Article by David Hedges, founder of NOLA Tourguy
It was 2011 and I had just come back to New Orleans from a long summer trip when my girlfriend at the time suggested I become a tour guide. It was very much a eureka moment. Being a tour guide would combine my passion of history and my love of my adopted home of New Orleans. It also helped that it paid the bills.
Unlike in many locations around the world, New Orleans requires a license to operate as a tour guide. Tour guides need a background check and must pass a basic skills test. I just barely passed with a 71! Why? I had no idea I would be asked where every statue in New Orleans was located! With my license in hand I replied to an ad on Craigslist looking for tour guides. The individual who made the post was based in and operated his tour company from New York City. The company operated free tours in cities across the country. After speaking to him about his expectations of tour guides, he sent me a link to the Frommers self guided walking tour of the French Quarter and sent me out to do my first tour. It was extremely overwhelming but I adapted quickly.
Although I am a transplant to New Orleans, I have a deep love for and connection to the city. It is truly like no other city in the United States. The streets just ooze history; the city is a melting pot of African, American, Spanish and French cultures. While most cities in the USA have bulldozed their old squares and demolished their historic structures, New Orleans features an intact 300 year old neighborhood and I was leading tours in it. I had read several books on New Orleans history on my own so I felt somewhat prepared for my new role as a tour guide. I loved the job instantly and I did independent research, reading every book about local history and thinking of new ways to explain it to people visiting the city I love so much. My goal was to offer a quality tour experience and present my adopted home in the most accurate way possible.
Whenever I spoke with the owner I was taken aback by his lack of interest in just how unique New Orleans is as a destination. I was shocked when he told me he had only visited once and seemed unimpressed and disinterested in what the city has to offer. His concern rested entirely on how much money he could make. He managed his team of tour guides across the country by sending emails to tour participants requesting information about the quality of their guide. If guests liked the tour, he asked them to leave us a public review online. If guests were dissatisfied with their tour, the manager forwarded the messages to his guides. This was the extent of his remote management approach! Although it rubbed me the wrong way, I continued to work for him because the money was good and I enjoyed my job. I strove to be the best tour guide I could be despite my lack of formal training and I continued to learn while leading tours.
This is how so much misinformation about New Orleans spreads. When you refuse to train tour guides they pick up misinformation from other tour guides and it continues to spread. I have learned now that many of these “stories” still shared by tour guides today were established by tour guides over a century ago! I remember my former co-worker at Free Tours By Foot enjoyed describing the Confederacy as a “lost cause” during her Garden District Tour. She likened the occupying Union army during the Civil War to “frat boys.” While the Union Army was far from perfect, many joined the cause to end slavery - a noble endeavor. I studied History at university (hardly surprising!), a background which helped me undertake research and develop my own tour. Doing so allowed me to remove misinformation from my tours and root the information in sound historic research. The integrity of my tours was very important to me. The owner of Free Tours by Foot was unbothered by misinformation; all that mattered was good reviews and money coming in.
As Free Tours by Foot grew and more guides were hired, my manager cultivated competition for the best tour spots. This competition was based on our reviews. This created an environment where we were competing for tour slots instead of helping each other improve our guiding abilities. It was at this point that I had the idea to start my own tour company offering free walking tours. I wanted my company to be modeled differently with a focus on having the high quality and well-informed guides. I wanted to create an environment where the tour guides worked with one another rather than against.
So, In 2012 I decided to leave and establish my own tour company, Nola Tour Guy. I made the focus on presenting the true history to visitors. I also thought it was very important for the company to treat it's tour guides extremely well, because the tour guides are the cornerstone of the business. Since I left to establish my own tour company, Nola Tour Guy. Free Tours by Foot has become a multinational corporation with operations in nearly every city in the world. Because of this, they have greater visibility, but before you book a tour with them, think about my story and ask yourself some important questions to help guide your travel planning. What is a better option when you are traveling? McDonalds or a spot that’s a favorite among the local community? Independent tour companies are better able to focus on local history, treat their employees with respect, and create an exceptional tour experience. In addition, the money you spend is going directly into the community you are visiting rather than a remote manager who cares little about the city you are visiting or the people who are representing it. Since I created Nola Tour Guy in 2012 we are excited to announce that we offer three different tours. One of the French Quarter, Garden District and of St Louis Cemetery #3.
About two years ago, I was emailed by Antonio Bernal, a member of the Free Tour Community. The Free Tour Community is an organization of independent free tour operators all over the world. The community provides a means for travelers to connect to local free tour companies in cities across the globe from which they can gain unparalleled local insight. He invited me to join. I encourage you to visit the Free Tour Community website and explore the many wonderful local free tour initiatives that exist. Find a local free tour company in the city you are visiting and you will be guaranteed a unique and special experience.