VoiceMap held its first webinar in March. Our Head of Content, Gary Morris, spoke to Frank Bures about how he produced his third VoiceMap tour, In the Footsteps of Prince. Frank has published six VoiceMap tours and is the author of The Geography of Madness, which Newsweek called one of the best travel books of the decade.
Some highlights from the webinar:
(4:35) The beginnings of the Footsteps of Prince tour
(17:30) The working relationship between the publisher and the editor
(19:30) The audio recording process
(23:05) Mapping techniques and considerations
(2:10) Frank on creating his first VoiceMap tour
(27:35) The importance of storytelling when creating a tour
(31:49) Frank’s top advice for new tour publishers
(32:42) A live reading of Frank’s favourite passage from the tour.
Participants, many of whom were working on their own tours, had an opportunity to ask questions at the end of the talk. You’ll find a copy of the transcript below.
Getting to Know Frank
Gary: So thanks everyone for joining the first webinar and a big thank you to Frank for making himself available to do this. We appreciate that. So maybe, Frank, you want to tell us about yourself, what you do?
Frank: Yes, I’m a writer. I’m based in Minneapolis, and I’ve done travel writing for a long time and I have a book out called The Geography of Madness. And a couple of years ago I edited another book called Under Purple Skies, which is an anthology of poetry and essays about Minneapolis. And I’ve been in travel writing for a long time. It was exciting to see something like VoiceMap come along and I think I got introduced to it or somehow. So Iain had some a little bit of association with the website called WorldHum that I was working for and that maybe was how our paths crossed originally.
Gary: That’s Iain Manley, VoiceMap’s CEO who we’re talking about.
Frank: I had, like I said, done travel stories and travel writing for a long time, and VoiceMap just seemed like an interesting new way to kind of put those skills to work.
Gary: Okay, and then we reached out to you quite a while ago, and then I think that I know people are busy. So this isn’t your first tour, the Prince tour. This is actually your 3rd tour that I was looking you published this tour and your second tour on the same day, but your first tour was in 2020. And maybe just give a little brief run through on that and maybe how it’s different from this. What made you decide to create more?
Frank: I got an email from Gary asking if I’d be interested in doing a VoiceMap tour, and I kind of looked at it and thought about it. I’m not, like, to be honest, very tech savvy. So it seemed complicated, but it also seemed interesting. I spent a while trying to figure out where in Minneapolis it makes sense to do a tour because Minneapolis is not, like, a huge tourist town. There’s not an obvious – there’s a couple of places, but there’s no huge draw.
And so I eventually thought a walk along the river would be cool, and you could do some interesting stuff and create kind of a fun experience for people. To be honest, I didn’t really know if people would buy it. I was a little bit skeptical, but I thought it would be an interesting exercise and something kind of fun to do and a way to get some new skills that might be useful, and I put the tour together.
It took a long time because I had to figure out, as you guys, a lot of you know, it’s complicated because you have to map the route, then research, then write, then adjust everything and then record. So it took a long time for me to figure that stuff out, but it turned out pretty well, and to my sort of surprise, people actually bought the tour and liked it, and I was really happy about that.
So then I just started thinking of other possibilities for the form where you could do similar things in town, because it’s a different kind of experience than writing a travel story, and it just has I don’t know, the frame is different, and so you can do different stuff. I thought for a written story, you need sort of a clear narrative that goes through, but for this, it can be a little more episodic.
So I thought, there’s a place called Minnehaha Falls, which is a huge tourist, like, local tourist place in town that I thought it would be a good opportunity for that. And then, obviously Prince you know, everybody associates Prince with Minneapolis. And when Prince died in 2016, it was just, like, a huge event for the town and even for myself. I wasn’t the biggest Prince fan ever. I was more of like a normal Prince fan, having grown up in the 80’s, it was like, the songs that were the soundtrack of our youth as I say in the tour.
But there’s some definite sites that are associated with Prince that are kind of close in downtown Minneapolis. I started looking into that, like, what would make sense as far as the tour and the length and the distance and stuff. There were three kind of obvious choices. One is the music wall, where Prince took some of his original, like, publicity photos that’s still there. It’s this big wall that has sheet music on it. Lizzo did a video in front of it. It’s pretty iconic.
Then First Avenue also is the club where Prince played in Purple Rain. And everybody knows that club, and everybody associates it with him. And it’s kind of a lot of people thought that he owned the club, which he didn’t. And then the third one is the Dakota nightclub, which is down there in the same area where he went a lot and had a table reserved for himself. And he went there, like, just a few days before he died, actually.
So, kind of starting with those three things, I looked and found some other points that made sense that you could walk to. I was telling Gary for my tours, I guess probably everybody does this, but I have one list of geographical points that kind of have to be where they are, and then another list of topics or things that don’t need to be any particular place. And so you can kind of fill those in the places that you don’t use those to fill the empty space between the geographical points. So I had this kind of list of different subjects and sort of strung them out to make this kind of narrative.
