Some LA Tours Are Full Of Lies. These Guides Want To Set A New Standard

Tour company Dot Red guides visitors through an art museum in Los Angeles. (Courtesy Dot Red Art Tours via Lynn Garrett)

Los Angeles is a vast sprawl rich in culture, food, people, oddball experiences — and tourism. In 2018, the city welcomed a record 50 million visitors, according to L.A.'s tourism board, which announced the news last month with help from a Kobe Bryant hologram.

While our beaches, theme parks, sporting venues and celebrity-infused neighborhoods draw millions of visitors each year, L.A. has been missing something: an official network of tour guides with a unified mission.

That's why Lynn Garrett, the founder of locally loved Hidden Los Angeles, joined forces with her fellow guides to form the Los Angeles Tour Guide Association. The group became official earlier this month.

Garrett, who serves as president of the new organization, started Hidden L.A. as a blog in 2009, guided by the belief that "everyone has a right to be proud of where they're from."

She has another L.A.-centric mantra: "If you're bored here, it's your own fault."

The fifth-generation Angeleno has been leading tours of the city for more than a decade and said she was stunned to find out Los Angeles was one of the few major U.S. cities without an official tour guide association. Garrett started doing some research and was inspired by Philadelphia, where guides united to create a new standard for how tour guides operate in that city.

"Our goal is to create a more community-minded, safe, reputable and exploration-friendly atmosphere for residents, visitors and tour guides alike, so that everyone feels encouraged to fall in love with Los Angeles just like we did," she said.

L.A. Guides aims to build a network of local guides to collaborate, stay informed on changes to city codes and provide resources like insurance, Garrett explained. The group also hopes to counter the stigma of disruptive tour guide companies, which has led to a crackdown on tour buses, particularly in Hollywood and Beverly Hills.

"(We want to) make it so that people aren't demonizing tour guides," she said. "They love the city with all their heart and they love showing it to people."

All it takes is the right business license and a fleet of vehicles to start ferrying tourists through L.A. The lack of regulations or standards for how tours are conducted has led to ethical and safety concerns, especially for popular celebrity home tours.

In 2016, NBC4's investigative unit went undercover on 20 different Hollywood bus tours, finding operators that charged tourists up to $50 each before "delivering two hours of incorrect information," which in some cases led to obsessive fans trespassing at homes where they were falsely told a celebrity lived.

A lack of industry-based regulations or standards for how local tour bus guides operate and what they tell their customers has led to ethical and safety concerns. (Photo by strph via Flickr)

That's a problem Garrett said she's experienced firsthand on more than one tour, with guides giving out information that was "80 percent made up."

"They will say they're giving the Hollywood dream to people," Garrett said. "But I don't think anyone's dream is being lied to for three hours."

Scott Michaels, who owns and operates Dearly Departed Tours and Artifact Museum in Hollywood, also told LAist that some companies aren't giving customers truth-based tours — and he used to work for one.

Michaels said drivers, many with no training in local history, were spreading hearsay to paying customers. That's one reason he left to start his own tour company.

"It was so awful," he said. "There's no reason there needs to be misinformation."

Michaels, a local history buff, describes his Dearly Departed Tours as "a light-hearted look at the dark side of Hollywood," offering detailed, fact-based dives into local lore, including the Manson murders, James Dean's fateful road trip and the '60s-era music scene on Sunset Boulevard.

Scott Michaels founded Dearly Departed Tours after spending a few years working for a popular Hollywood tour bus company, where he said some guides spread misinformation with no accountability. (Courtesy Dearly Departed Tours)

Michaels said he joined L.A. Guides because he's encouraged by their mission to connect fellow guides and companies in a competition-free space.

"I like the fact that this organization will actually give us a voice," he said. "It seems like every other city has something like this and it's about time Los Angeles did. It is giving a standard that there has not been before for sightseeing."

Right now, L.A. Guides' roughly 20 members include guides, tour operators and historians such as Atlas Obscura, Dot Red Art Tours, LA Woman Tours and Red Line Tours. The association has a code of ethics that members agree to follow, including that every guide "ensures all information presented is factual, and makes a clear distinction between what is true and what are stories, legends and opinion."

Garrett noted that all tour guides and companies are welcome to join, so long as they agree to follow the group's ethical standards.

Elsewhere in the U.S., some local governments' attempts at regulation have sparked legal battles on First Amendment grounds. That's a headache L.A. Guides wants to avoid, Garrett said, explaining that the association does not advocate for government regulation as a requirement to do business as a tour guide in L.A.

The group does want to create education programs and certification at the organizational level. In Philadelphia for instance, certified guides wear a lantern pin to show their affiliation, adding a layer of trust and legitimacy for tourists.

While L.A. Guides is acting independently of local government, Garrett said she hopes they'll be recognized and have a good working relationship with the city.

L.A. does have a tourism marketing organization, the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, but its way of measuring success is based on getting visitors "to fill our hotel rooms," according to a statement from the board provided to LAist.

The nonprofit's board of directors is a who's who of hotel executives and big developers, plus large retail, theme park and museum directors, which helps clarify their goals: increasing the number of visitors and the resulting revenue for hotels, restaurants and big entertainment hubs — and for the city via an occupancy tax.

L.A. Guides claims that what's been missing is a focus on the quality of tourists' visits and they want to fill that need — especially with the Olympics coming to town in 2028.

As the association gains traction and membership, Garrett said she hopes more tourists will realize there's more to L.A. than the beach, Hollywood Boulevard, celebrity bus tours and theme parks.

The L.A. Cycle Taco Tour is a nine-mile bicycle ride through Boyle Heights that comes with a side of local history. (Lori Galarreta/LAist)

It's the community of passionate, knowledgeable local guides who give a variety of vehicle, bike or walking tours on local art, food, culture, hidden history and more that L.A. Guides seeks to support and cultivate, she said. And as Metro expands its transit system, there will be opportunities for more walking tours and exploring neighborhoods that don't have a brochure at the big hotels.

But with that hope for tourists to be informed and encouraged to discover and celebrate L.A.'s diversity, gentrification and intrusion also have to be considered. Garrett said tourists and guides have a responsibility to explore often-marginalized communities with respect, instead of "treating people's neighborhoods as a freakshow or a theme park."

"You can travel to any other country in the world without leaving L.A. (and) good tourism is supposed to connect you," she said. "There's a lot of people thinking in extremes and assuming the worst, (but) I think there are ways to be respectful while sharing culture and sharing our city."