Give a Neighborhood Tour To Increase Awareness or Even Raise Money 

Published: June 28, 2024

A one-time or recurring neighborhood tour can be an important vehicle for enhancing the visibility or desirability of your community. If you can point out interesting history or architecture, an improved reputation might lead to donations or grants, increased property values, or simply greater resident appreciation for their own surroundings.

But organizing one is no small feat if you haven't done it before. Based on my experience in planning numerous neighborhood tours under a wide array of circumstances, this article outlines the decisions you must make and some pitfalls you might encounter if you make the wrong choice or just fail to anticipate what could go wrong.

tour of Emerald Necklace in Boston in April

The first decision you must make in organizing a neighborhood tour is to figure out your purpose. Are you trying to increase the visibility of your neighborhood within the region?  If so, is that just for the prestige value, or are you trying to recruit home buyers, residents, or businesses?

If your neighborhood already enjoys a certain amount of prestige or recognized historic, cultural, or architectural value, are you going to charge admission and use the tour as a fund raiser?  If so, are there auxiliary purposes, such as generating social media buzz or press coverage?  Would you like more investment in your community?

Perhaps your neighborhood is lagging in demand by home buyers or customers.  Will the tour simply raise your profile and remind the public of what you have to offer?  Or does the tour need to generate a brand new, improved image for your neighborhood?

Once you are clear on your aims, the rest of the planning becomes simpler. Below I'm going to outline the decisions you need to make before publicizing this event, generating flyers, or any of the rest of it.

Basic Types of Neighborhood Tours

By focusing on the goal or goals of the tour, you probably have made some preliminary assumptions or determinations about these points:

1. Who is the audience for the tour?  Are you attempting to increase the knowledge base,  appreciation, or enjoyment of those who attend and participate only, or should the tour also attract media or donor attention?  Is your target audience current residents or the entire city?

2. Is the tour "by invitation only" for a defined group of participants, or is anyone interested welcome to join?

3. Is fundraising any part of the purpose of the tour?

If you are unclear about any of these, the first task is to discuss those questions with the officers or directors of the sponsoring organization, whether that is a chamber of commerce, a neighborhood association, CDC, a governmental body, or conference organizer.

The next decision is whether you intend to have a self-guided tour or a tour with a guide. For a self-guided tour, you need not provide any transportation, schedule, refreshments, or narration. You may decide that for a tour of architecture or historic or well-decorated houses, there is no need for a common narrative, and that in fact you want to leave every participant with the option to make their own sense of the event. When you want maximum flexibility for a large number of participants, such as a decorator showhouse or historic house or garden tour, this makes the most sense.

However, when you need to influence a smaller number of people by providing the same fairly detailed information, as well as the opportunity to ask questions, you want a guided tour. When you plan a guided tour, the first practical decision is likely to be choosing a transportation mode, since that will determine how expensive or inexpensive it is to host the tour, as well as how long it will take to accomplish your neighborhood tour purposes.

Here are your transportation options:

  • Walking tours.  Obviously this method is inexpensive and yet effective in many situations. However, a distance of more than two or three miles total may mean that the tour is impossible or uncomfortable for some potential participants. If you choose this option, make sure of the fitness levels of those likely to attend. Also you will want to avoid the walking tour if for some reason, pedestrian safety is in doubt.  You may need a bullhorn for the tour leader to be heard, and in some situations, such as a tromp through the woods looking for wildlife, that might be completely counterproductive. The walking tour also is more likely to be disrupted by extreme or unexpected weather.
  • Charter bus neighborhood tours. This is probably my favorite transportation mode if you have a group of more than a dozen people yet fewer than the 40 to 48 who can be accommodated on most charter buses. Many charter buses already are equipped with a microphone, enabling great potential for narration between and at stops. Usually these buses have two seats on each side of a center aisle, which also can make for great conversation between stops.  For a group of 15 or fewer, such as perhaps a board tour, a rented or borrowed van can be a great option, although you will find that hearing will be a problem for those in the rear seats.
  • Light or heavy rail transportation.  In urban areas, a light rail or subway system may offer a convenience means of traveling from Point A to Point B.  If you can work with your transit authority to reserve a whole car for your group, you will achieve the same advantages as detailed above in the description of using charter buses, although you probably will need to bring your own microphone system. Commuter rail also may be a feasible choice, or for slightly longer distances, you might even choose a heavy rain inter-city train.
  • Private automobiles. You can put together a caravan of automobiles, provide them with a map of the stops and parking directions for each.  I do not like this one much, and in fact would almost decide not to do a neighborhood tour at all if this were my only option. My experience with this is that it is hard to provide a common experience when groups are having their individual discussions in smaller groups, some of which will not take the tour goals very seriously. You are likely to have one or more vehicles delayed somewhere along the way, meaning that the others are waiting restlessly for the arrival of the last few stragglers. In addition, you lose the advantage of having the tour leader give background information during travel time. Lastly, I personally experienced one group dropping out in favor of a stop at a local watering hole, which meant that the rest of us wasted 15 or 20 minutes till we figured out they weren't coming.