Creating the Tour
Gary: So did you kind of start with, you had a route in mind, essentially, and then prior to kind of writing down anything, just first got it in place, the physical locations, and then thought, okay.
Frank: To see if it was even possible to have enough locations that would make sense to go to. And it turned out there was definitely enough, and I was able to find quite a few more, too. And then some of the locations are not Prince related exactly. They are just sort of general Minneapolis, but a lot of them are because he spent so much time down there. And it’s is the center of the city in the 80’s, still kind of is. But it just is so heavily associated with Prince. And he filmed like a ton of Purple Rain down there and was just down there all the time. So it proved a pretty rich ground for that.
Gary: Did you end up walking the route before even beginning to map it out, just to get a sense, or did you first?
Frank: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I actually got this book that this guy wrote. It’s called Like Purple Rain, that lists a lot of the that. It was one of the things that I did for research and then I read this book, Let’s Go Crazy, which is an awesome book about the making of Purple Rain. The whole thing just is a really good read.
I also read this book by a guy I know who knew Prince, it’s called This Thing Called Life by Neil Carlin. And using those kinds of three things, I was able to pick out more points that were important down there. Like the balcony scene in Purple Rain that’s kind of early in the movie. The original guitar store where Prince bought his first axe guitars. The building is still there. Glam Slam, the club that he owned in the 90’s is just on the mark, or just like, one street off.
Let me think. Those are kind of the main Prince related areas and then just as I was finalizing the tour, the city had this street artist, Hyrovega, come in and make this huge mural of Prince right down, like, a block, literally where Gary has it on screen. The tour originally went up, went straight and then left, the other way around the block and the mural is right there on that corner. So at the very last minute, I had to rearrange, I rewrote the tour and write this thing it. It was amazing.
He was just starting it as I was doing, like, a final test on the tour and I was like, oh man, this is going to take forever but he finished it in three days. It was incredible. It was just amazing to see. So it was cool I was able to incorporate that into the tour as well.
Gary: That’s the cover image of the tour. That’s part of it. Huge mural.
So then, so you had your route mapped out and then in terms of writing the script, was it kind of a process or did it come pretty quickly from that?
Frank: No, it is. I’m maybe not the most efficient worker and researcher, it took me like a long time to research these things because almost every point is like a little bit of a research project. Some of them are pretty simple stories, but you want to have things right as far as or I like to make sure I get everything right.
So all the details of the Purple Rain movie, I had to make sure I had those right. The history of the Music Wall, I had to do that. Some of the information about the Minneapolis Sound, which is a kind of particular genre that came out of Minneapolis in that time, I had to research. Each one of these kind of turns out to be a little bit of a research project just to make sure everything’s right.
Then for every 300 words that you write, you have like five or six or seven that you throw away. It took a long time, but I think that’s just the way for me anyway, is that I have to do things to get the quality where I want it. You just end up throwing a lot of stuff away to get to the good stuff. So it did take me a long time to research.
Those other tours are not quite as intensive. The Minneapolis Riverwalk tour was kind of like that because a lot of the places are unrelated. Also, actually the Minnehaha Falls one was a little bit like that. But with the Prince one especially, I wanted to make sure that I had things right because there’s so many… Prince is such a big deal. There’s so many fans that know everything about him and if you get it wrong, then you’re going to pay for that.
I actually had Neil, who wrote The Thing called Life book, go through the tour and let me know if anything was off and he didn’t see anything. Then I had another guy who calls himself Purple Kurt, take the tour. I was actually on his YouTube podcast and he loved it. I was gratified. There were some things in there that he didn’t even know about Prince. So that made me feel good as well.
Gary: I’m going to say one of the things I really liked about the tour, I think it’s a great example of using the physical space. There’s physical locations that tie to the story. There’s a kind of narrative thread through that. But I think your reminiscences on Prince from the city’s point of view and then from also a personal point of view, really just has this great glue that kind of ties the whole tour together.
It’s not just like this is where Prince did that, this is where he did that. You can provide this personal context. It’s your journey, it’s the writer’s journey through almost growing up, listening to Prince and the effect it had on you, which also you can overlay that onto the city itself and what he meant. I think at the end of the tour, you know a bit more about Prince, but you also know a bit more about Frank the writer and about Minneapolis, the city and the kind of connection. How the city has been shaped by that, which I think is really nice.
Frank: Thank you. Yeah, that was my goal and with something like this tour, it is definitely the most personal one. I mean, I just did a tour of Bologna where I was an exchange student, and that has maybe a little more similar personal vein to it, than like kind of historical. But I don’t know, I think those opportunities, especially if a place means something to you, you need to take that chance to explain to the listener why and it helps kind of make it mean something to them as well.
Gary: Yeah, and in terms of once you’ve kind of written it, I know you do a test with a text to speech feature where you can save each location with a robotic audio voice, fairly realistic. When you’d actually gone and walked it that first time, did it click or did it feel like, oh, wow, this isn’t actually not as… some things are not what I thought it would be like on the ground?
