March 12, 2013

10 Tips for Organizing a Community Tour

Two days of sunny, 60-degree weather this past weekend has me thinking about one of my favorite warm-weather activities: playing history detective in my hometown. Washington, D.C., where I live, offers an amazing variety of tours, from the neighborhood-centric Capitol Hill House and Garden Tour to citywide Walkingtown DC, and pretty much everything in between.

These kinds of historic tours can be a great way for local history-lovers and preservation groups to bring a community together around beloved places (or the desire to sneak a peek inside that big house on Main Street). Are you interested in coordinating one for your town? Here are 10 tips to get you started.

1. Know your goals. If you’re planning a tour on behalf of an organization, make sure your planned activity ties back to your organization’s mission and has a clear focus, whether it’s fundraising, awareness-building, or inspiring action.

2. Decide on a format. Most communities offer myriad options for historic tours: homes, neighborhoods, gardens, etc. Each comes with a unique set of challenges -- including timing and staffing -- so being specific early on will help keep you on track.

Tip: If doing an organized tour seems too daunting, consider the “If this house could talk” model pioneered by the Cambridgeport neighborhood of Cambridge, Mass., in which homeowners shared their history on handmade signs.

3. Identify partners. A homes tour can be a massive undertaking requiring many volunteers and supporters, and partnerships can help ease the burden. Consider reaching out to your local government, civic organizations, schools, and cultural groups for help.

4. Determine oversight. Establish a steering committee with members of the sponsoring organization and partners with the authority to approve budgets (both expenses and projected income), plan schedules, recruit volunteers, and the like.

5. Develop a marketing plan. The only way for your event to be a success is for people to attend, so it’s important to determine who your audience is for the tour, and how to let them know it is happening. Reaching out to local media, preparing signage for participants and local businesses, and getting the word out on social channels should all be part of your plan.

6. Select the homes/gardens/walking tour stops. There are many ways to handle the selection process, but having a theme -- an architectural style, era, neighborhood, or other unifying thread -- makes it easier to choose places. Once you know what you’re looking for, you can solicit nominations or make selections based on appropriate criteria.

7. Research the history of the places selected. Homeowners, in many cases, can shed some light on the story of their house, but a trip to the local library to find additional background on any relevant details (architect, prominent past residents, role in local history) is going to provide a richer experience for tour attendees. (Check out these additional tips on researching a property’s history.)

8. Prepare the tour brochure. Take all those great historic nuggets you’ve unearthed and turn them into a brochure that highlights the theme of your tour. Include a map and any information the tour-taker will need to successfully navigate the tour. Be sure to include a hashtag for the tour to make it easy to find and share photos and tweets about the event during and after the fact.

9. Recruit and train volunteers. Start with a job description for each of the volunteer positions, including docents (who can either lead formal tours or be available for ad-hoc questions), greeters, ticket-sellers, and any other positions you need to fill. Hold a training session before the tour to make sure everyone is comfortable with their role.

10. Manage logistics. On the day of the tour, be sure to have supplies -- including a cash bank, tickets, a contact list, volunteer assignments, refreshments, first-aid kit, etc. -- on hand in a central location so they can be dispatched wherever needed on short notice. Have a few extra staffers or volunteers on hand to cover any gaps in coverage.

And, of course, the unspoken number 11hope for perfect weather! It’s entirely outside your control, of course, but a pleasant day can make all the difference.

Sarah Heffern headshot

Sarah Heffern, the National Trust's former director of social media, embraces all things online and pixel-centric, but she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

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