Putting Together the Tour Itself

First, locate a good narrator, if that is not self-evident from the outset. If your planning commission want to see recent developments, the planning director is probably the tour director. If your neighborhood association is doing a tour for only its members, probably one officer or very knowledgeable resident will be the obvious choice. In other situations, you have to figure out who can keep control of a group, maintain an appropriate light-hearted or serious demeanor, roll with the punches of any logistical hiccups, and have abundant relevant information at their fingertips.

The narrator then needs to play an integral role in the planning of the tour.  Together you should list all of the essential or desirable stops for the tour, and other lesser sights or landscapes you can simply roll or stroll by.  It is very important to make actual stops where participants leave the bus or pause on their walk.  This encourages reflection, interaction among the participants, opportunities to ask questions informally, and a little movement to improve alertness.  Which stops will help you meet the goals of the neighborhood tour?

Next, think through what needs to happen at each stop. Is this only a brief pause to allow participants a break, or does it have a substantive purpose?  Are you touring a building, walking around on a path, looking a facility, or even trying out some equipment or experience?  For example, will you be counting something or using a speed gun to assess traffic hazards?

More likely than not, you will want to line up a subject matter expert at each stop to help explain what participants are seeing or doing. Make this the person who works day to day at the plant,  park ranger office, city hall, local business, or tour highlight. You want your speaker at a stop to be the absolute best expert on that location that you can find.  Since this is not an occasion for a prepared speech as such, it is important that the resource person at each stop be able to answer questions and provide local color and "insider" information.

It is also helpful and strategic if the stops can coincide with available restrooms, places to fill water bottles, sources for snacks and drinks, or place to enjoy a picnic as the occasion warrants.

I can tell you from experience that each stop will take longer than you expect, unless you have led plenty of group tours. The main tour guide needs to act like a drill sergeant to some extent, but even so, you aren't really going to let the bus leave without four or five people, even if you threaten to do so.  So take my word for it, if you are a novice at this, unloading, taking in the narrative at the stop, and then reloading will take some real time.

When you think you have the right stops identified, plan an efficient route. Sometimes this does not mean the shortest route, as you may want to take advantage of driving by other points of interest. Take all of that into account as you plan a route.

No matter how familiar with the territory I am, I always do a test drive (or walk) to time exactly how long the transit from one stop to the next will take. Then I note the amount of time I am allowing at each stop; if I think it should be 15 minutes, I allow 20.  The test drive will help spot potential conditions that could cause delays (such as road work, detours, or an avalanche of pedestrians when school is dismissed), additional questions that should be addressed, and opportunities to include other destinations or discussions.

It is not unusual that the test drive results in wanting to omit some locations that seem to take too long or just make the entire tour feel too taxing. This is the time to make those decisions.

On a typical neighborhood tour, you might aim for six to ten stops. If you are surveying a waterfront where distances between each stop are fairly great, ten stops may be way too many.  If you are showing visiting professionals at a state or national conference around your neighborhood, three or four stops could be entirely adequate, with an expert speaking and answering questions at each stop.

The more serious the purpose of the tour is, you can plan more stops, even extending to an all-day tour for a group of visitors to your city or a board or blue-ribbon panel that needs to be oriented toward a geographic area.