Frank: I had to do it a few times because some of the buildings would screw stuff up and so the triggering was off and then some of the distances were not quite what I thought they should be. So I had to go back. I wrote it, put it in, did that test, went down and tested it again. Then I had to adjust stuff, trim some things and move the points around a little bit.
I think I had to do that like twice just because some of the things weren’t quite working. It’s hard to know when you get into a city with tall buildings, they mess up the GPS a little bit and so it’s hard to know if it’s just a quirk of that time that you’re doing it or if it’s going to happen, every time. So that’s why I wanted to do it a few times to make sure it was within the range of actually working.
Gary: Yeah, I can see in some of these, the sections where it’s quite closed in. We made the locations much larger because occasionally with small spaces and large buildings up around you, you get some GPS bounce, which means your phone might think you’re a little bit off track than where you actually are not.
So we can compensate for that after testing, which is why testing is so useful, especially testing with the text to speech so you don’t have to go and record a whole script. We can then adjust for that afterwards.
Frank: Yeah, I was a little worried just given that experience. I was a little worried when we went to Bologna in December and I wrote the tour ahead of time and put it all in, and then I was going to test it while I was there. I was kind of worried I wouldn’t have enough tries to make it right. But it actually worked better than I thought it was going to, especially with the porticos and stuff that you’re under. I was a little nervous that that would mess up the GPS too, but it seemed like it went pretty well.
Working with the VoiceMap Team
Gary: So how did you find working with a VoiceMap editor? Did you find it added value, meaning you or? I guess meaning myself, or in the case of Ben, my colleague you worked with on Bologna, just the experience of working collaboratively.
Frank: Yeah. Well, you did a great job, so thank you. That was really super professional and really high quality work, so thank you for that. Ben too, was great to work with. He had a lot of good suggestions for making the tour work better. I’m used to working with editors. I’ve been a freelance writer for 20-30 years, and so it’s not like a new thing for me.
But with this, I think it’s really important because I don’t know how exactly, how the technology works. I don’t know what needs to happen when, and there’s a lot of directional things that you need to happen and how you can stack different locations on each other and that sort of thing. Especially for my first tour, I was learning all that and didn’t really know how it worked. And so it was great to have an editor to help sort of guide along that path.
Gary: Yeah, we always kind of stress as editors that we’re not here to edit someone’s content. If we think there’s some feedback we can give on that, it’s really just to make sure that it works as an audio tour.
So we’re trying to do it with a fairly light touch, but with an eye to making sure that it flows well and that things trigger at the right time so that people can just focus on the story, essentially.
Frank: Yeah. I mean, you ultimately want the listener to have the best possible experience. So if you guys are helping that happen, then that’s good for everybody.
Recording the Audio
Gary: And so then now you did finish writing it. You’re ready to record it. How did you find recording as someone who maybe doesn’t come from a background or hasn’t recorded yourself, as pretty much 99% of the publishers that we dealt with are in that same boat.
Frank: Yeah, that was definitely a kind of new experience for me. It wasn’t something I had done before, and wasn’t sure how much I needed in a take and stuff. So it took me quite a few takes to get it, and I was doing it, like paragraph by paragraph.
I know other people do it kind of in one take, but I personally like to kind of – and I forgot to mention this the other day when we were talking – I like to relisten to it and make sure it sounds exactly like I want it to. And so that’s one of the reasons why I was doing it paragraph by paragraph, so I can go over and make sure it is hitting the kind of exact notes that I want to.
So, for me, it’s a little bit labor-intensive, but I like to think that it shows in the quality of the tour. And I use, I have like a field recorder that I use, this Tascam thing. So it’s good quality and it’s kind of big files and stuff, and it’s this thing, it’s sort of semi-professional quality. But I think other people use their phones and stuff, right?
Gary: Yeah, pretty much 99% of publishers use their phones. We can make the quality sound good. We go through a few iterations of getting samples from people. Also, a side note, as I was telling Frank when we chatted last week, the software is getting much better to improve audio. So going forward, I think that’ll make the publishers’ lives and our lives simpler in terms of working with slightly subpar audio that can be turned into something really well.
What always kind of can take a bit of back and forth, even when we give some examples, is the delivery of kind of sounding natural. I think Frank did a great job of just sounding quite conversational, quite authentic, and not like, this is the tour of Prince, and it’s just kind of very removed narrator. It sounds like he’s getting to know you and you’re getting to know him, and he’s taking you around the city that he loves, and it comes through in that.
So I think that we do spend a bit of time trying to get that out of publishers to make sure it’s like, to be comfortable. You don’t want it to feel too forced or too stiff, delivery. And some people get it the first time, some people take a few tries. But I think that’s always the goal we going for. It’s this kind of authenticity.
