is the one for you! Led by Visitor
Services Administrator Kevin Blum.

1:00pm - 2:30pm
Behind the Beauty
What do a five-foot-seven man, a lamb, and eight flower petals all have
in common? The answer: St. John the Divine! Look beyond the aesthetic
beauty of this great cathedral to find biblical messages revealed in
stone, glass, and yes, even math. Discover how to show your groups how
the left-brained converges with the right-brained to create the symphony
of symbolism that is St. John the Divine. Led by Cathedral Guide Andrew

Wednesday, January 14th:

10:30am - 12:00pm
Secrets of St. John the Divine
A stripper in a stained-glass window? A maze of tunnels beneath the
crypt? Explore hidden images that visitors almost always over-look as
you learn about the Cathedral's fascinating history and discover the
truth behind urban legends about the Cathedral. This newly created tour
debuts this Winter! Led by Senior Cathedral Guide Tom Fedorek

1:00pm - 2:30pm
An Inside Look
Climb more than 124 feet through the spiral staircases to the top of the
world's largest Cathedral. Stand on a buttress and get a close look at
the magnificent stained-glass and vaulting. Situate the place and
purpose of the Cathedral by viewing its surrounding neighborhood from
the roof. Led by Visitor Services Administrator Kevin Blum.

To register for these tours please contact Kevin Blum at either
212-316-7350 or by Saturday, January 10, 2009.

As a note, St. John the Divine is a great place and probably the most underrated tourist attraction in New York. Even if you can't make the FAM tours, you should definitely make it a priority to check out. And I'm not just saying this because I saw Philippe Petit do a tightrope act assisted by David Duchovny, or because the old scaffolding on the south tower (since gone) made it super-easy to climb up and hang out on the roof at night. The space is remarkable, the history is amazing, they have one of Keith Haring's last works, let Elephants in the place every year, and occasionally let you on the roof legitimately (safer, but not as fun). What more do you want?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Carriage Ban - a driver's perspective

S. Ryan Rzepecki - a carriage driver - gives an insider perspective on the debate over banning the carriages:

"First: the ban proposed is promoted by a few outspoken and well-funded individuals and has the support of just one city councilman. I find that most people that actually know horses (have worked with them, ride them etc.) can recognize that our horses are in extremely good health. Many of the things that PETA is saying are simply not true. For example: they say walking on hard pavement causes lameness, but if that were the case all of our horses would be lame, and they are not.

In general, I feel there are two types of people that criticize our industry. One type wants better conditions for the horses. Now, we are heavily regulated and the temperature controls are strictly enforced, but I can understand and reason with someone that wants the horses to receive good treatment. I would say about half of the owners rotate their horses and give them breaks on the farm, but not all do. It would be great if we could have a turnout (basically the horse equivalent of a dog run - I had to look this up) here in the city. It would be great if the park could set aside a bit of land or if these supposed animal advocates could help secure a turnout rather than waste their resources on billboards in times square. All of our horses now have box stalls and plenty to eat and drink. They're groomed every day, cared for, and given a sense of purpose. Their hours are regulated and their jobs far easier than if they were still on an Amish farm, which is where they would likely be if they weren't with us. The horses are working animals, and very expensive to maintain. There are many horses that are being set out into the wild because their owners can no longer care for them. The fact is these horses would either be working more difficult jobs on amish farms, abandoned, or euthanized if they were not with us.

Now, that's not a pretty picture but it is the way things are. Animal rights people think that a horse belongs on the farm, or in pasture, which is ideal, but who will provide that care? These horses are fed well, groomed daily, and get to have a relationship with their driver and the people that ride on the carriage. I have driven the same horse at night for the last two years and she and I must respect and trust one another in order to do this job. Often people say that the horses look "sad" standing out on 59th street. Knowing them well now, I would say they look "bored." Just as the drivers do when they are standing around looking for a fare.

The second type of animal activists don't believe horses should work at all. These people are just ridiculous as the modern horse would not exist if not for domestication as a work animal. These people shout out things like "animal slavery." Come on. A close cousin to the "animals shouldn't work" activist is the "horses don't belong in cities." They cite the loud noises, exhaust fumes, traffic congestion. Well, we deal with these things every day and we get used to it. And you know what, so do the horses. They're not constantly scared by banging trucks and cement mixers and the air they breathe is the same that the air you and I breathe. After a while, they settle into the job and for the most part these things don't bother them. Yes, as I said before it would be nice to have a turnout here in the city, but that's not going to be possible without either help from the city or help from these rich assholes that are out to destroy us instead of making the lives of the horses better."

