Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Streets Ahead: David Tucker Reports on the Cost of Free Walking Tours

Streets Ahead is the column from London Walks' Pen & Daily Constitutional Special Correspondent David Tucker

We go to Seville a lot. Because our oldest son lives there.

For most people, well, it’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime visit. For several reasons. And that’s not to take anything at all away from Sevilla. It’s one of those places one should return to many times, go there every chance you get.

But if, for example, you’re an American, well, for a lot of Americans crossing the Atlantic is a fairly big deal. Doesn’t happen that often except for maybe 1/10 of one percent of them – business people who are over here time and again, or expats (like me, David) or professional “travellers” (travel writers, globetrotters, etc.). So even if you’re an American who’s not in the once-in-a-lifetime-trip-to-Europe category – an American who’s been across the pond a fair number of times – well, the fact of the matter is, there are just so many places in Spain to visit. Let alone in the rest of Europe.

So for the majority – even of experienced, seasoned travellers – that one visit to Sevilla might be the only visit.

And that makes those two or three days there extremely valuable. You’ve only got 48 waking hours (3 days times the 16 hours a day you’re not snoozing) in a place you need to spend those hours well. Frittering them away is criminal.

Now that’s the general mindset that informs our travelling, wherever we’re going. The one exception maybe being Paris, which we’ve been to probably 60-70 times.

We’re thinking, chances are we won’t be back here – we’ve got to make the best possible use of the time we’ve got here.

It’s the default position. But boy was it ever locked and loaded on our first trip to Sevilla – because at the time Sam (our son) wasn’t living there and we thought it entirely possible that trip might be a one off. And it’s still our default position, even though we’ve been there several times – and will be going back lots in the future.

What that translates into in terms of our sightseeing – especially our walking tour sightseeing – is that we (Mary takes the lead on this) go to a ton of trouble here in London, at the planning stage of our trips, to find the best possible guide (wherever it is we’re going, not just Sevilla). In Sevilla it’s Concepcion. She grew up in Sevilla. She’s extremely bright. She’s gracious. She’s full of fun and charm. Speaks perfect English, barely a trace of an accent. And is a professionally qualified, very experienced, superb guide. Has been a guide now for coming up to 20 years. Knows her city every which way you turn it – its history, its culture, its calendar, its customs, its cuisine, its politics, its flora, you name it.

And she’s having a really bad time of it. Has been now for three or four years.


Because of the so-called “Free” [sic] tours that have moved in there. I saw this with my own eyes the last time we were there. There were four of us – Mary and myself and two very good friends. We were with Concepcion. There was another couple. Six paying customers in total. And had the four of us not been along – well, you can do the maths.

The six of us and Concepcion. And over there – several of the “Free” [sic] Tour groups – 40-50 people on each of them.

Not too far this side of despair, Concepcion said, “many of them are Bulgarians, they come in just for the season, they don’t know anything at all about Sevilla. It’s that word ‘free’. It’s impossible to compete against. And of course the tours aren’t free – they’re all over them for tips. They have to get money out of the people who go on those tours because they have to pay the boss so many euros per head for everybody on the tour. Sigh.”

I followed one the next day. Chanced on it and tailed it for 25 minutes or so. It hadn’t – in any guiding sense – started. They were trudging from hotel to hotel to pick up, collect more walkers.  And by “they” I don’t just mean the “guide” (who wasn’t Spanish by the way) – I mean the walkers she’d picked up at the hotels she’d been to earlier on the hotel run. There they were, trudging from hotel to hotel so she could round up all the sheeple for that particular “Free” tour.

I’m thinking, “you’re a tourist in Sevilla, it’s probably your only time in Sevilla, and you’re flushing down the toilet what? – maybe half an hour or more – walking from hotel to hotel so this “guide” – I use the term advisedly – can round up more walkers. And they’re going to be paying for this – or publicly embarrassed if they try to duck out of paying. What is wrong with these people? Can’t they see what’s going on?”

For effectively the same money they could have Sevilla’s best guide and not have the wasted time of the hotel run. And not have to hear repeatedly the song and dance – the hard sell – about how important it is to tip, how you’re expected to tip, and what would be “an appropriate amount” to tip. On a “free” tour. You’d think a sense of shame would come into it. It doesn’t.

Let’s head 250 kms east. To Granada. Again, Mary found a professionally qualified and – more important than that – superb guide there. And she’s also taking a beating. I’ll let her ­– her name's Maria – tell the story.