Frank: Yeah. I do try to add more voice modulation or voice fluctuation than I usually use in my speaking just because I know it makes it easier for people to pay attention. I mean, you don’t want it to be super exaggerated, but the more higher and lower your pitches are, the more engaged the listeners are. So that’s something that I try to do when I’m recording.
Mapping out the Route
Gary: I didn’t want to delve too much as this isn’t really as much a technical how-to. In terms of when you were mapping, Frank, did you draw out the route line first and then started populating the route with locations?
Frank: No, I don’t really remember. I think I was mapping it out in my head and then probably went downtown and rode it on my bike to see if it made sense or if you could actually do it before I put it into the system.
But with the Bologna Tour, I just mapped it on the software and then obviously did it later. What I also did for that one was use Google Street View, which is really helpful to kind of walk the route virtually. You also want to do it in person to make sure everything’s up to date.
Gary: Yeah. Makes sense. Just so for those of you who may be unsure, Google Street View is if you drag the little yellow man, drop in here and then essentially allows us editors to kind of help build these tours sitting, in my case, sitting in Cape Town, very far from Minneapolis and be able to put it together. So very useful for both publishers and for the editors.
Frank: Yeah. No, I didn’t actually realize that was in the thing. I just used it on a separate window. That’s helpful. Thank you.
Gary: I was wondering I kind of know this answer already because we talked about it, but did you ever delve into the tutorial documentation? I know you kind of just dive in and figure it out yourself a bit?
Frank: Yeah, I think when I did my first tour, I kind of read through it, but I’m not always so great at reading direction, so I was more of figuring it out as I go. Then when I would run into a specific problem, I would email you and you’d send me the page that explained it and kind of go through it that way. So I didn’t lean very heavily on it, but I probably should have. Would have done maybe slightly worse, but now I kind of know how it works and don’t need it quite as much.
Gary: Yeah, you’re an old hand now.
Gary: Was there any part that you found kind of particularly challenging and then also on that, did the tour take much longer than you imagined it would have?
Frank: Well, I mean, well, the first tour I did was, like, I could not believe how long it was taking and how much work it was. I was like, I’m never going to do this again. But then by the time I got it finished, I was really happy with it.
This happens with a lot of big projects where by the time you get done with it, you’re, like, don’t ever want to have anything to do with it again. But then, as I started thinking about it, I started realizing some things that I could do to make it go faster and be easier. Probably the hardest thing is just… It’s not like a straightforward process where you just do this, and do this, and do this.
It’s kind of recursive because you got to figure out the route and then figure out the script and figure out how many words you have and then write it and then rewrite it, test it and record it and then re-record. So it’s like a lot of it can feel like you’re not making any progress for a while. But for me, that’s probably the hardest part. I mean, there’s nothing individually that’s hard. It’s just like there’s so many moving pieces to put together to get to the final, to get to the kind of the finish line. That’s probably the hardest thing for me.
Gary: Do you feel coming at it as a writer gives you a different perspective on it? Some people come as tour guides, some people come as photographers. Do you feel like it gave you much of an edge, or were you still kind of in very new territory?
Frank: I don’t know. I didn’t really think about that. Probably just in the researching and the actual writing of the individual things. Like, I really focused on each piece as a story and an essay and tried to make sure that that’s what I’m doing in this tour is everything. Not just like, giving people facts and giving them facts in a little story.
In almost every module, there’s some sort of mini narrative that takes place, and that’s just like how people’s minds work, and is more interesting than just, like, they are just a bunch of facts that you can’t remember that out of context. So that’s probably in the writing.
Maybe I would have a slight advantage over other people just because I’ve been doing that for so long. And in the research, maybe. Finding interesting things. But I mean, with the other stuff, I would just be like everybody else.
Gary: Yeah, I think this is what we try and aim for for all the tours is kind of this narrative thread, a bit of an arc. And then also thinking of each stop is a kind of vignette that’s connected to the last and to the next one, and that you can kind of trace these vignettes through the route line of the city.
Frank: Yeah, it’s a little bit like a book where you want each piece to be a chapter, but you want the whole thing to feel like a story. And so at the end, people are coming around to some sense of completion or some sense of, like the end of the narrative, whether that’s circling back around to the beginning of the story or whether it’s just sort of some kind of ending that you come up with, but you want people to feel like they’ve gone through this thing, this kind of journey, and now it’s like, ending.
The other thing we talked about as far as just advice or what I try to do is I try to make my tour very historical and I don’t try to not mention any businesses that are there now or anything because those will could be gone in two years and I’d have to update it. So I try to keep it as focused on history as possible.
Ideally, I mean, you always have to update a little bit, but I want to do that as little as possible. That’s why I try to keep, mostly basically all the things that are in the past and are not going to change.
Gary: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. When possible, try and future proof the tour because as Frank was saying, businesses are going to come and go, shops will come and go, and it can be what you think might be there forever, might not be.
