© Birmingham Picture Library, 2020

Back up and Brum walking;

What did you do in lock-down

young man?

By Jonathan Berg,

Positively Birmingham Walking Tours

Well, we did not see that coming! We booked a table at the first West Midlands Tourism Awards in February and managed to pick up a couple of bronze plaques for the office wall. A few weeks later we spent a day in the very same office sending out refunds to the public and group tours booked into the summer. Things had been looking good, albeit from the perspective of one of Birmingham’s smallest tourism attractions, with lots of ideas to take forward. How quickly that changed!

Surviving Lock-down

Walking tours are pretty much the bottom of the tourism ‘food chain’ in Birmingham. As such we are perhaps in a better position than some to survive shutting up the shop and coming out the other side relatively intact. Yes, we had assets to protect. We have developed a group of very knowledgeable Tour Guides over the last five years who had offered a unique tour experience, with a mix of local insight and fun appreciation of our city. On top of this our excellent Assistant Guides ensured our tour experience was hugely appreciated and the nearly 500 reviews on TripAdvisor vouch for that. Our growing understanding of the local tourism sector, helped by local training, funded by Visit England and delivered by West Midlands Growth Company, has helped to give us a firm base on which to build a sustainable tourist offer. What, fortunately in retrospect we did not have, was much in the way of bricks and mortar – no rent to pay or loans to service. Furthermore, the nature of our business model was such that our staff were not dependent on the walking tours for financial security, as they were successful in their own right in a variety of ways. So, while fixed overheads remained to an extent, for once still being small has been an advantage. During lockdown we were sent feedback from one of the judges of our West Midlands Tourism Awards entry, who suggested it was not clear to see how we could grow our income stream. However, at least shutting up our shop did not mean we had to manage a potential financial catastrophe like a museum or a large theatre.

Keeping a profile is key

We got used to the quiet roads around lockdown Olton, and the return of nature to our city garden. Soon our attention turned to ensuring we maintained a profile for the walking tours so that one day we could restart with a strong profile. Our tours have been the #1 of around 50 in the Birmingham tours category on TripAdvisor for several years. That profile is important to maintain, as the power of TripAdvisor reviews cannot be underestimated, nor the resulting bookings overstated. During lockdown we decided to investigate the area of self- guided walks, which we had been thinking about for some time. We saw an opportunity for such tours to be used as ‘virtual tours’. Then, once lockdown eased, we could re-market them as self- guided tours, for people to do on their phone in the city when real live tours are not available.

Self-guided tour production

We looked at products from around the world and the software and professional help that was available to help produce self- guided tour products. We had video calls with a company in San Francisco to see what a high-end tour production would entail and cost. That research gave us clarity on ways that we could produce our product. We came to appreciate that with some web site and video editing knowledge, together with the software we already have, and with time on our hands, we could have a go at producing our self-guided tours in-house. Of course, production techniques are important but the content is fundamental to such a project. Writing a self-guided tour script needs creative space and developing a new style and lockdown gave us that. On top of this is the all-important imagery for a self- guided tour. We had plans for four tours in total and these would cover the content for the GCSE study of a UK city that brings schools from a wide area to our city as well as being of more general interest. School trips are not going to be reinstated any time soon and virtual tours have a clear role here. The two tours that went live during lockdown took about 10 days each to produce. As I speak the third tour is sitting on the computer awaiting a time when we can find the space to research the imagery and then edit the final tour – probably three days’ more work that we will hopefully schedule in the early autumn.

