As a frequent traveler, there’s nothing I dislike more than being referred to as a tourist. Yet as a frequent solo traveler, I tend to seek out opportunities to co-mingle with like-minded travelers, which typically means joining a group tour – and that is when the 'tourist' label is inevitably slapped on my face.
It’s a catch-22 in the travel industry, so I was pleased to discover a company on my latest trip to Italy, Walks Tours, which manages to offer small group itineraries, based on adapting to the modern traveler’s demand for curated travel experiences over the past decade.
"One size fits all tours might sell highest in volume today, but we think people prefer unique experiences and see the demand shifting in that direction," says Walks’ founder Stephen Oddo.
Exploring Madrid with a Walks guide — Photo courtesy of Walks
Founded on this mission, Walks launched their first itinerary in Italy in 2009. “We thought the concept of a 'tour' had developed a negative connotation. So we said, 'Our guests don't take tours, they take walks,'" explains Oddo. Now in 13 cities, including Rome, Athens, New York, London and Barcelona, Walks continues to revolutionize the group tour experience with the introduction of an on-demand concept, and in their efforts to address overtourism.
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"We want to be part of the solution, to help level out demand by bringing groups to new neighborhoods that haven’t benefited from past tours," says Oddo.
In Rome, this opportunity includes visiting the Pope’s summer home in Castel Gandolfo. A 40-minute train ride from Rome Termini, the sleepy Italian suburb welcomes visitors with 180-degree vistas of Lake Albano, and ushers them into the Pope’s gold-gilded summer home with 135 acres of manicured gardens, emphasizing ancient Roman remains.
"Bringing people to Castel Gandolfo helps drive traffic outside of the Vatican Museums and helps maintain the gardens," says Oddo, explaining that a portion of ticket sales from this experience are applied to the upkeep of Castel Gandolfo.
Taking walks around Castel Gandolfo, outside of Rome — Photo courtesy of Walks
Partnerships are a key factor in Walks’ commitment to offsetting the effects of overtourism, as the company aligns itself with government organizations like the Catacombs Religious Organization in Rome or the Houses of Parliament in the U.K. "We collaborate on special access products, as well as offering training resources and in-person workshops to their staff tour guides," Oddo elaborates.
Special access is undoubtedly a popular request within curated travel, and as a result, this is another distinguishing factor for the tour company. Walks’ access extends from day trips like Castel Gandolfo, and their gourmet Bordeaux itinerary (currently the only tour operator offering a Paris-to-Bordeaux day trip outside a private-guide experience), to city experiences, including a Roman rooftop cooking class and skip-the-line La Sagrada Familia tour in Barcelona.
One of Walks' most popular tours is the closing tour of Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris — Photo courtesy of Walks
In addition to exclusivity, Walks offers after-hours opportunities, which appease the modern traveler’s demand for personalization, but also align with Walks' dedication to balancing overtourism. Walks monitors peak times for visitation at iconic attractions like the Vatican, St Mark’s Basilica and the Louvre. From this research, Walks then curates their itineraries for off-peak hours, or when possible, after-hours experiences.
The first after-hours experience launched in Paris was the closing tour of Mona Lisa at the Louvre. "We strategically designed the itinerary to finish at the Mona Lisa at closing time, when the room empties out and you can have a moment of peace with her," says Oddo. This tour fuses the popularly booked after-hours concept with Walks' latest offering, an on-demand, "Walk On, Walk Off" tour.
Currently live in Rome, Paris, London, San Francisco and New York, these 60-to-90-minute tours offer visitors the flexibility to create their own schedule by combining technology and convenience. "You’re meant to just walk up, the guide scans your code and then you’re on the tour," explains Oddo about the QR code and application Walks designed to make the experience seamless. "If you miss a slot, there are plenty of options to join something else nearby that day."
Taking a curated tour around London — Photo courtesy of Walks
These options, aptly referred to as walks, include food tours led by chefs, museum tours by art historians and "best of" city tours by born-and-bred locals. The ability to create tours led by unique individuals (with 700 guides globally) emphasizes personalization and gives the small group of 12-15 travelers an opportunity to further connect to a destination through the guides’ stories.
"Travelers want personal, so we’re creating diversity with our unique storytellers. Smaller groups also allow for more interaction with them," says Oddo.