You know, some of the tours we have that are kind of more restaurant focused, food focused. So in Madrid, we have a tour where they focused on places that have been around for hundreds of years. So the hope is that those restaurants won’t close. They’re some of the oldest restaurants in Spain. But if you’re doing a kind of tour of the hottest restaurants of X, just know that you’re probably going to be putting a fair bit of work for yourself in the future to keep up to date with that.
Frank: Even in the Bologna Tour, there’s a corner that I went to that has a pharmacy on it, and you look at pictures from 100 years ago, there was still a pharmacy there. But I tried to even qualify that as saying there’s been a pharmacy on here for at least 100 years and there may still be when you get here, so that if there’s not, it still works.
Gary: Let’s start winding it down. Did you enjoy the overall process? Are you happy with the Prince tour looking back on it now?
Frank: I feel like the Prince tour is great. I was really happy with it and people who’ve done it really love it. I was very happy with how that turned out.
The Importance of Storytelling
Gary: I know you’ve kind of just dropped some advice. Now, was there anything before we can move into the question phase, there’s any kind of advice you could give to potential creators, or publishers getting started now?
Frank: I think those are kind of the main two things. You know, focus on storytelling. Like keep things in anecdotal and narrative form. Don’t be afraid to put yourself in there in a way that if things are meaningful to you and that will make them more meaningful to other people. And then also try to keep it as non perishable as possible with that. Keeping it based in, like, history. That’s my main piece of advice.
Gary: Yeah, those are very useful. I thought it would be nice if you had a kind of favorite paragraph or passage from the tour that it might be nice to just kind of briefly read.
People can read scripts online if they want, and you can preview the audio for the first three locations. And, you know, buy Frank’s tours, he’d obviously appreciate that. But yeah, if there was a specific piece that you kind of… really stuck with.
Frank: So at the end of the Prince tour, it starts kind of in the main area where Purple Rain was filmed and done. On the very last stop on the tour is the the guitar shop where Prince and and his friends would would play on guitars, so I closed there and it was a nice opportunity to be able to circle back to some things.
If you go to Paisley Park, which is Prince’s home and studio, they show this blue notebook where he originally wrote the script for Purple Rain. You could see indented on the notebook is says the title of the film was, Dreams. I thought that was a great motif to put in the tour because, in a sense, this tour is all about this kid who had this crazy dream to be a star and just created this thing out of nothing. Not out of nothing, but in some sense nothing.
The last piece of the tour is literally called ‘The Guitar Shop’. I said:
“Stop at this alley and look across the street. There, at 417 1st Avenue, you’ll see a brick building with an ornate classic pointed arch over the main door. That, in some sense, is where this all started. In 1975, that building was the original site of the guitar shop, owned by a luthier named Chuck Orr. It was here, just a few blocks down the street from where Prince would rise to fame, Prince and his friends Andre Anderson, later known as Andre Simone, and Diz Dickerson would hang out, jam on guitars, and dream about what they could do and who they might become. Sometimes Chuck would close the store to let them play. Orr was Prince’s first luthier and made him a white electric axe guitar that you can see in his video for 1979’s ‘Why You Want to Treat Me So Bad’. In the same video, Simone and Dickerson are on stage with Prince just a few years after they hung around the guitar shop together. The shop is gone, Prince is gone, but his story remains and this might be the place to consider what Prince’s story was about. It was about music. It was about ambition. It was about genius. But most of all, like it said on the cover of that blue notebook, Prince’s story, above everything else, was about dreams”.
That’s kind of the end of the tour.
Gary: Yeah, it’s awesome. I really like that. Thanks. That was really cool and really insightful for me and hopefully for everyone else. And then I thought if anyone has any questions for me, or any thoughts on that, we’ll open up the floor. If you do, you just click the little raise hand button and then we’ll know you want to ask a question and happy to answer anything.
Frank: Yeah. Happy to.
Christina: Okay, can you hear me now?
Frank: Yes, and then we’ll get to you afterwards.
Christina: Yeah, I changed rooms. I just want to thank you. In the beginning, this was so fruitful. I’m not going to say anything about that, but this was really inspirational for me and also having a writer so experienced.
So thank you very much, and also to you, Gary, for this seminar. It was really fruitful, and I don’t think I have any questions. I just thought the ending is wonderful, and I’ll go right in there and use your tour as inspiration when I start out doing my stuff. Thank you.
Frank: Thank you
Gary: Thanks, Christina. That was the intention, I am glad it worked.
Frank: You can do the tour virtually, and I had some good photos in there. I got some photos of Paisley Park and some things that are kind of not on the tour but are related to it.
For instance, there’s this photo of Prince’s editing studio, and there’s a photo of First Avenue the night Prince died with the street filled with people.
Gary: Some of the photos are kind of linked to the sites, but then also some photos that are useful to get an idea of what, for example, Paisley Park looked like, it’s a reference point so.
