As tour directors, our itineraries often bring us to the same places that everyone visits. What makes the experience that we offer unique? Our customers, too, are becoming savvier — they are expecting that we bring something unique, unexpected and local to a tour. This becomes our greatest differentiator as guides: the ability to offer a special, local gem of an experience that sets us apart. But finding those can be difficult.

Here are a few pointers for offering a more local experience…

  • Stop searching for the “best.” Share what you’ve personally found. Travelers are savvier now–they do their own research, and watch Anthony Bourdain and Travel Channel shows about the best foods around the world. Show the group what you’ve discovered, even if it’s not on Top 10 lists.
  • Sell the experience. While it’s an imperfect analogy, our travelers look to us like a dog to its owner in a foreign environment: they are seeking our response to see how they themselves should respond. Always stay positive, and always remind the group what a great experience this is.
  • Goodbye Frommers. Guidebooks sell to your average customer, which means they never get too opinionated or too interesting in their recommendations or commentary. Better to mine used bookstores and deep pages of Amazon for odd books that might yield an interesting discovery. Years ago I discovered in a used bookstore an out-of-print textbook of the history of Washington DC used once upon a time for DC students. I’ve never seen it on must-read lists but it has proven invaluable.
  • Hello, Jimmy’s. Jimmy’s Corner is a Times Square throwback to the area’s seedier days. You walk in to a time capsule, and everyone at the bar is chatty. I’ve learned more about the places to eat lunch or dinner or grab a quick slice of pizza from the people I’ve talked to there than from any website or guidebook. And when you talk to people, you hear opinions that are often hilarious and interesting to repeat to your travelers.
  • Youtube has everything. But search wisely. Add local or hidden to the names of cities and sights. You’ll be surprised at the number of people making their own videos, as well as series produced by travel magazines, guidebooks, etc.
  • Watch documentaries. There are thousands of relevant ones on YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc. Documentaries have first-person accounts which you can then use to add intensity to your commentary.
  • Look to specialty history and city websites. Atlas Obscura is a worldwide compendium of interesting oddities. The Bowery Boys is a great example of a local website devoted to interesting history (and they have a phenomenal NYC podcast).
  • Search Local Newspapers. Use their own search box to search their site with the name of places you’re visiting. There’s an incredible amount of local research & reporting done that can spice up your commentary or give you a reason to visit some place different.
  • Real Estate sites like Zillow, Streeteasy, or Curbed are full of celebrity gossip, stories of the wealthy, etc. Groups are always interested in property values of wherever you are!
  • There are phone apps like V for Wikipedia & Google Field Trip that will help you locate local, hidden gems of places wherever you end up.

In the end, be creative! Always seek out the unusual and interesting, and take notes as you experience the world. Read my post on tips for organizing your material to keep it all straight.