Rarely in our industry do we come upon innovative and inspired ideas. Ones based in community, the wellbeing of others, and with efforts to challenge the status quo. But A Tour of Her Own in Washington, DC seems to be doing just that.
A Tour of Her Own (TOHO) works to celebrate and share the stories of women in Washington DC. Not your average walking tour company, TOHO has incorporated a membership service so patrons can commit to attending multiple events throughout the year while supporting the work of the burgeoning company. While they might pose as a tour company, founder Katilin Calogera will challenge this stating that it's about community before disseminating facts about famous female Washingtonians.
Prior to her work in tourism, Kaitlin came from coaching women’s athletics at the university level. She transitioned to Washington DC in 2015 and entered the tourism industry, working as a multiday guide for bus tours along the east coast. Noticing a hole in the market, A Tour of Her Own was launched. Founded in 2018, it was envisioned as a tour company to service the local DC community rather than the 24 million visitors that descend on the city each year. Additionally, effort was made to highlight women’s history throughout the rest of the city, not just the National Mall with its monuments and memorials dedicated to conflict and men.
Success was quickly in hand, beginning with walking tours, the schedule grew. As the inevitable build up for Women’s Month 2020 was underway, covid had other plans for the burgeoning organization. Kaitlin kept the proverbial doors open. She quickly pivoted to virtual offerings and initiated the aforementioned membership model. It worked swimmingly and now the organization boasts members from all around the world. In addition to keeping the doors open, Kaitlin found time to write a women’s history focused guidebook for Washington DC. 111 Places in Women’s History That You Must Not Miss is a work of love, written by Rebecca Grawl and Kaitlin, along with photographs by Cynthia Schiavetto Staliunas.
Currently TOHO offers four events each month, these can vary from traditional walking tours to salon-style conversations. Two of the four events each month are virtual. To learn more about A Tour of Her Own and their mission, visit their website, www.atourofherown.com.
We recently sat down with Kaitlin to discuss TOHO, her journey with the company, and where she sees things going in 2022 and beyond. You can find excerpts from our full conversation below.
indie Travel (IT): Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came into the tourism industry?
Kaitlin Calogera (KC): My name is Kaitlin Calogera, I am a licensed tour guide based in DC and I am the president of A Tour of Her Own (TOHO), which I founded in 2018. I've been a tour guide since 2015 and before that I worked in coaching women's athletics. I didn't take a direct path to where I am today, but I like to consider myself an expert at the intersection section of women's studies, tourism, and all things Washington, DC.
IT: What did you see on the tourism market that prompted you to enter this industry with TOHO?
KC: There was a hole in the market and being a resident of DC, I was learning the city for the first time back in 2015. I have the utmost respect for history at large, but for me there are only so many times you can talk about the presidents and share the stories of war and military. I really wanted to share a softer side of history. I think women stories tend to be more, what I call, soft skills; critical thinking, communication, and peace.
From a personal standpoint, I was in the middle of Washington DC during the women's march in 2017. Over 500,000 women came to Washington and I thought to myself, ‘Wow that is exceptional although they are walking past statues of men.’ There is a lot of history to be learned, we don't know about the suffragists who did the same thing. So it just felt really timely and also the tourism industry needed more women's and diverse stories.
IT: How do you take this from initial concept into full fledged tour operations?
KC: I never intended this to be a business, I took it step by step and let it unfold as it needed to. My first step was to reach out to colleagues because I really wanted to wrap my head around what this could mean and understand the things I might be missing. I had quite a bit of experience because I was hustling in the early years but I still wanted to connect with people who have been doing this longer to see what their thoughts were. So a lot of the people were in it from the ground up and really helped offer perspective as to what this should be.
One of the first things that I knew starting A Tour of Her Own and speaking on behalf of women was that it couldn’t just be my voice. I am not the sole historian for women's history in the city, it felt like other people had to contribute their experiences and their expertise. And so that diversity in voice and experience was important and remains a priority in our operations and so that first year we sort of just started off with one or two events, and suddenly people are asking about private tours and other events.
In March 2020 Women’s History Month was coming and we hit massive momentum. Then of course the pandemic hit and it was hard but we operate from a sustainability point of view. Surviving through the pandemic really solidified how important this work is because somehow we actually grew through the pandemic, I don't know how.
