When you travel someplace for leisure, wouldn’t you rather experience the the destination instead of tourist traps?
Two years ago, while working at a Union Square hotel, my co-workers and I noticed a disconnect between the San Francisco that tourists see and the City that a local would show to their own family and guests. At Explore San Francisco, we propose to change that by offering visitors an opportunity to see the city with a local guide and to enjoy a more personal experience during their stay in San Francisco.
The San Francisco tourist industry is one big pre-packaged experience. The experience, largely created by national tour companies, seems bent on keeping out-of-town visitors within striking distance of corporate, chain restaurants and retail stores while limiting their exposure to the nuances of the City. The only interaction most visitors have with San Franciscans is the low-wage service employees wearing oddly colored vests with shiny nametags or savvy sales people attempting to sign them up for a tour for which they are commissioned to sell.
San Francisco is a unique city with a great culture. It seems counter- intuitive to have tourists sequestered into an area full of national retail chains; franchised, fast food; sweatshirt shops; and overpriced, low-quality restaurants. While most locals avoid these areas, it is the first-time visitors to San Francisco who never venture beyond.
First-time visitors, especially those flying into one of the local airports, are more inclined to stay in the more touristy areas of San Francisco – Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square. As such, they are already in close proximity to where tour hawkers and vendors have focused their operations. Simply asking for information at an airport or Fisherman’s Wharf tourist information booth, they unknowingly may be talking with someone who is actually working in the timeshare industry or selling for a national or corporate tour operator – not a true representative of San Francisco!
When an out-of-town visitor asks for directions or sight-seeing recommendations, whether from a hotel concierge or a representative at an information booth, they may not be aware that the information given is based on the amount of commission the individual will receive to steer the visitor toward an uninteresting or overpriced tour. This is especially true for visitors staying near Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, the Embarcadero or Union Square. If you are lucky enough to get away from the route to the Golden Gate Bridge, perhaps to the Haight-Ashbury, you may stop long-enough, usually in front of a souvenir shop where the businesses have agreed to pay the tour/bus companies a commission, to buy a tie-dyed sweatshirt or a tacky souvenir. Imagine going to Disneyland or Disneyworld yet never leaving Main Street and walking away with nothing more than a pair of mouse-ears. It is hard to imagine traveling to San Francisco and finding it close to impossible to actually see San Francisco! Or coming away from your visit with a feeling that you could have been in “anywhere,” USA. Really, why would you bother making the trip?
We do not believe that visitors to San Francisco choose to banish themselves to a small, over-simulated area in San Francisco as a preferred method of travel. We believe it is because they are not aware that there is an alternative. What seemed to be missing from a San Francisco tourist’s experience was an easy alternative to explore San Francisco and encounter the authentic charms of the local neighborhoods.
Have you have ever met a visitor to San Francisco, whose take-away experience were the sights of Fisherman’s Wharf, dining at Bubba Gumps and buying a back scratcher in Chinatown? Shouldn’t the highlights of their trip be unique to them, finding an unexpected place, enjoying a great meal, having a drink with some new friends, meeting a local with suggestions based on experience rather than steering them towards activities for which they are paid commission?
Just imagine being in San Francisco and, instead of signing up for a pre-packaged sightseeing tour put together by researchers, designed to squeeze every last dollar out of your pocket, meeting a guide from a neighborhood that interests you. Now imagine exploring that neighborhood as a guest instead of a tourist, wouldn’t that be way more awesome? Wouldn’t that also be more fun?
If your answer is yes – you are on your way to unlocking the heart of San Francisco. Your neighborhood host will introduce you to local shop owners who welcome you into their shops and you can opt to purchase quality items at a fair price, or not.
Wouldn’t you rather see the unique city that people love so much instead of the inside of tour bus? Perhaps the tour-bus option allows a tourist to stay in their comfort zone, however, a faceless tour operator diminishes the authentic experience of traveling somewhere new. Everyone, even tourists, deserve to be treated with respect.
Why does this matter? Imagine the possibilities.
We believe that communication and the exchange of ideas is essential to creating a better society and that traveling to a new place is more beneficial to all concerned if there is a chance for communication between travelers and residents. Local commerce benefits when out-of-city travelers have the opportunity to do business with local merchants. We also believe that tourists have the best travel experiences when they are able to explore and encounter the place to which they have traveled and meet the people that live there. We do not believe that San Francisco or any other destination for that matter is best served by allowing big business to control the travel experience. We live in a fractured society, where people are separated from each other idealogically and economically. Yet that does not mean that we can’t enable change, and we have learned from our interactions with travelers here in this city that when given the choice, the travel consumer is always more satisfied with an authentic experience over a manufactured occurrence.
Our Role and How We Roll
Our company operates as a co-op, in that no one is paid an hourly wage, nor are we commission-based. Each local tour guide splits the proceeds with the house — 50-50%. Our guides have an affinity for the arts and include a filmmaker, a journalist, a comedian, and sculptor, along with photographers, musicians, actors, writers, a few students and a select few who choose this work over retirement. Many of our guides are veterans of the industry, some are historians and some are just very enthusiastic about the city in which they live, San Francisco.
