September 24, 2021 Update on my experience as a Covid-era tour guide
I wanted to update you all on my walking tour business as of Fall 2021:
2021 has been better than 2020. During the months after the lockdown in March last year, I gave almost no tours. When I did, the groups were very small, the guests were very anxious about being outside, and the Hasidim were very suspicious of us. It was an unhappy and trying time.
2021 has seen some tensions ease, and I’ve been able to run tours at about 15-20% capacity. The Hasidic community is completely back to normal, and we’ve had access to all the earlier spaces. The neighborhood is so alive, it’s electric. See the above video freshly filmed on Lee Ave to get a feel for what it’s like out here.
The tourists remain very fearful of Covid and are often reluctant to enter establishments or take off their masks. The “When in Rome, be like a Roman” aphorism hasn’t worked to change their minds; they prefer to maintain as many precautions as possible.
Business picks up or drops off with the cycle of Covid fearfulness in the general public. This isn’t unique to my business; other tour guides have expressed the same. The summer—ironically my least favorite time to give tours—was the busiest. I filled my limited tour schedule, but, with the fall and the escalation of Covid anxiety, tourism again dropped off sharply.
While parts of New York, like Broadway, are opening, it’s not much help to tour guides who depend on international travelers for business. The few people on my tour who came from overseas told stories of quarantines and endless red tape, additional costs, and time lost. Many more international tourists who were optimistic enough for 2021 canceled their trips.
I don’t expect to ever go back to giving tours at full capacity. It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a guide with the constant disruptions. I’m actively working on other ways to make rent and, to that end, I’ve had a little bit of success.
It pains me to give up on tours, because I believe a vital, quirky, lovely part of city life is getting lost. Small, independent tour guides with niche areas of knowledge and expertise cannot operate in this climate where more time has to be spent fighting for aid and filling out paperwork than on the ground showing the delightful secrets of this city to visitors. Resellers like Airbnb and Tripadvisor have used this turbulent time to corner the market, expanding their database, technology, and marketing operations. These companies take 25% off the top of what guests pay, and that’s before the tour guide’s expenses—transportation, audio equipment, visual aid, food, chachkes. Small ventures simple can’t pay the cost of commission. The resellers keep closing the noose on tour guides, creating cookie-cutter tour experiences and demanding that tour guides fit into their shapes and requirements. When these companies corner the market, the city will be filled with only big, impersonal bus tours, or people who casually do a few tours on the side. The knowledgeable students of this city who spend more time learning to provide meaningful tour experiences simply can’t make ends meet in this market.
The tourism industry is changing in ways that leave everything up in the air. Covid passes, pushes for virtual engagements, third party resellers, lockdowns, and travel bans—all of these are crowding out businesses like mine. In the next few years, I hope to offload a significant portion of my research to my blog, just in case I have to close for good. I’m the only specialist of this unusual section of the city, smack dab in the middle of the hippest, most hugely populous parts. It would be very sad if my years of collected works went away with the tours. Watch my blog; here I can share what I’d rather share with you in person.
In the meantime, I continue to give tours in Williamsburg on Sundays at 2 P.M. and Fridays at 11 A.M. most weeks. Most of my guests come by word of mouth, so please help spread the word. Your recommendations allow me to continue this beautiful venture.