Recently I had the opportunity to teach a course over in Copenhagen. It was a fun few days with an engaged, remarkably sharp group. While I was there, I had a bit of free time so I signed up for a free walking tour. It was terrific.
Free walking tours have become very common; you can join one in almost any city. In Copenhagen, I had three different tours to choose from.
The basic idea is simple: you don’t pay anything up-front. If you like the tour and the guide, you give them a tip at the end. It is completely optional. If you are short of funds or didn’t care for the experience, you just walk away.
At the end of my tour in Copenhagen, the guide went around and thanked people, collecting tips as he did, but there was no hard-sell or pressure. I of course gave him a tip but it would have been just as easy to have strolled away.
Free walking tours is an idea that simply works, because it provides benefits for everyone involved.
For travelers, free tours are perfect. There is no commitment, so it is exceptionally flexible. You can sign-up in advance, or just show up. There is no investment because the tours are free. You only tip if you want to.
For guides, free tours are appealing, too, mainly because lots of people show up; there were 20 or so on my tour, and in the summer apparently more than 500 people might appear in a single day. This keeps lots of guides busy.
In addition, people aren’t paying anything so their expectations are low. We all know that price and quality are often linked, so if you join a free tour you can expect a pretty dull, uninformative day. Even a mediocre guide can beat these expectations and end up with the surprised and delighted travelers who think, “Wow, that was a lot better than I expected. It was worth every penny!”
Of course, the experience is often tremendous. One reason is that the system encourages excellence in the guides. Average guides make some money. Great guides make a lot more. Poor guides make little and probably leave the field.
In addition, travelers entertain each other; there is a great sense of camaraderie on the tours. Everyone is getting a great deal, is on vacation, and is in a good mood.
There is a lot to learn from free tours. One is that setting low expectations can lead to customer happiness. Another is that systems that promote quality tend to flourish. And another is that people have a deep sense of fairness and integrity. If you trust that most people will do the right thing, you can create interesting products and services.