SideTour promises new experiences in Washington


A SideTour with a former CIA disguise technician, who shows tourists some of the tricks of her trade. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR WASHINGTON POST)

On the run?

For $50, a former CIA disguise technician will give you a crash course in over-the-counter disguises you can pick up at the pharmacy.

There are eye patches and arm slings, and gel insoles you can pop into one shoe to fake a limp. White mascara can make your beard look gray, and hats and scarves help obscure your face shape and hair line.

“If you’re traveling abroad, you don’t want to have a dozen wigs and makeup,” said the technician, who identifies herself only by the fake name Kelly Buffenbarger. “So that means you have to come up with your own disguise after you arrive.”

The undercover disguise tour is one of nine local “experiences” offered by SideTour, a New York-based company that expanded to Washington last week.

Vipin Goyal, a former consultant and MTV executive who founded the company in 2011, said the idea for an experience-based business came to him after a year of touring the world with his wife.

“When we were traveling, all of our best experiences happened when we ended up connecting with some person who showed us their world — whether it was a chicken farm in Rwanda or an educational institute in Mali,” Goyal said. “When we got back to New York, I didn’t want to go the the same five bars and the same 10 restaurants with the same 20 people anymore.”

He began working on SideTour and set out to find the most fascinating people he could in a city of 8 million.

“We started looking for people who are uniquely qualified — whether it was chefs and sommeliers or Olympic athletes, who could show us something new,” he said.

The popularity of experience-based tours and events has increased in recent years. In 2010, ArtJamz, a District-based company, began hosting drink-and-paint parties. Living Social opened an events space in Northwest Washington where the company hosts happenings such as pie-baking courses ($69) and horseback-riding lessons ($50).

Meanwhile, Vayable, a San Francisco-based company, offers a three-hour cupcake tour of Washington ($25), as well as a “haute couture and lux tour” that comes with champagne, canapes and a chauffeur ($450).

SideTour, which started with a handful of experiences, has expanded to include Chicago and Washington.

Local tours range from test-driving electric Tesla cars in downtown Washington ($55) to learning break dancing in Takoma Park ($25).

Goyal would not disclose financial figures, but he said that revenue tripled between the second and third quarters of this year. Hosts set the price for their tours, which generally range between $25 and $75 in Washington, and pay a 20 percent fee to SideTour.

“We have a team of people whose sole job is to identify the most interesting people in each city,” Goyal said.

Enter “Buffenbarger,” who said she worked at the CIA from 1997 to 2000. (She let a reporter join the tour on the condition her real name not be revealed to avoid problems with her day job.)

During her stint at the agency, she said she coached new recruits on how to change their appearance in case they were being tailed.

“Let’s say I’ve visited a building or a parking garage, and I need to go back in there sooner than normal,” she said. “I have to find a way to look like a different person.”

And then Buffenbarger, who had been dressed in jeans, a baggy pullover and knit cap, demonstrated what she meant.

She sat on a park bench across from the White House and took off her jeans and jacket. It was Saturday afternoon and the park was full of families and joggers, but nobody seemed to notice. In less than a minute, Buffenbarger was dressed in a slinky black dress, costume jewelry and sunglasses. She’d changed in broad daylight.

“The point is,” she said, “you can get away with a lot.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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