Walking tours take creative detours

From apps and audio tours to dialable docents, many options exist despite pandemic

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Like many organizations reliant on in-person interaction, the team at Denver Walking Tours had to rethink nearly everything about their operation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The business has historically operated almost like a nonprofit, with a “pay-what-you-want” business model for its tours and the vast majority of revenue going toward paying its tour guides and covering other operational costs, founder Jill Collins said.

Its biggest customer base has always been the tourists who flocked to its free downtown Denver tour for an affordable introduction to iconic sites like the Colorado Capitol and Union Station.

But with tourism dropping to a trickle and gatherings now being risky, DWT has become one of a growing number of local tour operators that have pivoted to serving a new primary audience: locals looking to enjoy some safe fun out of the house — and maybe learn something new about their city along the way.

Those looking for such an experience now have two options: booking one of the three private guided walking tours for up to 30 people that DWT is currently offering, or opting for one of the company’s audio adventures, which are narrated by its tour guides and can be accesses via a smartphone app.

The latter category includes audio versions of DWT’s three existing guided tours, plus a new tour dedicated to public art. A second audio tour focusing on street art in Denver’s RiNo arts district will also be launching soon.

“They are designed to target locals so it’s not necessarily the Big Blue Bear or Union Station and some of the sites that we all think we know and love,” said Collins of the audio tours. “It’s some of the lesser-known sites to locals around the city of Denver, and so for less than the cost of a fast food lunch you can download the app, buy the tour and go out and explore the city as an individual on your own time.”

While DWT is one of several Denver walking tour operators that have moved into offering app-based tours during the pandemic, GPSmycity has specialized in offering them for years.

Owner Jim Zhu said that’s an advantage as while all companies in the tour business, including GPSmycity, have seen a significant downturn in business, most people looking to take tours are now seeking out app versions.

The GPSmycity app, which offers hundreds of tours of dozens of cities worldwide, currently features several Denver tours on its app focusing on everything from historic churches and homes to places to eat. There is also a create-your-own tour option that allows users to consult a list of dozens of sites to create their own tour route.

“The tours basically work like a Google Map where it shows you your route step by step and then you are able to click to pull up information about each site along the way,” said Zhou, who notes another advantage is that his app allows tours to be downloaded so they can be accessed even without wifi.

GPSmycity also offers tours of eight other cities in Colorado, including Colorado Springs, Durango and Estes Park.

The ubiquity of cell phones has also allowed for the creation of more interactive tour experiences than would otherwise have been possible. That’s the case for Urban Adventure Quest, a unique business whose quests were inspired by the popular TV show “The Amazing Race” and combine elements of a traditional tour with various mental challenges.

“It’s kind of like ‘The Amazing Race’ where we might give you very specific directions to a park and then say find this statue and then once you get to the statue there is a challenge you have to do,” said Urban Adventure Quest owner Christie Walker.

However, unlike in the TV show, the challenges in Urban Adventure Quest are all mental rather than physical, making the quests an appropriate option for families of all kinds.

Similar to GPSmycity, Urban Adventure Quest operates in dozens of cities, and Walker says the pandemic’s impact has been a mixed bag with less people opting for quests in urban locales while interest of quests in smaller tourist escapes has exploded.

But interest in the company’s Denver LoDo and Golden quests has remained steady, even as it has had to stop offering another Denver tour focusing on the Colorado Capitol area and downtown central business district as a result of challenges that have impacted several of their markets in this most unusual year.

“COVID actually hasn’t been as big of a problem as has been all the riots and demonstrations,” said Walker. “In a lot of our cities, statues have been taken down, which is not something we ever would’ve thought about happening. So, we’ve had to do a lot of workarounds and adjustments.”

But even as app- and web-based tour options appear to be best suited to meet the moment, some companies have continued with their in-person tours after making some adjustments necessitated by the pandemic and found there is still an appetite for the experience they provide.

That’s true of Denver Terrors, which now limits the capacity of its tour of haunted sites of Capitol Hill and requires both tour guides and guests to wear masks even though the tour does not go inside any buildings.

With those precautions in place, owner Chayna Sellers feels her tours are actually one of the safer entertainment options currently available.

“I think the thing that sets it apart is it is an outdoor activity, so there is plenty of room to keep your distance from people,” Sellers said. “It’s a good way to get out and stretch your legs while adhering to the guidelines while learning some interesting things.”

Here is a look at some of the current options for pandemic-friendly tours in and around Denver:

Denver Architecture Foundation Tours

The Denver Architecture Foundation is currently offering two free audio tours: “Civic Center Park: A Speerian Play” and “Downtown Denver: A Game of City and Empire Builders.” Those tours can be accessed and downloaded at denverarchitecture.org/audio . The foundation is also offering limited guided tours on select dates. Recent offerings have included tours focusing on downtown Denver alleyways and the historic Baker neighborhood. Learn more at denverarchitecture.org/audio/.

Dreaming Denver

It’s a bit hard to explain what’s in store for those who take this unique audio tour created via a partnership between Musem of Contemporary Art Denver and poet Mathias Svalina, During the free tour, participants can visit 12 sites in the downtown Denver tour and dial 720-845-5413 to listen to a “dream” related to the site created by Svalina. For example, one dream takes place at the Big Blue Bear statue at the convention center and involves the statue coming to life. There are also 18 tour sites located outside the downtown core. More information can be found at mcadenver.org/mathias-svalina-dreaming-denver.

Historic Denver

Historic Denver is currently offering multiple tour options. Current offerings include limited-capacity tours built around neighborhoods such as Curtis Park and themes such as women’s suffrage. There is also a dial-a-docent program where a docent can walk individuals or groups through a tour over the phone. More information at historicdenver.org/tours-events.

Scootours Denver

This company will begin offering two-hour guided scooter tours of Denver again in March. Each tour experience includes about an hour of practice riding as well as a two-hour tour. Tours can be booked at scootoursdenver.com.

Golden History Museum and Park Walking Tour

This website-based tour consists of information about 16 historic sites in central Golden, including sites related to Jolly Rancher and Coors, which both originated in Golden. It takes about 45 minutes to visit all the sites on the 1.5-mile tour. The tour can be accessed for free at goldenhistory.org/learn-do/walkingtour.

Boulder Walks

The city of Boulder offers several self-guided walking tours on its website at bouldercolorado.gov/transportation/boulder-walks.

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