This past January, we wrote a series on tourism trends for 2019, one of which happened to be DNA tourism. Shortly after we published that post, Katalin was contacted by Cheryl Cullen of Visit London Taxi Tours. It turns out she developed her own ancestry tour in London! Cheryl was kind enough to share her experience with us on the blog — surely she could help anyone looking to develop an ancestry tour skip a mistake or two.

Why ancestry tours?

When first setting up Visit London Taxi Tours and developing tour ideas, we of course had a very close look at what the established taxi tour businesses were offering and what they were not. We were looking for a gap in the market place to give us ideas for tours that would set us apart. We came up with 3 taxi tour ideas that were not being offered by our competitors: London Street Food and Markets, Art Deco London and Your London Ancestry Taxi Tour.

The first two tour ideas were based on our own interests or behaviours when visiting other cities like Barcelona, New York or Nice. I am personally always completely romanced by the art deco I discover when on a weekend away and hey, who doesn’t love food and a food market! The London Ancestry tour reflected my personal interests in family history and genealogy, but it went beyond just me. Researching your family tree was a hugely popular hobby – even 10 years ago, when I researched my family tree! – fuelled by programmes like “Who Do You Think You Are?” and the accessibility of records being available digitally.

The 1911 census was made available online as a direct result of demand from novice family historians. I remember clearly the excitement I felt waiting for the records to be released – 36 million people were recorded for the 1911 census with more detail than ever before in the handwriting of the head of the household. Seeing my own family’s 1911 census records and my great grandfathers handwriting felt like a gift. It was a truly emotional experience. Within 48 hours, I visited the London street where my family had been living in 1911. For family historians, an ancestral address is a destination. It was this exciting and incredibly personal experience that sparked the idea for the tour – I could take others to do the same as I did and grow closer to their origins.

Who the tours are for

With all of that in mind, we then designed the tour to appeal to individuals or families who had a family history rooted in London, though they themselves may come from Australia, South Africa, or somewhere else entirely. These tours are for those with a researched family history that could provide us documents with names and/or addresses for places of interest (like homes, places of worship, schools, and so on).

Once this initial stage is established, we then take the guests through an early Q&A session. Can they share their records with us electronically? Is the tour a gift for someone? Is there a particular person, place, or time in history that they are interested in? We craft our questions to direct our time and research. After the initial Q&A, we might have follow-up questions, such as clarification on family relationships.

A fundamental part of this process is emphasising early on how important the guest’s (or guests’) input is to the success of the tour. This has never been a problem in the past, but it does help us to guarantee that the guest gets the most out of their experience. We have found it necessary to require a non-refundable deposit, unlike our other tours, since this value accounts for the estimated research time.
Where to start

We start all of our tour research from our desks. Some truly fabulous online resources are available to us these days, and these tools give us the incredibly detailed historical information that these intricate and personal tours require. One of our favorite resources is Booths Map of Poverty, in which Charles Booth mapped the streets of London in 1886 according to the public’s social class. Just knowing a street someone lived on can tell us a lot about how they probably spent their time, what their income was, if they had servants, if they would wash at public baths and so on. Another beloved resource is the London Bomb Site Map, which allows us to see which parts of London may look different after some devastating bomb attacks from WW2. Utilising these historical records is not only easier than ever, but also absolutely critical to providing the best service possible on this complex tour.

Family history and genealogy is a hobby or interest for people around the world. In every country, certain tools that you can find online can help you research and design a bespoke tour, since they will reflect your own country’s social history – this can be a point of interest for your guest as well. For example, we only have the poverty maps because of Charles Dickens! Early in his career, Dickens wrote about London’s poor in newspaper columns. Charles Booth could not believe that such poverty existed, so he set out to find these so- called slums of London and disprove their existence. He found Charles Dickens descriptions to be accurate! He was so appalled by what he saw decided to map London’s poverty as a way to campaign for change. This kind of information should be available via many resources online, such as in family history forums or even just keyword searching.

