When it comes to tour companies, we feel that San Francisco attracts the best, brightest and most creative. This week we checked in with Wild Wes, co-founder of our friends on foot, Wild SF Walking Tours.
How did the idea to start Wild SF first come to you and your co-founder?
After meeting in the dorms at SF State, J. Jo and I studied abroad simultaneously–he to Querétaro, Mexico, and I to Madrid, Spain. It was a formative year spent backpacking, hitchhiking and exploring our respective locales, with all our side-trips giving us a major case of the travel bug.
Back in San Francisco, we decided to launch Wild SF Tours to fill a niche of leading funky, alternative walking tours with an emphasis on sharing the people’s history in a fun way.
What went into getting the company off the ground?
The most challenging and rewarding part was researching, which involved hours spent at the San Francisco History Center at the main library, poring over old documents and books to dig up interesting facts and tidbits. We’re lucky to have such an organized location, brimming with ephemera, city records and photographs.
Then comes routing the tour, which is a creative process of plotting all the great material onto a map, then working backward to create a logical storyline that weaves in as much history and sites as you can, in a route that makes sense (and avoids major hills!).
Of course there’s the boring stuff too, permits and licenses, then marketing and getting the word out. We’ve been very lucky to get awesome travelers who really jive with our style, and are excited to spread the word to their friends and family coming to visit San Francisco.
What is your favorite part about being a tour guide?
Every tour is fresh, new, and has a totally distinct vibe. The unknown appeals to me, and there’s a rush at the beginning of each tour, where you think, “What’s about to happen?”
Some groups are ready to laugh and have a great time, and sometimes you have to warm them up, but by the end, we’ve created a sort of family with everyone on the tour. It’s not uncommon to end our tours in hugs and exchanging emails! In fact, I just spent a month in Europe, and got to visit lots of friends I’ve made from the tours.
Do you have a favorite tour to give or story to tell?
After giving a bunch of our neighborhood tours, which are really thoughtful and measured, I like mixing it up and leading our Haunted SF night tour. Leading a creepy, dark tour into the Tenderloin is a chance to really ham it up with theatrics, channeling my inner Hitchcock. I’ll usually wear a dark suit and fedora and try to scare everyone. But then we end at a bar, so they’re okay with it.
What’s the craziest thing that’s happened while you were giving a tour?
Once in Chinatown, a knife-wielding crazy popped out of nowhere and swung his blade toward my group, threatening us all. I quickly got us away from him and led the group to an alley nearby to check in. We were all shaken up, but by the end of the tour we were joking about it, and it ended up being an awesome bonding experience!
What is your favorite place to show people in San Francisco?
There’s an underground tunnel segment below an arts supply store, purported to be part of the old “Shanghai tunnel” network from the Barbary Coast days. It’s awesome to descend into it and share the true stories of crimping, and of our most notorious barkeep, Shanghai Kelly.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Say hi to us on the streets! We’re usually dressed in bow ties, dapper hats, and may even be toting a ukulele.