City’s range of culture goes past Bourbon Street, swamps
When Vancouver, B.C., travel writer Shelley Fralic and 40 fellow Canadians visited New Orleans in mid-November, their goal, along with having fun, was to learn about the history of the city’s diverse architecture. Fralic said they did their research to find an appropriate guide and eventually connected with Morgan McCall Molthrop, founder and chief guide at Tailored Tours New Orleans. She said it was a good call.
“He knew he was talking to 40 well-traveled, smart people who were very interested in the history of architecture in New Orleans, and he was really smart about integrating the Canadian connections into all of that,” she said.
Tourism officials say that, increasingly, such targeted offerings are exactly what visitors to New Orleans are seeking.
Most people who are making their first trip to the city want a taste of the area’s typical tourist fare — paddlewheel boats, Bourbon Street bars, swamp tours and plantations, for instance. But many also want a more customized experience that resonates with their own background or personal interests, according to Mark Romig, president of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp.
“We tend to attract all cultures because there’s a piece of most cultures here already, but we’re making strategic and tactical decisions about how to speak to more specific groups and demographics,” he said.
Romig said that while local tourism officials have long touted the city to visitors of Hispanic, African or Asian origin, for example, the marketing group is also trying to narrow its focus toward individual countries, such as Haiti or Vietnam. The organization often uses social media and other channels to reach visitors who represent particular demographics, such as gays or lesbians, or even more specific situations, such as families traveling with children.
“This past summer, with the repeal of DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), we began reaching out to same-sex couples about seeing New Orleans as a place for a honeymoon or to celebrate a relationship,” he said.
Molthrop said the city’s diverse history, architecture, music and food provide a natural background for tailoring those visitors’ experience.
Noting the rise in visitors of Hispanic origin, he recently posted on his company’s Facebook page a list of “11 things you didn’t know about Spanish New Orleans.” Among them: during his exile in the mid-1800s, former Mexico President Benito Juarez sold fish in New Orleans and rolled cigars in what is now Exchange Alley in the French Quarter.
Molthrop often takes Spanish or South American visitors to see the statues of Juarez and Venezuelan military leader Simón Bolivar that stand on Basin Street near St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, which also reflects the influence of early Spanish residents.
“We’ll also take visitors to eat at a restaurant and have the chef explain the Spanish influence on their meal,” he said.
As for the French Quarter, “I always tell them it should be called the Latin Quarter because the architecture is more Spanish than French,” he said.
For visitors of African descent, Molthrop’s tours emphasize examples of West African architecture, such as the thatched-roof pavilion that stands in the park across from City Hall, and the deep influences of Africa on local food and music.
Molthrop has also created women’s “empowerment” itineraries that he said go beyond the home and courtyard tours that are the typical fare of “spouse programs” for local convention-goers.
And he said that his “gay history in New Orleans” tours are increasingly popular.
Molthrop, who recently merged Tailored Tours with the destination management company Custom Conventions run by tourism veteran Carling Dinkler, said he began thinking about customized tours when he returned to New Orleans after earning a law degree and working for years in New York.
Mining his interest in local history, he took a job managing tour guide training for Gray Line Tours. He also began soaking up information about the local visitor market provided by consultants to the local convention and visitors bureau.
“It was clear that we have a more international crowd coming to the city, and we had a large number coming from places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago,” he said.
Molthrop noticed that many such visitors had probing questions about such issues as the city’s role in slavery and the civil rights movement. He felt that their questions sometimes got short shrift on some tours.
“If we’re going to add millions more visitors, New Orleans has to understand that the people who are going to visit will be more sophisticated and want to do more than just walk down Bourbon Street,” he said. “If you’re a tour guide who has trouble talking about civil rights and slavery, then you’re going to have a problem.”
Molthrop said that whatever the origin of the groups he works with, he tries to be straightforward about the city’s history with regard to such matters. Among the points he emphasizes to tourists: “Most of the French Quarter was built by enslaved Africans,” he said.