New York Proves That Locals Can Be Travelers Too

Jessica Malnik
Jessica Malnik
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New York Proves That Locals Can Be Travelers Too

Hot Trend: Local & Authentic Experiences

Tourists are increasingly seeking to “do as the locals do.” The most recent proof of this trend is New York’s “See Your City” campaign. The island metropolis is looking to 8 million New Yorkers to help shape a buzzing tourism industry, which hosts over 55 million people per year.

The initiative aims to encourage locals from the five boroughs to leave provincialism at their doorsteps, and explore all the realms that make up “The City That Never Sleeps.” In doing so, residents will influence the sensibilities of visitors, ultimately spurring tourism beyond the limited reaches of Times Square.

Traveling like a local is here to stay, and especially for New York tour providers, it’s time to rethink the way you engage customers in your neighborhood.

Not all activity providers target backyard business. But even these operations have something to gain from using locals as a point of reference. Not only will this increase your potential for repeat business, but it will also capture the attention of travelers looking for local and authentic experiences.

Following locals’ trends will make your business stronger, more agile, will maximize your potential for success. Here’s why:

Quality businesses appeal to both locals and tourists

If residents are coming on your tour, chances are that visitors will want to follow suit. At least, that’s what Fred Dixon, CEO of NYC & Company, thinks will happen. He’s the man behind the “See Your City” campaign.

Dixon was quoted in The New York Times, explaining that luring residents to certain neighborhoods would give these areas a “vibrancy” that could also draw tourists. Justin Francis, Managing Director of Responsibletravel.com, predicted it back in 2008 in his report, “The future of travel.” Travel “will be about the appreciation of local distinctiveness, the idiosyncrasies and the detail, the things that make a place unique and special,” Francis writes. So far, time has proven him true.

NYC & Company’s initiative is not meant to favor locals or tourists. Instead, the See Your City campaign contributes to a more robust industry by incorporating communities into the broader scope tourism, and understanding that New Yorkers could spur trends among out-of-towners. For tour providers, capturing locals’ attentions now means attracting more tourists in the long run as well.

TripAdvisor travel facts

Agile tours stay fresh

Seth Kamil, owner of Big Onion Walking Tours, is an expert on this subject. His company already attracts 30-40% of its business from residents within 30 miles, which is very high for the average New York tour. You don’t tend to see too many locals taking in the sights from the top of the Empire State Building, but you will see Brooklynites, Bronxites and others intently listening to a story about historic Harlem.

Part of Big Onion’s success is owed to its constantly changing routes and content, which makes it easy for locals to come again and again. “We have to stay up to date with what’s happening in neighborhoods,” Seth says. To maintain its reputation as the city’s “tourism benchmark,” quality content is key. It’s not enough to “fall back on material that we gathered 18 months ago,” Kamil notes. Big Onion’s philosophy is that every neighborhood is alive, and guides’ knowledge of each block has to keep pace.

Locals or no locals, all tours can benefit from revisiting their material with a critical eye. You don’t have to be a walking tour to do this either. Is your business excelling at providing a unique and memorable customer experience? Are your guides up-to-date on teaching and safety practices? How can you distinguish your tour from your competitors?

TripAdvisor travel facts

Other destinations can also harness local business, especially in the offseason

Take San Francisco, for example. In a 49-square mile geography, the city boasts 36 neighborhoods. As the owner of Urban Hiker SF, Alex Kenin can name something to do in each of them.

Unlike Big Onion, Urban Hiker does not receive many San Franciscans on its tours, but the few that do come always discover something about their city with Alex. “There are gems in every single neighborhood,” Kenin says, “we could discover a lot of new things by venturing out.”

Through her partnership with Airbnb Experiences, a platform where renters can discover what “locals” like to do, she’s observed a growing interest among travelers to sightsee in a different light. She gets people who come to the United States for the first time in their lives and choose to see San Francisco by going on a hike. Travel trends are shifting, not only in New York, but everywhere.

Incorporating more residents into her tourist-dominated business is not a zero-sum game for Alex. Attracting more people from the Bay Area would, in her eyes, “absolutely add to it [Urban Hiker SF].” With the travel season largely coming to a close in San Francisco this month, Alex views the fall and winter as a perfect opportunity to engage those living in her backyard. “When people stop traveling outside the state, that’s the time when locals really could experience something new,” she explains.


Those that can capture the imaginations of locals and tourists will hit the jackpot when it comes to the evolving travel and activities space. Campaigns like See Your City only solidify how important community members are toward sustaining a thriving tourism industry. Especially for tour operators in large, diverse, cities, those in your neighborhood increasingly set the tone for what out-of-town customers want.

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Writer Jessica Malnik

Jessica Malnik

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