Virtual tours appreciated

When we published our first virtual tour we sent a link to people whose tours we had cancelled and offered them the virtual tour free of charge. Links were also posted on the local Visit Birmingham website. With the help of a press release, the local media also promoted it. We added a SurveyMonkey link at the tour end and also a call to review on TripAdvisor. A few hundred people requested the tour link and we got some very useful comments, enabling us to tweak our second tour. Key feedback was to ensure people doing it on their phones did not get timed out with over-large files that buffered. The second tour was also well received and we put the tours up on our website and gradually improved the offer. For example, we have added an instant download facility so that when you make a self-guided tour purchase you get an instant download and can start the tour without any back-office intervention. Sounds easy but for a small business like us another learning curve. Certainly a useful project to fill those quiet lockdown weeks. New skills learnt while taking forward a new product idea we would never otherwise have had the space to develop. However, while virtual tours are fun, real tours are more fun! So, with lockdown easing by July we were keen to try and re-establish our live tours of the city. We did not expect there would necessarily be much demand but getting out there and giving it a go was a ‘nothing to lose’ scenario as long as we could minimise the possibility for loss-making.

We’re good to go!

We considered our tours in relation to Covid-19 safety. We reviewed WHO and UK Government regulations and undertook yet more H&S assessments and risk analyses. Then we produced our new operating procedures. We saw the huge advantage of our live audio system for maintaining social distancing. We decided that two of our four tours could not meet our criteria for restarting. Both went inside key venues and we had decided to keep to outside routes as much as we could. Of course most of these venues were closed in any case (Museum, Cathedral, ICC Mall), and even when they open will probably have procedures in place that may preclude a walking tour party going in easily. Once everything was in place we applied for the Visit England ‘We’re good to go’ mark and audited ourselves against their requirements. That done, we purchased hand sanitiser, made personalised face masks, and had staff training sessions. We also knew we needed to up our game with marketing as the places that normally sent customers to us were not functioning. Our first public tour was on a Saturday afternoon in July and we had just one person booked on tour as we put up our pop-up stand in Centenary Square. The city was like the Marie Celeste with many of the hotels, pubs, and restaurants around closed as was the Library of Birmingham…. usually a key magnet for visitors and locals who are normally also our potential walking tour guests. Just like when we started our tours back in 2016 we ‘worked’ whatever people were around to try and get guests on our first tour back. A few minutes before the tour start we still had just the one guest who had travelled from Shrewsbury and had booked a week or so ago. Then across the Centenary Square came a couple clutching details of things to do in the city printed from the internet. They were looking for the “Hop-on, hop-off bus stop”. We gently pointed out that this had ceased some time ago, and indeed the bus stop no longer existed. Our suggestion to take our ‘amazing walking tour’ instead resulted in the look one might reserve for someone offering you a ‘free’ cocktail to go into a nightclub in Ibiza! However, they soon returned from their failed investigations into tour bus stops and purchased two tickets. Now we were three guests and two guides. With such a small group we get to know each other during two hours walking the city together. It turned out Philipp was the pilot of that morning’s Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt. Instead of the usual multiple city hops, he had just delivered his half-full flight to BHX and then left his plane on the apron to return to Frankfurt on Sunday afternoon. With this unusual overnight stop in Birmingham, he had treated his mum to a short city break to get to know a little more of the city he normally just sees from the air. They had a great time as his TripAdvisor review shows here - translated from German.

What is open to ‘Experience’?

We have continued to operate weekend afternoon tours with small numbers of people on, but they have been fun and have allowed time for staff and tour content development. What has become increasingly clear is that those limited numbers of people in the city looking for something other than eating or drinking are struggling for information on things that are open to welcome visitors back to the city. We decided to investigate further, and sent our Marketing Assistant round city centre hotels. Of 21 hotels she visited that had reopened none were able to offer advice on what attractions were open or closed in the city. The lack of knowledge shocked our Marketing Assistant but to me, this was nothing we did not already know. With our various tourism publishing activities, going back as far as 1994, and more recent efforts to promote our walking tours it was entirely predictable. It is sad to report that front of house staff in hotels and other visitor ‘meet and greet’ venues just do not have the information to hand to help visitors to the city make the most of what is on offer. If you ask the reception of a four-star hotel in Birmingham for ideas of things to do they are very likely to suggest a trip to Warwick, the Black Country or Stratford. They are unlikely to know what exhibitions are on at Museum and Art Gallery or Ikon Gallery and they may not have heard of the Coffin Works or Aston Hall. This is perhaps not unexpected as such staff are very often not from Birmingham and their training is rightly focussed on the customer’s hotel experience rather than the wider city. A refreshing approach was the new Sabina hotel in the Jewellery Quarter who sent all their staff on a special walking tour as part of their training week before the hotel opened.