“Granada’s small. Most of the hotels are in the same area. He (the “Free” [sic] tour operator) went hotel to hotel with his leaflets. He told the hotelier, ‘display this leaflet on your lobby counter, our guides will stop by at 9.15 (or 9.20 or 9.30 etc.) every morning to pick up anybody from your hotel who wants to go on the tour. You’ll see exactly how many people from your hotel are going on the tour – because the guides will come into the hotel to get them at the same time every day. You’ll get 3 euros per head for each person from your hotel who goes on the tour. If an average of 5 people go every day that’ll be over 100 euros a week you’ll get for doing nothing.’ And of course the hoteliers all say ‘yes, thank you very much’. Why wouldn’t they? It’s completely understandable.”

Now let’s do the finances. That’s 3 euros per person going to the hotelier. Let me repeat that: 3 euros per person – this is a “Free” [sic] Tour, remember. You can bar graph this – strap yourself in (g-forces coming) and watch the bar shoot up.

The first 3 euros on this “Free” [sic] tour go to the hotelier.

Doesn’t stop there, though. Of course it doesn’t. That bar’s only just started its up, up and away ascent. And remember – it’s your money you’re looking at. Imagine that bar graph as a clear plastic tube up which your money – on this “Free” [sic] tour – is being siphoned. Assuming the “guide” who’s “giving” you this “free” [sic] tour is able to milk you. And they’re pretty adept at it – they have to be. They know which buttons to push – none of us, for example, want to be publicly singled out, be embarrassed – be made to look like a cheapskate in front of a bunch of strangers.

So, yes, watch that bar graph, watch your money go up that syphon. Up 3 euros to the hotelier for starters. Starters being the mot juste.

Because you can rest assured that the boss man is going to do all right out of this commercial operation. After all, he has identifiable business costs – designing the leaflets, printing them, distributing them, paying for the leaflet dispensers, forking out for his company’s Internet “presence”, etc. And it sure isn’t going to be acceptable to him to just cover his costs – he wants to make a profit, a good profit. So from that base of 3 euros it climbs some more. How much more? Who knows? But well over what it takes to cover costs, you can be reasonably sure of that. Because if that weren’t the case they’d bale on it wouldn’t they? Businessmen aren’t in business to break even. Or make a loss.

And it doesn’t end there. That bar – the stuff going up the siphon, the siphon, one end of which is in your pocket – has got to go further up. Because of the 4th* party to this commercial transaction: the guide. {{!!!!}} The orthographic device {{_ _ _ _}} is hereby adopted to indicate irony. You think the guide’s doing this out of the goodness of his heart?

What are you up to – 10-20 euros probably. On a “Free” [sic] tour.

And the calibre of that “Free” [sic] tour that turns out to be anything but free?

You think you can get good guides on that basis – their having to beg, plead, cajole, wheedle, pressure, embarrass “tips” out of people?

Bears repeating: you think those tours are “Free” [sic]? Says “FREE” on the leaflet. (Doesn’t say Be Careful – These “Free” [sic] Tours Have Costs that’s for sure. But I would if I were you – be careful, I mean.)

What do you think? Is it possible they’re using the word “Free” [sic] to get gullible people on those tours so they can shake them down?

What do you think?

What do you think about advertising that says something is “Free”? If it says “Free” – well, what do you understand that to mean, what would you reasonably take it to mean? Does “Free” mean “Unfree”? If that’s what it amounts to, why not just say “Unfree”? Whole lot more honest isn’t it? And if that’s honest, well isn’t the other dishonest? Isn’t dishonest advertising misleading advertising? Just asking.

Here’s the question – should responding to an advertisement be tantamount to stepping on a rake?

Here’s hoping that if you’re going to Seville you’ll go with Concepcion. Or if it’s Granada, Maria. You’ll be doing yourself a big favour. And it won’t cost you any more.

And you’ll be doing the right thing – the decent thing – by this profession.

*the 4th party to this commercial transaction  2nd party is the hotelier; 3rd party is the businessman who set up and owns the “free” [sic] tour operation; 4th party is the guide {{!!!!}}. You – the customer (the mot juste) – are of course the 1st party. 1st party because you’re the one who’s financing these, er, “free”[sic] tours.


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  1. David -

    Hiya. We met once on a pub walk some years ago. I am a great supporter of LW and all that you are defending here. I understand the perspective you are setting up in this post: beware the bad bargain for tours in Spain. The tone, however, puts me off - there are many good "free" tours and you as a professional company should be supporting the good ones instead of dismissing all "free" tours as charlatans. Hope to see you on a walk when I am next in London.

  2. Disagree. If they were genuinely free we'd happily support them. The point is they're not free. The advertising is misleading. It's a bait-and-switch. It's predatory pricing, which is illegal in the EU, including the UK. You made a recommendation to me. Allow me to make one back to you. You – and everybody else – should be supporting a level playing field.