I am the servant to these great individuals. It is my role to ensure that the system runs smoothly and that we are promoted and marketed to the world-at-large. My prior work experience was primarily hospitality-based, but I also worked in leisure travel. The local guides are free to develop their individual tours to reflect their interests and share their knowledge of a particular neighborhood with visitors to San Francisco. Our tours are not “canned,” but rather well thought out and reflective of each individual’s personality and experiences.
Not having experience in the tour industry on a local level I was surprised, but not intimidated, by the stranglehold that some large, national companies have on the local tourism market. I did not realize that the reason most visitors to the city don’t actually see the city is really because the information that they receive — prior to and after arrival here — is manipulated by companies with big advertising budgets.
Ironically, it is the savvy, well-traveled individuals or those on very limited budget who are more likely to have a real San Francisco experience; basically, this is because the larger tour companies have no interest in them. From our inception, a large part of our business has come from these two groups. However, the average consumers are going to be marketed to in such a way that they never see the nuances of the city, but instead a version of San Francisco seen through the eyes of a profit-hungry corporation.
In no area could this be any truer than with one of San Francisco’s most natural wonders – Alcatraz Island. Yet, the fact of the matter is that Alcatraz is the most sought-after ticket by tourists coming to San Francisco. For us to reach the most people traveling here, we need to offer them what it is they want.
We are specifically seeking contributors to purchase advance tickets for Alcatraz Island Tours. Alcatraz Island is a National Park and is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation. All Alcatraz tickets sales are controlled Alcatraz Cruises, the authorized concessioner of the NPS. Alcatraz Cruises is currently operated by the Hornblower Corporation. They are required by the National Park Service to make half of their tickets available to local tour operators like Explore San Francisco.
Alcatraz Cruises allows tour operators to purchase tickets through a lengthy application process. The tour operators are to sell the tickets as part of a packaged tour, with the price of the Alcatraz ticket costing the same as if it were purchased directly from Alcatraz Cruises. It is an arduous approval process, and until Explore SF, no walking tour/ running tour/food tour companies have ever been approved.
Not surprisingly, most of the tour operators who are approved to sell the Alcatraz packaged tours have the capitol and infrastructure to deploy personnel throughout different locations all around the waterfront. They sell the Alcatraz tour packages that are mostly limited to tours in and around Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge usually on the large sight-seeing buses. These tours always sell out during the summer travel months and during the holidays.
Following the three-month application process, we started selling tickets in August 2012. We sold out our monthly allotment three months in a row. During this period we were in constant contact with the average San Francisco tourist and introduced them to a whole new world that they would have never seen before. We got the out-of-towners off of the busses, introduced them to real San Franciscans, cleared up wrong impressions, broke down barriers and exchanged interesting ideas — the tourists benefited, the local merchants benefited and we benefited.
We believe that packaging and selling over-rated tourist destinations to San Francisco tourists is really absurd yet it is common practice; however, we learned when meeting people in small groups, in an congenial setting, everyone had more fun and all walked away happier. Certainly the experience that we are successfully developing here will influence the way people travel in the future.
Hopefully, this new approach to tourism is already taking hold elsewhere because if we are seeing this new approach as a logical next step, certainly other people in other cities are also feeling this way and finding it necessary to act on their ideas.
The Bottom Line
We are attempting to raise the $8500 that we need to buy a full monthly allotment of tickets for Alcatraz.
Our concept is proving to be a success and we are growing. So why do we need contributions? We started this company almost two years ago with nothing more than a basic concept, a few ideas and fierce determination. Our profit margin is small and we compete with large organizations with even deeper pockets. We have come a long way, but the profits that the house realizes, are returned immediately back to the business.
On our very popular food tours, we pay our restaurants in advance. Small eateries are not really set up to to extend credit or to run tabs for their customer base. We get that, and although we are delighted to be giving the money to small independent local restaurants, most of the websites that sell space on our tours do not reimburse us for several weeks and any cash flow that we have ends up being tied up for extended lengths of time. So that is where we find ourselves now, and we are in dire need of a cash infusion.
Alcatraz tickets are purchased in advance and many of our larger competitors will buy their tickets two or three months in advance, and of course they buy tickets for the most sought-after times first. Frankly we have never had an extra $8,500 needed to purchase our monthly allotment. We currently borrow the money every month and the interest is $10 a ticket or $3,000 per month. This cuts into our margin and forces us to raise the price of our packaged tours, making us less competitive. This situation puts us at a severe disadvantage in the market place and what could be the key to growing our concept is handicapped before it begins.
Although we take a hit financially each month because we are forced to borrow the money, we have successfully negotiated with an online presence that currently sells out every month, year round for their current Alcatraz providers. The demand on their site is so strong that they believe they will be able to do the same for us. If we did not have to pay the additional $10 vig on a $28 ticket, it would make the difference for us and we would be able to survive and prosper amongst the competition.
Your help (and no donation is too small) will help us to change the way visitors experience San Francisco. You can help us to show an authentic city to those that seek it. If you are tired of the pre-packaged and artificial experience that is selected for you and presented to you instead of real choice and real people, you can make a difference right now.
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We sincerely appreciate anything that you can do for this worthwhile cause.
Thank you. Explore you world, Explore San Francisco