Discovering Birmingham experiences

So, our point is ….there is a real need for easily accessible information on things to do in Birmingham itself to help nurture what we have got already. There are of course exceptions and, for example, a major tourist attraction in central Birmingham are the National Trust run Back to Backs in Hurst Street where tickets are often hard to come by. Here we see a different issue, with many disappointed people who turn up to find they cannot gain entry as they should have pre-booked online to secure a ticket. Now with Covid-19 things are much worse. No one has a clue what has reopened and what remains closed. A kind receptionist suggesting you visit the Library of Birmingham terraced gardens and get there by walking through the ICC Mall is fanciful on two counts. Firstly, the ICC has still not opened this important part of our pedestrian route through the city, and secondly, the Library is not presently open to visit the garden levels.

Communication and marketing vital

We need better communication and support for Birmingham's experiences, especially now as we move into the ‘new normal’ future we must all live in and with some major tourism opportunities ahead. The excellent tourism support based in the city has funding streams at local and national level with clear remits to develop and support the wider West Midlands region. That integrated approach is fine for the perceived crown jewels of the visitor economy, such as national sealife centres, chocolate factory experiences and back to back houses. These are supported by major organisations, expert in their areas of tourism marketing. For them being part of a wider regional promotional mix is a good fit with their own marketing efforts. However, for Birmingham’s modern art galleries, fine houses and gardens, and amazing Jewellery Quarter museums, and even the occasional walking tour, we need more local marketing communication help!

Come and join the fun…

This then is the second ‘big thing’ we have done as we have come out of lockdown. Still, with time on our hands we have taken the concept of our tourist guide ‘Discovering Birmingham’ and moved it on to a new publication and associated website: ‘Discovering Birmingham Experiences’. The idea is to showcase the things you can experience specifically in Birmingham city centre and the wider Birmingham postcode area – but no further. Of course in the short term, this will help tourism businesses as they reopen. However, the longer-term potential is to promote the many small tourism activities in the city that hardly anyone knows even exist. The first edition of Discovering Birmingham Experiences has now been designed and a new website launched. The first electronic and short-run paper edition are due to hit the mainly ‘digital streets’ in September. To make sure you receive the PDF version then just ask to be put on the subscription list by emailing us here: subscription@discoveringbirmingham.co.uk We are currently looking for support, practical in the form of help with supplying details of your destination reopening and distribution of the publication in electronic and printed form. To be sustainable we also need financial support including sponsors of this venture …. If you or an organisation you know might be interested do drop us an email at: editor@discoveringbirmingham.co.uk so we can discuss further.
We moved our Christmas dinner to the Awards night!
Our first two self-guided tours were used by 100s of people in lockdown.
We had the audio units made to the UK legal frequency by a factory in Shenzhen. They come into their own for social distancing
Anthony from Shrewsbury with Philipp and Eva from Frankfurt - our first tour after lockdown
We wear a mask as we meet and greet our guests.
On tour the different ‘bubbles’ and guides all keep separate using the live audio.
“Since bus tours are not possible at the moment, we decided to do a walking tour. Much better than any bus tour I've ever done. Very informative, very nice, I can recommend it at any time! Social distancing was also taken into account at all times, so no need to worry.” TA- Philipp W, July 2020
The guide Discovering Birmingham was first published in 1996 and has sold around 50,000 copies since then…but printed tourist guides need to move with modern communication.