Frank: I got those from the Minneapolis Tourism Bureau. They’re kind of owned by Paisley Park, but then the tourism office has media photos that you can use if you give credit to them. Prince’s estate is notoriously proprietary about stuff, so that was a nice way to actually get some photos of Paisley Park. I also got photos from other tourist offices, they usually have some high-quality things that you can use.
Gary: Thanks, Christina. And then Andrew, you’re up next.
Andrew: Hello, is that working?
Andrew: Okay. Frank I enjoyed this, I went to Macalester College, so this tour looks great. I look forward to taking it next time I’m back.
My question is from the practical side of marketing and promotion. I’m an author as well. It sounds like you might have a publisher that was a helper. You tell me, how are you handling the marketing and promotion for the Prince tour and your other tours as well?
Frank: Yeah, that’s a good question. VoiceMap does a good job on the SEO side, and so a lot of people come to it through that. They have partnerships through TripAdvisor, so you can get your tour on TripAdvisor and Viator and some other sites like that, so that’s helpful.
As far as the local marketing side, I’ve been trying to figure that out a little bit. There’s a building where my Minneapolis Downtown Riverwalk tour starts, at the Open Book Center, which is where the Loft and all these writing places are, and people go there to start it. So I had them put up posters. VoiceMap can make you a poster of your tour, which I think I need to get those updated because I raised the price on a couple of them by a dollar. You can get those and print those out.
I bought this little acrylic thing. I’m going to try to have some local businesses have it. It’s got the QR code on there. That’s one way. I also have cards. This is the Prince one, don’t know if you can find it very well. It’s got the QR code on the back. We made those through Vista Print, I think. Those have worked pretty to just leave out at some businesses.
I was just trying to reach target audiences online. Just a couple of days ago, I set up a Facebook page that says like, “Minneapolis Audio Tours”, just to try to capture a little but I haven’t quite figured out how to leverage that. When I get a few more tours out, I was going to approach some local media and the neighborhood papers to see if I can get those.
There are opportunities for bulk selling with some places, but I haven’t had anybody want to do that yet. I’ve asked a couple of people if they want to do that, but they all think it seems like too complicated or something. I have to figure out how to make that easy for people to do.
Those are some of the ways that I’ve been doing it, and also just the normal stuff that half works, like putting stuff on LinkedIn and your social media. I have a newsletter that I send out just a couple of times a year on Substack, and so I put them on there too. But it’s all not a very well thought out marketing plan at this point, I am just trying to figure out how to get the word out. I’m not a marketer, so I’m trying to figure it out.
Gary: Yes, as Frank mentioned, we do list tours on TripAdvisor and Get Your Guide, among other third-party resellers. We see a lot of sales from that. Each location on the tour can have its own QR code, which is a fairly new feature we’ve added. If you’re able to put these up somewhere with the required permission, someone can scan that QR code, which will take them to that location on the tour. If it’s a paid tour, they then have the option to buy that tour to take it. It’s an interesting way to get people excited about the tour.
Frank also mentioned selling tours using voucher codes. For those of you who don’t know, a tour can be bought on the website—you can do the same in the app. But you can also redeem the tour using a voucher code, which is an eight-character, eight-digit code that you enter into the app. This method allows for selling tours through other third parties, so maybe it’s a bookstore where the tour starts or a restaurant that’s on the tour. If you get in touch with them and they’re interested, they can sell copies of your tour right there, or through a tourism bureau or something similar.
These physical copies of the tour could be sold with maybe a nice physical display, perhaps a postcard, that comes with a short set of instructions on how to redeem the tour. We try to make it as easy as possible. It’s always something that needs improving, but there are different ways the tour can be distributed.
Frank: Before I forget, Andrew, my wife just started teaching at Macalester College, so that’s great.
Gary: Cool, thanks, Andrew. Selene, you’re interested? Do you have a question?
Selene: Hi, everybody. Yes, thank you. I really enjoyed that. I have to also echo the sentiment that the ending of the tour gave me goosebumps when you were reading it. I’m a massive Prince fan.
As I explained to Gary, I joined this webinar to understand VoiceMap and the self-guided tours space. I am a journalist and write for a publication called Skift. I’d like to understand how you made the decision to use VoiceMap. What made you opt for a self-guided recorded tour as opposed to running a traditional guided tour business?
Frank: Well, like I said earlier, Gary approached me. I think we maybe talked about it online to kind of figure out what it is, how it works and stuff. Then I decided that it might be worth a try.
As a self-employed freelancer, one of the disadvantages of VoiceMap compared to other publications is you don’t get money until the tour sells. Whereas if you write a magazine story, you get money upfront and then you write the story, which has its advantages. But the potentially more long-term advantage of VoiceMap is that the tours sit there and provide passive income for a good amount of time, so over time, they will be worth it.
I’m sort of always looking for new opportunities and projects. A, it was kind of an interesting project. B, as a travel writer, you sometimes get sort of bored doing the same thing over again. This was like a new way to create a cool experience for somebody. It was partly fun, partly business, and partly getting into this new space in a way that I think has a lot of potential.
