Monday, June 8, 2009

10 steps to organizing a great walking tour

Walking tours are a great way to learn about the local environment while having fun and meeting your neighbours. In the last year, I've organized two successful ones along the lower Don River in Toronto, and am looking forward to more in the year ahead.

Organizing your own walking tour is fun and rewarding. It's also fairly easy to do. Here are some tips to help you organize one that will be a great success.

  1. Who are you doing it for?
    Start planning the walk by thinking about who will be along. If it's families, then it should be shorter, stroller-accessible and have a focus on very engaging speakers. My tours have been for journalists from Canada and the United States. This means the speakers need to be subject experts and at least one needs to be someone in a position of authority. It also means I need to tell them up-front that the tour is entirely "on the record."
    If it's a fitness walk, then it can be a longer route. The Lower Don walk I've done is about 4-5 kilometres with frequent stops to look at wildlife and discuss the river's ecosystem and plans for it. The walkers are typically 30-55 years old and are usually ready for refreshments by the end.
    All your decisions should flow from an idea of who will be on the walk, what they will want to learn and whether they're primarily there to learn or to have a nice, social walk.

  2. How many speakers should you have?
    This depends upon the composition of the group, its size and the goals for the walk. On my local trail, which is paved and has heavy bicycle traffic, I find that about 15 people, including speakers, will work. Beyond 20 people, I might want to split it into two groups (and thus double the number of speakers).
    In addition to a short introduction by the organizer, for a two-hour walk, I'd suggest two guest speakers. Even for my groups, which are engaged and there to learn, a stop of more than 15 minutes is probably too long. Space things out so the group pauses somewhere appropriate every kilometre or so, step off to the side of the trail and have discussions there. If it's a family walk, have activities for the kids at some or all of the stops.

  3. Choosing the right speakers
    This is vital. For an adult group, choose experts in their fields, but also choose ones who are engaging, lively speakers. A walking tour is not all about education, it's largely a social activity and a form of entertainment. Never forget that.
    While speakers can overlap in areas of expertise (sometimes they'll play off one another nicely), don't have two on the same topic. For my last walk, I had a speaker with a strong interest in ecology and history, and one who is an architect representing an official agency. Sometimes you might want speakers representing opposing viewpoints.
    For kids, put the emphasis on fun. It's a weekend and we want 'em to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine, meet some other kids and, if all goes well, absorb a bit of knowledge along the way. Don't turn nature into a classroom, open it up as a place to explore.

  4. Selecting the Route
    In most cases, go for the scenic walk. My Lower Don tours are an exception because they're designed for people who write about pollution, brownfields, redevelopment programs and so forth. Most of the time, people will want trees, flowers, wildlife. I like to start somewhere with a good view of the city or surrounding countryside.
    The route should follow a logical course. If it's a historical tour, try to arrange it chronologically through time or through an event (follow the path of a group of rebels, for existence). If it's a nature-related walk, follow the edge of a river or escarpment and avoid roads as much as possible.
    For families, keep it short. A couple kilometres at most. For a walk focused on discussion, I'd say no more than 5 km. For one that's going to be more walking and less talking, you can go a little farther. But consider having people bring a picnic lunch if it's more than 8 kilometres. Anything longer than that is more for fitness and will require planning with different goals in mind.

  5. Timing
    I like early afternoons in the sprintime for walks. But we can't always have sunny spring Sundays. Don't start too early. If you do, you'll miss out on a lot of folk who work hard all week and need a bit of a lie-in on the weekend. Don't start too late or you'll interfere with dinner plans. About 1:30 p.m. seems a good starting time to me.
    Tell people the walk starts 15-20 minutes before you really plan to have it start. This is especially important if you're organizing it around a meeting or having out-of-towners come in.

  6. Test the walk
    Scout the route once for good places to talk, good things to see, potential destinations and so forth. But walk it again, slowly, to get an idea of the amount of time it will take. People walk more slowly in groups than they do alone. They like to talk along the way. They stop unexpectedly to photograph ducks, drink water or dash into some bushes for relief.
    My Don River walks take about two hours. They're about 4 kilometres long with two stops of about 15 minutes to listen to speakers, a 5- to 10-minute introduction by me and a bit of unplanned dawdling along the way. You will have to push people along a bit.

  7. The right starting point
    Pick a convenient, logical starting point. A perfect one will have ample free parking and great public transit access. It will be relevant to the walk and highly visible.
    For the Don River walks, I've met on the broad steps of Riverdale Public Library, which is served by three streetcar routes and is close to a major highway. It's beside the Old Don Jail, which is a great starting point for a discussion of the river valley.
    Consider amenities near the start, such as washrooms, and places to pick up last-minute snacks and drinks. Also go for a spot with a good view. On Don River tours, we stroll up to Riverdale Park for a great view of the city's skyline. It's also a good place for an overview of the tour.

  8. The right ending
    A good walk has a beginning, a middle and a fantastic end. I like beer and pubs, so mine typically end at a good pub. I research these in advance, looking for a good diversity of beers (I'm a bit of a beer snob), but also at whether the place is too boozy. The food is also important. It needs to be decent quality and ideally there will be multiple vegetarian options.
    But that's not the right place to end for every walk. You might want to end at a historic site, or somewhere with an amazing view. Wherever you end, there should be good transit access (if people drove to the start, then think of how they'll get back to their cars) and both food and liquid. Everyone will be thirsty, many will be hungry.
    Absolutely make reservations in advance. If the place won't take a reservation, then find another venue. Phone the destination from the beginning of the walk to confirm numbers. Ask in advance if they'll do separate cheques.

  9. Be prepared
    During the walk, you are responsible for the walkers. Carry a small backpack containing water, sunscreen, band-aids (aka "sticking plasters") or a first-aid kit, a cell phone, a bit of money and anything else you think someone might need. As the organizer, it's your job to remember what the walkers will forget.

  10. Marketing
    Let people know about the walk. I like to organize them for out-of-towners, to introduce people to something interesting in my city that they won't otherwise see. Thankfully, this means that a lot of the marketing is done by conference organizers.
    But there are other ways to publicize. If it's mostly for friends, use email, Twitter, Facebook and so forth. If it's for the broader community, you could put up posters at logical places and call the local newspaper (if you've done the walk before and have good photos, make them available). Also contact relevant groups, such as local nature clubs, service organizations or historical societies. They'll often have great suggestions, can provide speakers you hadn't thought of and can let their members know about the group. There are also sometimes lists of local walks, such as the Jane's Walk website.
The key is to plan ahead, be prepared and have fun. Good luck, and let me know how your walks go!

Check out My Web of Life for tips on creating nature walks for kids.

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