IT: So what has been the rebound like for you? How have the last two years unfolded for you?
KC: We were able to pivot and we actually never did shut down operations, we just made different offerings. We did go virtual, not only because of the risk associated with physical contact, but our audience had been growing due to our social media presence. I noticed that people on the west coast and even in different countries wanted to be involved, so our virtual tours reached a broader audience which is still sustainable after the pandemic.
I took this breath in March of 2020 and began to think about what we can do right now. There was already a little seed of a project that I had been working on but it didn't fully manifest itself until I was faced with this challenge. The biggest project we did was we wrote a book, a city guide book to DC, 111 Places in Women's History That You Must Not Miss. We took tourism from the streets of DC into the pages of this book. It was a challenge but it was really an opportunity to share women's history, and document it with our voice. And now my company is a piece of that women’s history. Coming out of the pandemic we actually have something tangible that is helping us continue to grow. I'm super fortunate for that. I co-authored that book with my colleague Rebecca Grawl and the photographs are by Cynthia Schiavetto Staliunas.
IT: Congratulations for putting all that work in, that's very impressive. 2022, what are you looking forward to in the next 6 months, what does business look like for you?
KC: For the first time we have been able to get a jump on scheduling. We try to offer four programs every month, two virtual and two live. For TOHO now going into our fourth year, I am cautiously growing. At some point you hit this spot where you start to think about how big you can grow, I think that's where I'm at right now. I want to take a little bit of a breath and enjoy all these things. We have virtual tours, live tours, and we are going to bring back a bus trip which we initiated in February of 2020 but was put on hold.
IT: Tell me a little bit more about the membership model. What a cool concept to be able to access all this information, and to be committed to a larger community rather than just a small, one-off tour group.
KC: I want to paint the bigger picture around it and put it in perspective because the roots and foundation are important. When I started TOHO I was focusing on being a hyper-local business, so everything I did was very DC forward. I wanted to have a core audience in DC before I really started reaching out to tourists. I always felt that if I promoted too much to people coming into the city for two or three days I would be competing with a National Mall tour or Arlington National Cemetery, and that's hard to do, much of my focus from the beginning has been about local people who truly understand this work and want it to grow.
So the membership comes from essentially those people saying “We want to help you during the pandemic, what can we do, we want to make sure that your work continues.” Our membership model offers various levels of commitment for discounts, special access, and other benefits.
Showing up on a tour isn't always easy for people, particularly when we are talking about women. A lot of people wanted to be a part of the community and this was a way for them to make a commitment to us and then for us to make a commitment back, and I feel really good about that.
IT: Who are you customers now, today, in March of 2022?
KC: It’s broad, I will acknowledge that we have a diverse audience and I often see people sometimes from the outside say, “A Tour of Her Own: for women by women,” but that’s not really true. We are for everybody and we are by everybody.
IT: We talked about the next six months, so tell me about the next 5 to 10 years, what do you see this growing into?
KC: Part of what I do is really let it unfold as it will. To go back to my origins, this can't just be my voice, I do tend to be the face of it but I want other tour guides to be able to deliver this information with confidence. I see training and workshops and that might be partnering with existing organizations in tourism. Due to my background in coaching, I love teaching and I love guiding and advising and helping people move in a direction that is fulfilling in their careers so that will certainly be a piece of it.
I would also love to do road trips where we are together for an extended period of time. I love that stuff because you really truly get to know your guests on tour and it becomes we are learning about ourselves and each other, and we can really dive deep into women's history. Maybe there is a TOHO global and we are all over the world; who knows but we will see.
IT: On a personal note, what is the crossover between coaching and guiding, what are those transferable skills.
KC: I think at the end of the day so many human beings are looking for belonging. When you're in a team environment, you belong, you are wearing a uniform, you're showing up together, you're working towards a common goal. I think when you talk from a tourism perspective, as a tour guide, when you hear stories about history, when you can piece it together, it's about belonging, you can understand your place in the world, you can help get some clarity about things that felt far away but all of a sudden they feel closer and feel more approachable.
Tourism is internal and external, things are so big, you have monuments and memorials and museums. But at the end of a tour it can be really personal. I always encourage people when they leave their tour to go home and you interview your grandmother, record her story and now that's women's history.