No Business Like Tour Business


Linda O'Brien and her 16-year-old daughter, Tess, are devoted fans of Sex and the City. They watched it religiously during its initial TV run, and now relive all the Cosmo-fueled moments on DVD. So it should come as no surprise that on their first trip to New York, the Australian duo have forgone some of the usual hotspots for a different type of sightseeing experience: The Sex and the City Tour.

Creator Georgette Blau introduced the tour a month after the September 11 terrorist attacks, hoping to give a boost to businesses in the same neighborhoods where much of the show was shot. Since then, the three-hour tour, which runs twice a day, has been a sellout.

Visitors from all over the world, most of whom learn about the tour online, eagerly shell out $37 a ticket for a chance to photograph themselves on the stoop of the building where Carrie, the series' central character, lived and to buy the girls' favorite cup cakes from the Magnolia Bakery.

SHOW BUZZ. You would think that the business of showing homes, parks, restaurants, and other real-life locations from TV shows and movies would be a given. Glance at a newsstand today, and it's clear that the fascination with celebrity culture only continues to grow. But when Blau moved to New York in 1998, a 24-year-old Skidmore College graduate and newly minted editor at Prentice Hall, she was star-struck and keen to indulge her passion.

What she couldn't find, however, was a tour that could show her famous New York movie and TV landmarks. Often walking past the apartment building featured in The Jeffersons, she came up with an idea. "Imagine my surprise when I couldn't find a single tour," Blau says.

So, in 1999, with $3,000 from her savings, she started what initially was a weekend hobby -- the Scene on TV Tour, starring Blau as tour guide. Soon after, she renamed it the Manhattan TV & Movie Show, with tourists paying $15 to see sites from hit TV shows and movies.

Like many entrepreneurs, Blau identified a way to turn her passion into a business capitalizing on the passions of others who share her enthusiasm for the big and small screens. The pool of potential customers is deep. In 2004, New York welcomed 17.2 million tourists, each spending an average of $190 per day, according to NYC & Company, the city's official marketing and tourism organization.

ROUGH INITIAL EPISODES. Blau realized early on that she had stumbled upon a potentially great business idea. New York is one of the most-filmed cities in the world, where many of prime-time hits are based. Of course, it would almost seem like a no-brainer, considering that Hollywood has had tours of movie stars' homes for years, and Hawaii has its own movie tour featuring locations in Kauai from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and other blockbusters. Even California's Monterrey has a own movie tour that includes a scene featured in Marilyn Monroe's Clash By Night.

Blau's company, On Location Tours, now runs four tours -- the Manhattan TV and Movie Tour, the Central Park Movie Tour, The Sex and the City Tour, and The Sopranos Tour.

But it was tough going initially for Blau, who barely made $400 during the weekends showing visitors places such as the building from The Nanny on the Upper East Side, the Lower East Side police precinct from NYPD Blue, the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld, and the Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis High School on 46th Street from Fame. She continued her day job as an editor.

MOB HIT. But as the popularity of the bus tour increased, Blau began stepping up her marketing and PR efforts -- handing out brochures at the Museum of Television & Radio and other tourist-stomping grounds, establishing a Web site, generating as much word-of-mouth buzz as possible.

Real success came to Blau when she quit her job as an editor and started a tour based on The Sopranos in March, 2001. The HBO mobster sensation was in its third season, and media interest was at its peak. When Blau started the tour, which features various spots filmed in New Jersey, it generated a major buzz, including a spot on the Today show. The tourists went crazy, and Blau was easily filling up the two buses' 100 seats, even though the tour ran on Sundays.

She later launched The Sex in the City Tour, which has also been a tremendous success. Now 31, with five full-time employees and 18 part-timers, Blau brings in more than $1 million in revenue each year. With a full-fledged operation on her hands, she eventually decided to hang up her tour-guide hat and hire others.

SHOW WITHIN THE SHOW. In March, 2005, she advertised on Craigslist to hire guides for The Sopranos and Sex in the City tours. The response was stunning -- 300 people showed up for the interviews, which lasted two weeks. "We're in New York, so we had to pick from beautiful struggling actresses to standup comedians," Blau says.

For the comedians or actresses, the tour is a great forum to practice their craft. Lisa Perlman, a tour guide on the Sex and the City bus, is a standup comic at The Gotham Comedy Club. And it shows. She keeps the tourists entertained and well-humored during the three-hour tour.

"The bus is just like the club -- you're never quite sure how the audience reacts to my jokes, and it's great practice," says Lisa, who peppers her banter with knowledgeable tidbits about New York architecture and questions like: "Are there any shoppers in this bus, or alcoholics, or virgins, anyone?"

The O'Briens can barely contain their squeals of delight as tour guide Perlman fields the question -- "which one among you is a Carrie, a Charlotte, a Samantha, a Miranda?" -- the show's four main characters. Daughter Tess admits that her friends from Down Under have often referred to her as a Charlotte, the well-bred, eternally optimistic brunette.

CAPITOL IDEA. The tour's fanatical fans are nearly all women. Once, Blau recalls, actor Kyle MacLachlan, who played the role of Trey McDougal, was buying cupcakes at the Magnolia Bakery -- one of the tour hot spots -- and was surprised to see a horde of women rushing toward him. "I thought they'd get his autograph," Blau says. But to her surprise, the women all went up to him wagging their fingers and shaking their heads at how poorly his character treated wife Charlotte in the show.

The success of The Sopranos Tour taught Blau the need to constantly update her tours to attract young tourists. So, while You've Got Mail, the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romantic comedy filmed on the Upper West Side, was part of the tour until just two months ago, it has now been replaced with a stop at Rice to Riches, the rice-pudding store that makes an appearance in the Will Smith's Hitch. Of course, the classics like Breakfast at Tiffany's and the house from Wait Until Dark are always shown, as is the Empire Diner from Woody Allen's Manhattan.

Next up, Blau plans to start a tour in Washington, D.C., within the next few months that will show the sites from movies and TV shows filmed there. Fans of The West Wing and Commander in Chief needn't wait too long before their own "on-location" experiences.

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