Ryan also supplies a link to the current rules and regulations governing the industry. One interesting thing you learn upon combining that with a careful reading of the New York State Parkway Regulations is that it appears to be technically legal to drive a horse-drawn carriage down the Bronx River Parkway.

Helicopter ban?

Man - first the carriages, now the helicopters? What's next - the octopus bikes? Wait a minute - come to think of it, I haven't see those octopus bikes out in a while.

I don't have that much of an opinion on the helicopter tours - all I know is that they're too expensive for me to take. I think there's a little bit of a backlash to the tourism industry after the last years of it growing so much and starting to affect the everyday lives of New Yorkers more and more. Little things and low-hanging fruit are first - banning talking on tour buses on Bleecker street, going after the Horse Drawn Carriages, and now the Helicopters. We'll see if this trend continues.

Carriage Ban?

I'm surprised this is coming to City Council - the industry is based in Council Speaker Christine Quinn's district, and I've always heard they're tight. Still there's a big push to ban them now from the animal rights people. The main sponsor, Tony Avella, represents Northeast Queens, which is about as far from a tourist area as you can get (although the main sponsor of the industry bill, James Gennaro, represents a similar district right next to Avella's).

Riding the horse drawn carriage is really one of those things I've never understood. 34 bucks for half an hour to do what exactly? See Central Park, just in a slower, smellier way than walking?

My bet is that a full ban doesn't go through, but the city starts genuinely cracking down on infractions next season. The carriages aren't supposed to leave the park, and the horses aren't allowed to work in bad weather (extreme heat, cold, storms and dangerous street conditions), but these - like many traffic laws in New York - are sometimes taken more as a loose suggestion than a law. You can generally find the carriages in Midtown before 9:00 PM (when they're allowed), and out in all sorts of weather - especially if it's December, the biggest tourist month of the year.

The public hearing is set for January 29th - any bills affecting the tourist industry usually get brought up in the winter to avoid disruption and changes during the season.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

An explanation

Shortly after sending out a quick e-mail to fellow my tour guides, I received the following from a very knowledgeable and well-known NYC historian, and occasional guide.

Moses -- I don't know why we must perpetually characterize tourists as stupid; constantly complain about them; generally disparage.

When I am in another city I do not want to be snarked at or be received badly. It's bad for business. I saw an article recently that the tourism business is still booming. Could be the only thing that keeps NYC going over the next few years of the recession.

I also consider myself a tourist in my own city and I have lived here for 51.5 years. As you know I'm sure, anyone who is 'incurious' (to use a preferred euphemism about GWB) is seriously missing out.

For this venture I urge you to turn the heat down on tourists and be more welcoming. --k.

Now, this is someone who has probably done as much or more to further the knowledge and appreciation of this city over the last few years as anyone. And generally, I follow pretty much the same philosophy. We're tourists everywhere in the world but one small place (where if want to, we can be tourists also), and curiosity and willingness to travel is something that should be embraced and celebrated, not disparaged and ridiculed.

So, like I point out in my first post, the hate isn't for the good kind of tourists. And really, all it takes is a little bit of curiosity, respect, and open-mindedness to be one of the good kind of tourists.

But I do disagree with the idea that I need to be more welcoming because it's "good for business." First of all, there is a huge, huge infrastructure built to unconditionally welcome and cater to tourists - a little corner of the web that doesn't subscribe to that philosophy can be spared. And second, spending money in this city shouldn't automatically make you a welcome addition.

This is a city that already has bent over backwards for tourists. A city where, often times, locals have suffered, not benefited from, our reliance on the tourism industry. When you turn huge swaths of your central business district into military zones to accommodate a political convention, or double the price of every conceivable entertainment option in the City over the last 5 years, or start offering shopping discounts to tourists instead of your own citizens, that's going too far. Tourists are great, but New Yorkers come first. And we've all seen what happens when this city becomes too reliant on one sector of the economy - when that sector goes, the city collapses.

There's a lot more to what's good for a city than getting as many people to spend as much money as possible. In fact, this city's recent value of catering to money, and those who have it, instead of the public good - indeed, of equating money, and those who have it, with the public good - has got to stop.