Selene: Sure. When you contextualize it from that perspective of passive income and it’s something that you’re really skilled at in terms of storytelling and then amplifying your freelance niche, that makes a lot of sense.
Are there any other challenges? So it sounds like you’ve got to put a marketing strategy behind that. Are there any challenges that you have advice over and above? I noted that you mentioned the storytelling and all of that, but in terms of somebody thinking about opting for the self-guided space, that you have advice on that?
Frank: I don’t know. I mean, you have to focus on a place where there’s going to be enough people to make sense. It needs a certain density of foot traffic or driving traffic if you’re doing a driving tour.
When you’re thinking about your tour, you want to think about the route a person can walk and if there’s going to be enough people there for it to make sense. And then thirdly, you should consider what kind of experience you want people to have of the place, what it means, and what kind of story you can tell there.
You want to A, have a lot of people. B, have it be a route that makes sense and C, have a cool story or a cool bunch of stories that you’re going to be taking somebody through. I think there’s a lot of creative ways you can do that. It doesn’t have to be like Trevi Fountain or something like that. I mean, that’s great, but I’m doing this in non-touristy places where there’s not a lot of competition. So it’s not a lot of voices at this point competing for that kind of thing. Minneapolis is kind of a mid-level city. Bologna also is not very touristy, Bologna, Italy. And they have a lot of that kind of thing going on there, but there are tourists there.
Also, I’m currently putting together a tour out of Madison, Wisconsin, which is another one of those kind of mid-sized cities where a lot of people come in the summer and for school and stuff, and in Duluth, Minnesota, which is a big tourist city in the summer, and there’s nothing like that up there. I think those kind of mid-level markets can be good.
Gary: A route line is clearly important. When I did a tour that I helped put together in Coimbra, Portugal last year, I thought it was a great tour. The story was great, but the route itself was kind of the biggest takeaway from it. So I don’t just think of it as what information can I get across to people? That’s part of it, but also where can I take people while I’m telling them that? These two should have equal weight, essentially.
You end up taking someone down a road or an alley that they wouldn’t have gone otherwise. That is such a visual memory. The audio and the visual together really make a striking impression on people. If the content really fits the moment it becomes something they will actually remember. I think it’s there’s some degree of serendipity about it.
So I would always say think of the routes as its own thing and how it ties in with the content. Where you start the tour and where you end the tour is also something to consider. Do people want to do a circular route? Does it make sense to do it in a more linear fashion? And then also having an angle. You’re exploring Minneapolis through the eyes of Prince with someone who grew up listening to his music.
A city like London can be viewed many different ways. We’ve got something like 70 tours there now. People say, “Is there still more you can write about?” and of course there is. You can write about a city through many different lenses. And so I think finding an interesting lens is always going to be quite exciting and challenging.
Frank: Yeah, and I think that’s maybe where you follow your interests. If there’s some little niche thing that you know about that is interesting to you, it might be cool to build a tour around.
Selene: Sounds good. Thank you.
Donal: Okay, hopefully you can hear me.
Donal: Very great presentation, lots of really useful information. One of the things that I found interesting is you’ve done more than one tour now. Did you have in your mind that kind of duration, say, well, this tour should be an hour or 2 hours and if it’s 2 hours it should be 20 locations or, you know, or I have 20 locations and that’s going to take somebody 2 hours or 1 hour.
Did you come at it from locations or were there locations that defined the duration or was it the other way? Well, I think I could do something for a two-hour block of time, give somebody an interesting journey in about 2 hours.
Frank: Yeah, I think it’s a little bit of a mix. It’s obviously dependent on the places that you have on your tour, but also… I don’t know. I think 2 hours is too much for me. I try to keep mine around an hour. My Minnehaha Falls tour is like 45 minutes, which is, I don’t know, it almost feels a little bit short. But then the Prince tour runs a little bit over, maybe. I don’t know, between an hour and hour and a half, depending on how long people take and stuff often.
It’s a little bit of a case by case basis, but I try to shoot for about an hour, which I think is the time that people want to take and it’s like the value for their money and it’s a good amount of time for an immersive experience, but it doesn’t take all morning or whatever. So they can go do other stuff.
With my Bologna tour, there are certain places where the person is moving and you don’t want it to be too quiet for too long. And so you pick like a small subject to talk about like the canals or something or the university or something like that. That doesn’t take a lot of time. But then there’s other places. Like in the main church, there was for like three years this statue by Michelangelo. It was his biggest statue ever, that was only there for like three years. It’s this great story where the city took it down and for three years and melted it into a cannon.
Just when you have a story that doesn’t kind of fit into the walking part, you can have them stop and listen to that for a bit, but it just depends on what you want to say. Sometimes in order to keep things moving, you got to cut it short because you just don’t want the person to get bored or feel like they’re just not making any progress too.
Donal: Do you find in some of your tours (as I’m kind of designing my first one) that some locations have a lot of information, a lot of things to see in very close up, and then other locations are, come here, see this? This is what you see at this location.