Once the route is solidified, I start planning a map for the participants. You can use publicly available online mapping for almost all tours now, but if you need something specialized, see if you can obtain some free cartography from your local government or a larger nonprofit. Of course show each stop on the map, as well as the route and direction of travel.  

If a participants can take family or friends on the same tour the next day using your map, you will have succeeded.

While usually a minor consideration in tour planning, be sure to figure out where your bus will park, if you use one. In a busy commercial area, that can be something of a challenge, so be sure to think about a safe drop-off point and then where the bus can wait while participants are out of the bus.

After the route and map are solid, I do a detailed itinerary for the narrator, bus driver, and any resource people who are going to speak.  Place estimated arrival times, down to the minute, on this script. If important information is to be conveyed between stops, make a note of what types of things need to be said.  Depending on the nature of the crowd, you might want to share this with the participants as well, but probably not.

At this point if I am the tour narrator, I jot down some notes about what I want to be sure to say between each stop. In fact, I try not to let long stretches of bus riding occur without some narration. To do so is to invite participants to create their own distractions, and you may have trouble gaining their full attention again.  

If you have some driving times of perhaps ten minutes or more, and you are using a chartered bus or van, consider videos you can show that will complement the tour's purpose. If your neighborhood is rich in history, turn those historic photos or even historic film or video into a video that can be shown on the screen.

If your neighborhood tour has a serious informational purpose, it is good practice to provide each participant with a folder containing the map, any relevant brochures or clippings, and any policy documents that are relevant to the discussion.  You also may want to distribute general information about the sponsoring organization, and if you have financial sponsors for the event, allow them to include flyers or brochures as well. 

On the flip side, if the purpose of your tour is solely entertainment with the goal of touting how wonderfully upscale your neighborhood is, you might need a cut flower, tiny box of chocolates, or other little premium gift for each tour participant, particularly if they are paying dearly for the experience.  However, even if your event falls in the infotainment category, be sure you have some expertise on board during the tour.  Someone will ask a factual or philosophical question.

Publicizing the Tour and Taking Reservations

To publicize the tour, use your normal communication channels. Be sure to make an attractive flyer and then any variants needed for social media, since tours are quite easy to promote on social media.

If the tour has a specialized emphasis, you may wish to issue personal invitations by email or mail to others in the broader community with a similar interest. For example, if your tour concentrates on the history of your neighborhood, be sure to invite local amateur and professional historians as well as historic preservationists.

For fund-raiser tours, don't be afraid to spend some advertising dollars to get the word out.

If your tour will be open to anyone who hears about it, or who anyone willing to pay in the case of a tour that charges admission, you will want to be as certain as possible who plans to attend. This is partly true because most good neighborhood-scale tours will have a practical capacity limit, but also it enables the tour organizer to know when everyone has arrived and how to plan for handouts.

You can use Eventbrite or a similar platform to register people and collect the admission cost. Otherwise, you might have an email or phone RSVP instruction to give out.

If your tour is closed, in the sense of only invited participants being allowed, you still want to have an RSVP process so that you know how many to expect, who to wait for, and so forth. Sometimes you also want to be able to invite others if you know that one invitee cannot attend. 

The count is essential to planning how many maps and folders to prepare. Also you will need bottled water (and plenty of it in warmer weather or if there is a lot of walking involved), and possibly snacks if you will be gone more than about a couple of hours.  In the case of an all-day tour, you will need to plan box lunches. Participants should be given two or three lunch choices if you will have a meal.

Be sure to take plenty of photos in case you want to repeat the tour at some point in the future. These will be handy props for social media or your neighborhood newsletter as well.

Evaluating the Neighborhood Tour

After the conclusion of the tour, it is a good idea to make detailed notes about what went well, and what should be done better the next time. Even if you never repeat the exact same tour, you might do a related one later, and these notes will help the next organizer.  

For all but the most basic and informal tours, it is a good idea to ask participants to complete a written evaluation. Usually you will want to have a five-point rating scale for each factor you consider important, such as quality of speakers, choice of destinations, refreshments, and so forth. Or you might just have a single rating for the entire tour and then allow for open-ended comments and suggestions. Collect these anonymously to assure candor.

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