Ghost Tours! A fun way to learn history.

Many cities around the country offer ghost tours. Until recently, many have been around for years, started by some of the more quirky and colorful locals who love their town or city’s lore and history.  The owner of the local tour business is often also the researcher and writer of the tour, the guide, and customer service person. In bigger cities there are more guides, but one constant is the people giving the tours have done their local research to proudly tell their city or towns unique history.

Franchise ghost tours flood the internet.

 About 3-years ago, corporate franchise ghost tour companies began replicating and exploiting the local ghost tour businesses. Leaving from the same location at the same time, and using the exact name, or mighty close to the existing business name of the local tour company. This tactic was to intentionally confuse the customer.   The reason they replicated the local company name is because the locals have optimal SEO, having been in business for a long time. 

I have owned Austin Ghost Tours for 30-years. This is a franchise ghost tour company using my business name on their brochure, clearly confusing the customer.

The franchise ghost tours used deep pockets to blanket the internet with their information, especially using third party platforms that are easily manipulated such as TripAdvisor, Viator, Groupon, Expedia and Google ads. 

The haunting tragedy is that the new guides hired through Indeed or other national job platforms and trained remotely can’t seem to tell a good story or get the facts correct.

Generally speaking, people who pay to take a tour of a museum, or town have the reasonable expectation that they are going to be told accurate information. Franchise ghost tours are in it for the money only. In the link below a franchise ghost tour guide is telling the history of why the O’ Henry Museum in Austin, Texas is haunted. All of the information about the O’ Henry Museum is online for anyone to see. The lack of factual information is not the tour guide’s fault. It is the owners of the franchise ghost tour business who write the scripts, and apparently don’t fact check or care because it’s just about making the sale. As we have pointed out, the customer is not the priority.

What is this experience like for a local ghost tour business?

In Honolulu Hawaii, Lopaka Kapanui a native Hawaiian and a professional storyteller as was his father before him and has owned and operated Hawaii Mysteries for over 25-years shared his experience when a franchise ghost tour business came to town. “I discovered the new ghost tour business when my son saw an advertisement for a ghost tour guide, for a company called Honolulu Haunts on Facebook.” The out-of-state tour company started their tour 10 feet from where Kapanui starts his tour. “When I saw the guide, I recognized her because she attended my tour a few times. They stole our material for their tour. I know this because there are two specific things that only I know that I share on my tour which they now tell on their tour. They also have a habit of no tour guide showing up for the tours.”

In Richmond Virginia Chris Houlihan with Haunts of Richmond discovered out-of-state ghost tour was in town 3-years ago when they started Richmond Ghosts. He said “the confusion was pretty immediate, we started to receive phone calls and emails from their customers but that was just an annoyance.” He went on to say “What was upsetting was when we started to get reports and complaints about butchered stories and histories. Knowing that they had taken our stories was bad enough, but finding out that they felt the need to “spice it up” was insulting and troubling, as our top priority is to make sure that guests walk away with an accurate picture of our city’s history. “The links below have local ghost tour companies all around the United States saying the exact same thing. 

Similar experiences of local ghost tour operators in Washington DC, Galveston , Fort Worth and Austin Texas

Baltimore Maryland, Orlando Florida, Phoenix Arizona, San Diego California tell the same story. 

A press release sent out by the law firm Gray Ice in Louisville, Kentucy: 

One small local ghost tour business sued an out-of-state ghost tour business and won . Local Ghost Tour Company Sues Ghost City Tours

According to the Public Record of the lawsuit by Louisville Historic Tours the out-of-state franchise infringed on David Domine’s Intellectual Property; practiced unfair competition and created confusion; unfair use of his name, and his right to privacy as the company implied the two businesses were affiliated, in addition using the existing businesses reputation.

How is it possible for these national enterprises to succeed in misrepresenting historical facts, failing to uphold service commitments to the customer, exploiting local brand identities, hack into local websites, manipulate reviews and evade local taxes?

In the Ghost Tour arena, the post covid-19 environment created a fertile ground for scams and forgery.

Around the onset of the pandemic Viator and TripAdvisor and their related corporations endeavored to recoup lost profits. One way to do this was the introduction of the ‘Viator Accelerate’ program. To be featured on Viator, Groupon, Expedia, TripAdvisor and all of their brands, tour companies must relinquish a minimum of 23% of each ticket sale. If the tour company wants increased visibility the new corporate plan requires a staggering 40% of each ticket sale to go to their third-party platform. Some business with deep pockets give 50% of the ticket cost. Negative reviews are suppressed to boost the highest paying tour operator’s position on the platform. This integration between review platforms and booking channels has muddied the waters of unbiased customer feedback. 

Local tour operators face an uphill battle in this altered landscape. The million-dollar franchise tour companies operating nationally, not locally, are able to engage in the aggressive “pay-to-play” model.

This is what the owner of the local Galveston tour business Spooky Galveston had to say when Viator/TripAdvisor came to town “In Galveston, all of the local tour companies were encouraged to sign up with TripAdvisor/Viator.  A company representative made their way to Galveston to tell us how good this merger would be for our businesses. I signed up for it to see how much it would help.” It didn’t really work for her local business she further notes, “the only way to get my business advertisements to be seen is to use the Accelerate marketing tool which increases the commission for Viator/TripAdvisor, with little profit for my business.  It does benefit larger scale national outfits who have more money to spend on advertising than I do.” 

An example of what the Accelerate Program looks like 

An example of the viator Boost Page

Google’s Role: The Search Engine’s Complicity

Further skewing the playing field is Google’s evolving search algorithm. Historically a bastion for organic results, recent trends see paid listings increasingly overshadowing genuine, organic content. This shift has enabled platforms like Viator/TripAdvisor and its partners to dominate the virtual advertising landscape and authentic local business voices are drowned out by the cacophony of paid advertisements.

It’s time for a change from this new method of manipulating customers. 

They are smart, but everyone, let’s be smarter. New third party platforms with different names will arrive on the internet selling an endless number of tours as it appears to be profitable.  Look beyond the slick marketing and SEO manipulation. It isn’t easy. They have the names of the local guides and if questioned will claim that guide is their guide. The customer who would like to go on a real authentic tour needs to put time into researching. Before you make a credit card purchase, reach out to the seller. If it is a local business a local person will answer your phone call. If you are texting and emailing with a seller, get verification that they are local. It takes more time, but it is worth it.

Our stories, cultures, and local pride are not commodities to be exploited. It is time for corporate accountability, for respecting community boundaries, and for honoring the truth more than the bottom line.

Jeanine Plumer

Owner Austin Ghost Tours

Austin Texas