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.