Monday, October 19, 2009

Getting experience

So... I called the volunteer coordinator at the Edison National Historic Park, and after a bit of hunting she found my application. They're definitely in the market for folks to help guide guests, and all looks good; she's passing it on to the head of interpretation, who will then give me a call to talk further. We'll see how long it takes for that to happen.

Weather here has been awful -- rainy, unseasonably cold last Friday and all weekend -- and not conducive for a happy frame of mind. Not exactly being satisfied by the prospect of longer nights and shorter days, I really felt like hibernating last week, especially when I got the long list of to-dos from the small business development people (another thing I need to blog on...). After another kick in the pants, I started planning a dry run tour for this coming weekend -- either a local Revolutionary War jaunt (the last major battle in the northern colonies conveniently happened two towns away, but not many people seem to know that) or a ride out to the site of Edison's iron ore mining facility.

This weekend was also the annual Four Centuries event here in Union County, NJ, which celebrates the rich history of the area. Some sites even date back as far as the mid 1600's. All of the house museums in the county are open for the event, free of charge, along with several other notable sites. I took the opportunity to head back to Liberty Hall, an amazing mansion which was owned by the Keans, a prominent New Jersey family, for over 200 years and has hosted eight US presidents and Alexander Hamilton, among others. There's a great story about Redcoats seeing ghosts there, and I wanted to make sure I had it right.

In addition to learning things and checking out locations, I've been using site visits to pick up the behaviors that make a tour guide exceptional (or not). The volunteers at Liberty Hall have some amazing stories about what's been found in the house (the family saved EVERYTHING, down to heating oil bills from the 1800's) and it's a lot of fun to get them chatting. This time I ran into the one who didn't know when to shut up. On anything. Including things that had nothing to do with the site, history or anything else. Note to self: curb logorrhea and give the guests a chance to talk. Sometimes people have questions, or maybe even stories of their own from things they've heard or witnessed. You never know.

Then, the other day I found something interesting online. There's a walking tour company in Princeton, aptly named Princeton Tour Company. Boss website with real personality and enthusiasm about the town. Extensive selection of themed, Princeton-related tours. And the owner proudly notes that all of her tour facts have been verified by local official sources, and that she maintains strong relationships with local businesses, the university and relevant local government entities. And the company has been featured in major newspapers outside of the immediate New Jersey area. This lady's got her act together -- she's doing everything right. Wow. How could I have not found this before?

Despite the weather, I headed down to Princeton yesterday to check out their Einstein tour. The company owner, Mimi, was our guide, and the only people on the tour besides me were a friend of hers and a nice older couple who are friends of the friend. It was a little weird, because the friend was treating it like a private tour for her friends, and sidetracking the dialogue from time to time with stories about the scientist she works for, but Mimi did do a good job of keeping things rolling. In fact, beyond a couple of Rutgers-related inaccuracies (and the clammy weather), the tour was a great experience. (And yes, despite myself, Ms. Smarty Pants did challenge her on the Rutgers stuff. I couldn't help it. Cut me and I bleed scarlet.) Mimi clearly knows her stuff, from the fun Princeton trivia to some nice little marketing touches like putting her logo and URL on the STOP sign the police department requires her to use when she guides people through intersections.

You can guess where I'm going with this. At the start of the tour, Mimi had asked what brought me out for the tour, and I honestly admitted that I'm researching doing my own tour company in the northern part of the state. When we got to the end of the tour, she very graciously offered to share what she's learned, as long as I agree not to run tours in Princeton. Well, that's easily promised; I don't see how I'd be able to put together a comparable product. She's made a lot of connections around town and built a substantial barrier to competition, and from our brief conversation it was crystal clear that she has done her homework on marketing and promotion. As far as I'm concerned, I'd be happy enough to cross-promote once I'm up and running.

Without any prompting, she even suggested she could hire me to do some tours, though she couldn't guarantee groups or a guaranteed take (guides get half of the admission fees collected, and tours run even if there's a single customer). Plus I'd have to sign a non-compete, non-disclosure. Telling me she already has the scripts together, and which tours would have the best draw, she was even musing that I might be able to add a Rutgers perspective to her Paul Robeson tour (alumnus, Rutgers class of 1919).

Heck, if it's an opportunity to learn the business, I'll do it and consider it an internship. It'll cost me gas and time, and I don't want to lose money on the venture, but the experience would be fantastic. Who knows when or if the Park Service thing is going to work out?

I told her I'd get her some confirmation on some of the disputed Rutgers-related points, along with some thoughts on target RU markets for the Robeson tour. Earlier today I sent her a note with that data and a follow up on her offer to impart wisdom. And I'll follow up with a call in a day or two.

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