Unveiled in July 2013, the Logan Circle Heritage Trail guides visitors to notable sites in the neighborhood (and a bit of adjacent Dupont Circle). Each location is marked by a signboard that contains text, pictures and maps. But beginning last month, tourists could use a new app to walk the trail the way many locals stroll through the area: while staring at their phones.
The $12 smartphone-based tour is a collaboration between Stray Boots, a New York company founded in 2009, and the 18-year-old Cultural Tourism DC, a nonprofit group that organizes the city’s heritage trail signs.
“We started that program 12 years ago,” said Steven E. Shulman, the group’s executive director. Then, reading historical markers “was one way that people learned. Now most of us carry smartphones or tablets and things of that nature. The way that we learn, and maneuver city streets, is different.”
Stray Boots already offered several tours of Washington, one of 28 cities in four countries covered by the company’s phone tours. But the Logan Circle itinerary was the first with Cultural Tourism DC, and one of the first the company did in association with a local heritage group anywhere.
“They’d been thinking about how to make the tours more accessible to a new, digitally savvy generation, and how to make them more appealing as a whole,” Stray Boots chief executive Avi Millman said of the company’s new partner. “We decided that Logan Circle would be a great place to start.
“The Cultural Tourism guys have so much amazing content that we thought, if we could partner up, we’d be able to make really rich tours using a lot of the stuff we already have.”
Introduced barely a month ago, the Logan expedition is already more popular than the company’s Georgetown, Penn Quarter/Chinatown and Washington Museums tours. Millman attributes that success in part to “the cred” of Cultural Tourism DC, whose role is advertised on the Stray Boots Web site.
It’s not just smartphone technology — and the price tag — that distinguishes a Stray Boots tour from a low-tech one. The company’s guides are designed as scavenger hunts, in which players search for information. “At every location you’re asked to, as we call it, complete a challenge, which really means to answer a question, or take a photo,” Millman said.
“When you answer it correctly, then you get information about where you are and what you’re looking at. What used to be here, the history of the neighborhood, the cultural significance. It’s a little more interactive, a little more engaging.”
To triumph on the hunt, participants must glean information from some of Cultural Tourism DC’s signboards, but there are also other sources. Answering a question about the Jewish Community Center of Washington, for example, requires players to look at the building’s cornerstone.
The games are good for adults, Millman said, but have been received with special enthusiasm by parents. “It’s a great way to get kids off the couch and actually learning something,” he said. “Say a mom takes her son on one of these trails, and when they get home, the son’s just telling dad about all of this stuff and doesn’t realize he was learning the entire time.”
The app also provides opportunities to take a break from education: It lists nearby shops, restaurants and bars.
In the next year, Cultural Tourism DC plans to introduce trails in LeDroit Park/Bloomingdale and Anacostia. Those may be the last in the series. “The money’s dried up for it,” Shulman said of the program, which used federal money dispensed through the city’s transportation department.
Funding is another reason the group is interested in cooperating with companies such as Stray Boots, Shulman said. “One of the things that’s hard about working in the District of Columbia is that, led by the Smithsonian, everything is free. So when we do things, it’s hard to charge a participation fee. If we do, it has to be very nominal. Then we have to look to other sources.”
The smartphone scavenger hunt could be one of those sources, he said. “If this generates sufficient revenue for them and for us to make something that is beneficial commercially as well as to the community and the visitors, then we’ve got another 15 [tours] we can talk about.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.