Jeanette Pierce’s passion is showing people what Detroit has to offer by providing tours that paint a picture of the city today and yesterday.
Since founding the Detroit Experience Factory in 2006, 130,000 people have taken her tours that emphasize small business and the history of the city.
This year, however, things were different.
As she was preparing for the weather to warm up and jump full speed into the tour again, COVID-19 hit. In what has become a painfully common story, Pierce was forced to shut down her regular business and adapt to the times.
The answer, like so many these days, was ZOOM. Tours, that still provide an inside look into the neighborhoods, landmarks and businesses that make up Detroit’s past and present, are now taken virtually. It’s a solution Pierce found better in some ways.
“It’s actually been awesome,” she says.
First, she had to compensate for not being able to point out the historically important areas in the city. The answer was simple enough – Google maps. The website’s street view allowed participants to get a look at exactly what is being described during the tour.
Clearly, it’s not the same as an in-person experience, but Pierce took advantage of the new reality. No matter how well-described, or what examples are given, a speech can’t send people back in time. So, she had to find a new, engaging way to bring in the clients.
After spending a lot of time researching, she found other new media she could employ. With the help of resources like the Detroit Historical Society, she discovered images from the very times she shared on the tour.
Now people could see how things were, and how they have changed.
One unexpected consequence of going virtual was she started to see a wider audience. Traditionally, the tour goers are people from the Detroit area. While that is still the majority, Pierce started to see some interesting new locations from her patrons.
Suddenly, people from other states were taking the tours. Even people from as far away as Germany were signing up to learn more about Detroit, its history and its future.
The tours have been so successful that Pierce may continue the operation, even after things return to normal.
Successful as the new ZOOM format has been things are opening up, and the regular tours have started to resume. The groups social distance to six feet apart and use a cell phone to get the information. Those taking part use their phones for a conference call.
Of course, resumed or not, there are still notable problems caused by the virus. One of the major points of interest for the tours was pointing out small businesses.
“All small business in Detroit need help right now,” says Pierce, “(but) black owned ones need a little bit more.”
Before the pandemic, the tours would hear the story of these small shops and be able to experience them firsthand. Now, owners and patrons are uncomfortable with too many people in an enclosed area.
This is a personal setback for Pierce. One of her biggest passions in the tour is helping small businesses, especially black-owned ones. Even the best orators would struggle to fully capture the experience of eating handcrafted food while chatting with the chef.
There are plans in the works to get around this setback. One may be for the businesses that make food to provide samples for the tour.
COVID-19 did not end these tour experiences in Detroit, it just altered them and ultimately gave Pierce a way to chronicle and show off the city to more people, virtually. And, that’s a good thing.
To sign up for an in-person or virtual tour, please click here.