City Stories

Walk With Me

I recently made a change in my employment status, stepping away from the formality of full-time office work in order to pursue my own client work (and preserve my sanity). It’s been a great few months, and things are starting to come together (though not to the point that I’m ready to blog about it in detail just yet).

While I work on piecing together a business that is exactly what I want it to be, the world keeps spinning and the rent is still due on the first of each month. As it does. Which means I’ve had to get creative about where to generate income, and fast.

It was actually on the plane home from Paris that I wondered what kind of film tours were offered around Chicago. I’d taken several walking tours while in France, and so the idea was fresh in my mind. It’s a fun way to explore a new city, and I’ve actually been a guide before, having given campus tours to prospective students when I was a senior in college.

Turns out, there is a service that exclusively does filmed-in-Chicago tours, though it seems like they’re by appointment only. Chicago’s a big city, but not so big that it needs more than one company dedicated to movie tours.

As fate would have it, I was reviewing posts at Chicago Artists Resource not long after when I came across a job listing for tour guides, specifically for a film tour. I clicked through and found myself at a post for a company called Free Tours By Foot. Over the next couple of weeks, I learned all about the operation that was started by a couple in D.C. and now operates in over a dozen cities across the country and several in Europe, too. In fact, without realizing it until later, I’d taken myself on their self-guided walking tour through Montmartre while I was in Paris!

After a few conversations with the local tour manager, it was official: I’d be their newest summer guide, offering the On Location: Movies and Filming in Chicago tour on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings through August.

I spent the next couple of weeks shadowing a few of the existing tours and digging into all the various film shoots in the city over the years, building out my own version of the film tour (none of them are scripted; personalizing it makes it a better experience for everyone). By mid-May, I was on the booking calendar and ready to go!

Chicago’s tourists, however, have yet to really discover my greatness. So far, I’ve given the tour four times, and never to a crowd bigger than three people. I’ll blame some of this on the bad weather we’ve had lately. Last Saturday, it was actually pouring rain during the whole tour. But I was there, and I delivered the hell out of that tour to one very dedicated Brazilian visitor, a huge fan of the Blues Brothers.

I’m confident business will pick up, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s fun, it gets me outside and downtown, and as summer sets in, the groups will surely grow. The company is very well reviewed, and does a slew of tours every day around the city, and they’re regularly sold out with 20 or more people at a time.

And as my groups grow, so will my paycheck. This is, as the name indicated, a free tour after all. Or, as we tell our attendees, a pay-what-you-wish tour. And honestly, I love that. I love that these experiences are available to anyone, regardless of budget. And I’m totally OK with the idea that what I take home depends on how much my customers enjoy themselves. It’s like waiting tables (which I have plenty of experience in!): what I make depends on how great a time the tour-goers have. Better make sure they have a great time, right?

It’s a far cry from movie premieres and publicity, to be sure. But I’m not terribly worried about that right now. I’ll get back to all that jazz, and I’ll do it in a way that makes sense for my career and well-being. What it is, however, is fun conversation, fresh air, a guaranteed 10,000 steps and a little extra scratch as I try to keep from completely depleting my savings account while I figure out what I’m doing with my life. And that’s better than nothing!