Do you treat those differently as you’re thinking about your script?, where you kind of hit a location and you’ve got like within that location there’s, say, five things, different things I want you to go see within ten yards of where you are and you have that as set points or does that not really make sense?
Frank: Yeah, I think you have to take them on a case by case basis and see what the merits are, versus the time spent. There are things that I had to cut out of the Prince tour that just didn’t fit or didn’t have time to fit or they were too far. There’s a record shop in Minneapolis that everybody associates with Prince and he loved it. He went there three days before he died and he went and bought a bunch of records. But you just can’t have it.
I think, you have to focus on crafting that experience for the person and how good of a story it is, weighing how good of a story it is, how far off the path it is, how much worth it is going there. And you can also suggest, like in my Bologna tour, there’s the Arc of St. Dominic is not on the tour. And a couple of other things I’m like, if you want to go look at that, you can go look at it after the tour and it’s in this place just to let them know about it. But I think unless you have a really compelling piece of narrative or story, you kind of want to keep them moving.
Gary: Yeah, I’d echo that. We always try and tell people, firstly try to be entertaining, not exhaustive. Try to avoid stopping people constantly. It depends on the routes and if it is going to be, depending where you are if it takes place in a very small space, maybe a small village, and there’s more stops than usual. You manage their expectations by letting them know that, but for general kind of city routes, we try and keep people moving when possible.
People take in information better while they’re walking, they’re going to be more engaged, they’re going to get less distracted. When you do stop them, not stopping them for too long. Set periods of time, but maybe then picking spots along the way. So maybe walking for a period and then there’s a nice spot where they can take a seat for a moment and you can kind of get more into the content at that particular stage and let them kind of take a rest. Maybe a halfway point.
I think it’s always good to manage people’s expectations about what they can expect, but try and keep people moving when possible. At the end of the day, they’re not going to remember every fact you told them, every date. So we always try and stress as editors to avoid writing like that with this kind of heavy date orientated style. I always recommend being more entertaining than exhaustive.
Well, I think you got your mic on, it’s picking me up.
Frank: Think you guys are both muted.
Gary: Sorry, that’s absolutely right. Donal was getting a bit of feedback from me. But yeah, so the point I’m saying is trying to keep it entertaining essentially. You don’t want to lumber people with just this large amount of info so when they finish doing this, they kind of feel overwhelmed.
We always recommend trying to get people moving when possible, giving them opportunities to take a break. They can resume the tour when they like. End the tour when they like. It’s good to point out spots where it’s nice to say, okay, if you want to go take a break here, grab something to eat or have a look around in a park or something like that, then this is a good opportunity to do that.
But to answer your question in terms of duration of tours, if you see Frank’s tour says 28 minutes, 1.5 miles, about 2 and a bit kilometres, it’s obviously taking place in a compact space in downtown. This number is just if the listener walks the tour from start to finish without stopping. Obviously, with stops along the way, the tour extends.
Frank’s tour actually, we have, the duration is 75 minutes, because that’s a better idea of how long it will actually take when someone’s out doing it, you know, taking into account stopping, you know, so it gives people a better way to manage their expectations of the time that they’re going to spend on the tour.
The content of the tour might be 40 minutes, but realistically it’s going to take them an hour or an hour and a bit to actually do the tour. Usually it’s not a hard rule, but usually about two thirds of the tour will have content on it. And so you always want to have silence as well. You know, you never want to have wall to wall talking throughout the whole tour. People need some space to, to take in what you’re saying, maybe talk to the people they’re doing the tour with.
So we always recommend and the editor can help with that. Say, well, this section of locations has a lot of content, let’s give them some space here. Maybe you don’t have as much to say on this stretch. Just let them know, hey, I’ll catch up with you in a minute or so at the end of the block, or something like that. So, yeah, hopefully that answers your question.
This is, you know, it’s always going to be a case by case. The editor’s job is to kind of work with you on the tour and say, okay, what will work in this particular scenario, using the kind of, what we’ve learned from working on by now hundreds of tours. Now, we’ve published a thousand tours. So yeah, we will take that knowledge and put it to get use for your tour.
Frank: And just to echo that, I mean, people are much more likely to remember a story that you tell them than a list of facts that are kind of decontextualized.
Gary: Yes, and just to add on that, walking tours, GPS audio tours, people are in the here and now. They’re looking at something that you’re talking about. They’re not sitting at home and reading it in a guidebook. So we always encourage writers, publishers, to not write removed. Like, the listener isn’t sitting at home on the couch reading, but they’re looking at something. So engage them, point out details, draw their attention to things, orientate them.
Act as if you’re standing there with them, and they will feel like you are, essentially, and they will feel more immersed in the story. It helps with just kind of them allowing to go on this journey with you.
Gary: Anyone else for any questions. Otherwise, let’s wrap it up.
Frank: Well, thank you, everybody for coming and good luck with your tours.