Two young Americans met in Rome a decade ago, and today they are partners in a tour operation that is redefining how tours can be operated in a fully connected world.
The company is called Walks, very simple. And that’s what it provides, walking tours and day tours in major world cities: Walks of Italy, Walks of France, Walks of New York, etc.
It started in Italy in 2009, and is now rapidly expanding to major cities around the world, offering tours in Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Pompeii, Paris, Barcelona, London, Madrid, New York and San Francisco. In 2015, the company launched an operation in Istanbul, which was initially a great success, but when political conditions worsened, it became necessary to stop operating.
“Unfortunately, even though we had a great first year we had to freeze the market,” said Oddo. “We are looking at bringing it back later this year.”
The tours are not strictly for Millennials, but they do appeal to Millennials who have little interest in the old style of tours. The key, whether for Millennials, Gen Xers or Boomers, is that people today are losing interest in the old style of tour, the kind with large numbers of people traveling together, often seeing the destination from the window of a touring bus.
A world of niches
“It used to be a one-size-fits-all industry,” said Stephen Oddo, CEO and co-founder. “But in the last 10-20 years, there has been a great proliferation of tour product, all kinds of niches. Customers are different from what they used to be. You can have foodies or chefs, people who are culinary-focused or wine-focused. You can’t just have one type of guide anymore. There are so many types. We try to match the customer to the right guide.”
Walks’ tours incorporate the elements that appeal most to contemporary travelers: unique, authentic and immersive experiences in the destination. And those needs are best served in small groups, 20 people maximum.
The tours are not generic. The names and the themes of the tours are not often something that you would encounter anywhere else.
“We have a tour in the financial district called ‘Criminals and Gangsters,’” said Oddo. “It is about the dark side of New York. It’s not something you can do as a generic tour. We actually have retired NYPD detectives leading tours. We have this broad array of tour products all around the world. We have Broadway actors that give tours, people involved with the shows, house managers. It’s more about the person and their background and experience.”
The company offers a variety of ways to tour the Statue of Liberty, including the “Twisted Statue” tour. “We always try to come up with a twist,” said Oddo, “the Statue of Liberty with a comedic angle. It’s more fun for families. We do things like that in every city.”
A tight specialty
The company offers day tours only, nothing else. It doesn’t deal with the problems of city-to-city transportation, of hiring coaches and drivers, booking hotels. It’s always walking. They focus tightly on their core product and have found a robust market.
Besides the quality of the tours themselves, much of the company’s success is based on its deft use of the latest kinds of online resources to organize its tours and its network of guides and attractions and facilitate its management of its guests.
A chance meeting that paid off
It started in 2007, in one of the most crowded tourism spots in the world. “Stephen and I first met at St. Peter’s Square in Rome,” said Jason Spiehler, co-founder. “We first got to know each other when I had a scooter I was going to give away.”
After meeting several times about the motor scooter, they became friends. “We took a trip together to Latvia, and on that trip, we hatched our plans for Walks,” said Jason Spiehler. “I had fully seen the vision in the future of a tourism and activities company online. But Steve really had the talent and experience to help bring that to reality.”
They discovered a rare compatibility. “Jason and I have complementary skill sets, and I think that’s what you really hope for in a business partner,” said Oddo. “My background was technology and the travel industry side, and my partner was a tour guide and academic. It was a marriage of skill sets.”
Oddo grew up in a travel industry family. His mother owned her own travel agency. His father was a hotel executive based in the San Diego area. Growing up around travel professionals, Oddo had absorbed a great deal about the mechanics of the industry.
Jason Spiehler came from a very different background. He had a Bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University in psychology, philosophy and religion; and a Master’s degree in historical theology from Yale. He had been a teacher and became a very popular tour guide in Rome, Florence, and Washington, D.C., before meeting Stephen Oddo.
“Jason had been giving tours and lectures in various places in Italy and the U.S.,” said Oddo. “He’s an expert art historian and he developed a following in Rome, a notoriety just for himself. We used some of that initial momentum to take what was great about his tours and then imbue them onto other products and other guides and partners that we found.”
When Oddo first encountered Spiehler guiding a tour in St. Peter’s square, Oddo (who personally had a fear of public speaking), was amazed at the ease with which Spiehler could hold a crowd.
“I saw him guiding in St. Peter’s Square with a huge group of people around him,” said Oddo.
“What was amazing about the way he delivered a tour was that he could put his clients under a spell. You could tell that they were absorbing and listening and engaging with the information he was delivering.”
They easily found complementary roles through which to work together. Oddo runs the company’s office on a day-to-day basis. Spiehler works more in the field with the guides and the network of destination contacts.
The online component
After working some years in tourism, Oddo had realized that an online functionality would be central to running the business to the maximum efficiency and effectiveness.
“I fell into the tourism industry and made a lot of contacts and started a couple travel operations,” said Oddo. “Ultimately, over the years, it was clear that we needed to have an online component. That was the innovation we had early on, that we could really build a presence and a brand and expertise.”
The online presence was key to the rapid growth of the company. “We were bringing the best guides together with the best access, the most diverse tours and things that didn’t exist yet,” said Oddo. “We put those online to make it easy to book, and that was the Walks of Italy brand that was launched 2010.”
Once the formula was in place, it was natural to try to expand it. The internet facilitated the expansion. “We would talk about what it would look like to have a brand that people could trust to book tours in different cities around the world,” said Oddo, “about how would you bring something like that to fruition, to connect the dots on it. It took a few years to figure it out, and we’re still figuring it out, but we’ve now expanded the original operation to 13 cities around the world, all in major travel cities.”
One of the company’s newest innovations, made possible by online technology, is its “walk on-walk off” tours.
“It’s a merger of technology,” said Oddo, “QR code scanning and GPS locators to make it easier for people who aren’t really tour people, who don’t want to commit to a tour at 9 a.m. but who want to have the flexibility to say, ‘Maybe I’ll take a tour later today, let me see what’s running.’ We have guides departing throughout the day in different areas. You can look at our map and see where they are and join. All you have to do is have a pass, one that gives you access to various departures. You don’t have to purchase a time or a day. If you have a pass, you just walk up and scan it.”
Men with a mission
The company is inspired with a mission and a vision of travel that goes way beyond dollars and cents. “The whole core of the company is about getting out there, exploring cities, really immersing yourself and learning, opening your eyes to things,” said Oddo. “So, for me, it’s about places I’ve traveled to, like Cuba, or far eastern Turkey or Russia. I like getting out of my comfort zone. It’s a core value of the company, even though we go to major cities.”
Spiehler is still a teacher, but one who has broken through the classroom walls and takes his classes to the source of what he is teaching about. “What I value most is that we are educators,” said Spiehler. “We are cultural ambassadors helping people break down their preconceptions, their prejudices, and open their minds.”
Oddo agrees: “There is something to that. I like to think of it as an ambassadorship. You are an ambassador of your country, state or city. The core of what we’re doing is making the world seem a little bit smaller, opening people’s eyes to different ways of life and different walks of life, and making those connections.”