What we did wrong in the beginning

Our biggest mistake – though not apparent until the first tour – was research. We had really underestimated the time for and type of research needed to pull a tour together that we would be happy to deliver. Our original idea was that the research would be exclusively desk-based and that each document would equal roughly one hour of research, meaning for 4 documents received, we estimated 4 hours for the research and 4 hours for the tour.
The desk research would have resulted in an adequate tour, but we weren’t looking to give our guests adequate – we wanted to give them fantastic. Their documents and information combined with our knowledge of London and its social, economic and political history, we aimed to create a story, a context that would help our guests connect with the past.

Physically visiting the locations that could be included in the tour helped us identify which of the places had fused with the past: a cobbled street, an old gas lamp, or a Victorian warehouse. We often find that the ancestral home no longer exists, but the pub next door, built over 250 years ago, is still there. Maybe our guests can’t walk into their ancestor’s living room, but walking through that pub door just like that ancestor most likely did can be the next best thing. Visiting these places is what creating the tour and the experience we want to create requires in order for the past to become almost tangible. This insight and feeling cannot be obtained from just using Google Earth. We have to check out every location we think we might be taking our guests to. In addition to the desk research, I spend another 2 full days in London looking at possible ancestral destinations to include or exclude. It’s more work that we anticipated in the beginning, but it makes the tour that much more intimate and worthwhile.

Holding back for impact

Our first 2 ancestry bookings were delivered at a loss, and since then, we have delivered another 3 ancestry tours. We loved creating every single one of these 5 tours. Every tour was special, but certain moments of discovery were just awesome and stood out from the rest.

For example, on one tour, we showed one of the guests the headstones of her ancestors in a church graveyard. She thought she was visiting the church exclusively because of two important weddings that had taken place there. We had no idea they were there until we did a recky as part of our research.

On another tour, we had a photo of the “subject” taken professionally in 1860, taken at 187a Piccadilly, which happened to be Hatchards Bookshop, the oldest bookshop in London. The photographic studio was upstairs, and further research revealed that Henry Maul (the photographer) was known for photographing celebrities. So, our guest’s ancestor had walked into this studio alongside Michael Faraday the inventor, David Livingstone the explorer and William Ewart Gladstone the Prime Minister. Even more surreal was the context; when our guest’s ancestor was there having his photo taken, Hatchards was already 140 years old, making it the oldest bookshop in London. Even though it was 2018 when we visiting, the guest shared that same context of standing in a very old London bookshop with their ancestor.

When we finalise the itinerary for the tour with our guests, we give them a good idea of what to expect, but we keep the gems – the high impact experiences like those above – secret until we are on the tour and let them discover it for themselves on the day.

We tell London’s story every day, whether it’s “royal London” or “rock ‘n’ roll London” or even Harry Potter London. But the most interesting stories are the ones we hear, that is the ancestry stories our guests tell us. Our ancestry tour is not a tour we sell in high volumes, but if that’s where your passion lies, we’re pleased as punch to help you find your past. With a bit of experience under our belts, we have really learnt our craft, and we feel confident pushing forward on a really targeted marketing strategy for this year and next.

Here’s our bit of advice for you

If you are thinking of starting a DNA ancestry tour, our advice is make sure you have a good idea of all the online research tools that are available to you. Some research before starting can help you get a better idea of what you can promise your guests and how much time researching a guest’s ancestor might take. I would also recommend doing a couple of free tours. This will help you plan out the process, from gathering the information and documents you need to designing the tour. That way, you will be able to price the tour more accurately, and you’ll create case studies for marketing purposes. One pertinent piece of the puzzle is that your tour creator is interested in family history and understanding what would resonate with guests. Knowing the difference between what will be great to see or hear and what would make the tour completely unforgettable is absolutely key – that something special, that gem of a find that transports your guests back in time, and you took them there.


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