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MSP Tours lets air travelers see Minneapolis in a whole new way

Air travel, 2011: Compared to the indignities of the security check, ever-shrinking seats, and overhead-baggage-bin battles, the airport layover is a relatively benign discomfort. You can usually snuggle in a seat, get a meal, shop in the retail-rich precincts of the passengers-only area. But you are, in a sense, trapped. Trapped in a sort of shopping-mall-cum-police-state, often in a city you don't know. If you've got hours to go before your next flight or an overnight to deal with, you are likely to feel the urge to break out. But how, and where?
Chieko Karlsen has an answer. Working in her father Shiro (Don) Katagiri's tour company, Kiku Enterprises, meeting Japanese visitors to the Twin Cities, she often heard complaints about the boredom of long waits for domestic connections to places like Orlando and Las Vegas. So last year she decided to create a tour company specifically designed to solve the layover problem, celebrate Minneapolis, and boost our transit system too--by borrowing an idea from art museums: the self-guided audio tour. Only it would be a tour of the city, via light rail.
A Different Kind of Tour
MSP Tours, officially launched just two weeks ago, lets visitors with time on their hands rent an Orpheo audio set with earphones. They also get a city map with attractions and station locations labeled with numbers; punch the number on the Orpheo and you get the appropriate audio description. For transportation, a Go-To Card from Metro Transit, and a small handful of coupons for deals at businesses along the light-rail route, from a free admission to Sea Life at the Mall of America to a buy-one-get-one-free burger offer at the Cardinal Bar in south Minneapolis and a free 24-hour subscription to Nice Ride MN, our bikeshare scheme.
If the rail-riding, pub grub, and biking that's on offer make MSP Tours sound a bit more down-to-earth than the average city tour, well, that's deliberate. Karlsen is determined to show off the Twin Cities in grassroots style—to help visitors feel as much like locals as possible.
Filling, Not Killing, Time
"It was just a year ago that I got the idea," Karlsen recalls.  "Japanese tourist groups come over in October and make connections at MSP for Toronto, where they go on fall color tours. They get in here at one in the afternoon and their Toronto flight doesn't leave until nine at night! I wondered if I could give the general public something to do and enjoy on layovers like that. So I started brainstorming with my husband."
The idea of leading live tours via bus was a non-starter, because every tour group, and every individual, has a different schedule. The light rail would work as transportation, Karlsen thought, since she had had good luck sending some of her Japanese customers to the Mall of America on the line; they found it easy to use and always got back in time for their flights. ("And I live near the light rail and love it," adds Karlsen.) But how to guide them?
"We thought, wouldn't it be great if I could somehow talk to them all through headsets? And our next thought was, why not a self-guided audio tour?" She consulted with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and with audio tour companies around the country. "Nobody had heard of anything like what I was planning," she says.
Personality Plus
"From my audio-tour research I also learned a lot about how to make the audio effective," she says. "Don't make it too long, or people will lose interest. Give the tour real personality; use different voices."
Karlsen reached out to friends and family to execute the plan and add that all-important personality element. Her sister-in-law, Molly Katagiri, is a partner at Shutterbird Media, a local production company that came on board to create the audio. Katagiri wrote the scripts with Karlsen and directed the performers. Karlsen asked her friend Courtney McLean, a comedian, musician, and solo performer, to host a talk-show-style "Tour Talk" segment designed to give visitors an insider's sense of the city by inviting three locals to share their opinions.
Molly Katagiri had heard the bright, poppy tune "Light Rail" by rising local singer-songwriter Jeremy Messersmith, and thought it would be a perfect theme song for the tour. Contacted through his PR people, Messersmith also agreed to an audio interview with McLean in which he'd add his sense of the Cities.
Encouraged by another friend, Molly Priesmeyer of the Good Work Group marketing and PR firm, Karlsen wrote a letter to Minneapolis mayor R. T. Rybak, who agreed to add a welcome message to the introductory audio segment. She also started compiling information on the sites and sights the tour would cover, conferring with Meet Minneapolis, the city's convention and visitors' bureau [and a sponsor of The Line], and Metro Transit. And she contacted businesses along the light rail route to advertise on the tour map and offer coupons. With a kiosk on the airport's ticketing level, she was ready to go.
Taking MSP Tours for a Spin
On the company's very first day of operation, two Saturdays ago, photographer Bill Kelley and I met Chieko and Don at the airport, then took off for a three-hour jaunt into the city. It was a beautiful day, and as the light rail whisked us to our first stop, the oldest Minneapolis tourist destination of them all, Minnehaha Falls, we listened to the "Tour Talk" segment.
A cheery Courtney McLean introduces Dennis, Onika, and Kate, the three locals, and they strike the diversity note right away, talking up the range of food, cultures, and peoples that Minneapolis can boast. "I'm a transplant from California, and lived in New York a few years before I moved here," says Courtney, "and I feel that some people on the coasts might think that the middle of America is not very diverse, but we do have a really diverse population here."
Dennis extols our parks and says that he likes to two-wheel from park to park on bike trails. Onika talks about the joys of river tubing. The Twin Cities Marathon, the Holidazzle parade, and the skyway system get props as the conversation continues; no big revelations or offbeat preferences here, but it's pleasant to hear Minneapolis introduced by real people. And amid all the Minneapolis-ism, Courtney takes a moment to speak up for some Saint Paul neighborhoods she enjoys too, as well as the State Fair.

Discoveries at the Falls and Downtown

Bill and I jumped off the train at 50th Street for Minnehaha Park, and here the succinct audio description pointed out the John H. Stevens house, a small 19th-century gem of a pioneer dwelling that I had never seen before, and the Princess Depot, a tiny antique train station I had never even heard of (railway sound effects accompanied the audio mention). We made our way to the falls, dodging a couple of wedding parties to—what else?—take a photo.
The pleasant female voice on the audio invited us to "linger and explore," but we hastened back on to the rails and into downtown, to the Government Plaza station. Here too I learned things that the editor of a Twin Cities online publication probably should have known already: that there's a glass-topped  tunnel between City Hall and the Hennepin County Government Center, and that it's the custom to rub the toe of City Hall's giant Father of Waters statue for luck.

"Paris of the Midwest"
Bill and I listened to the rest of the "Tour Talk" audio--"Light Rail," which has to be the most effortless-sounding and infectious song ever written about urban transit, and McLean's interview with Jeremy Messersmith. The singer dubs the Twin Cities the "Paris of the Midwest," and claims that it combines the elements of Portland, San Francisco, and Austin, Texas, that he likes the best—scoring a bullseye in the boosterism department.
Our last stop before heading back to the airport was the theater district along Hennepin, and the audio here was up-to-date, inviting listeners to check out the just-opened Cowles Center for Dance.
Three stops took three hours, with travel to and from, and that made us realize that MSP Tour-ists need to be selective in what they head out to see. Karlsen helps here; she's very happy to talk with customers about their interests, to make recommendations, and otherwise tailor their audio-augmented trips before they depart.
Still, the format allows for wandering and following your nose, something that's anathema on a bus tour. And if most of the destinations mentioned in the script are pretty familiar to locals, the descriptions of them are well-crafted, and there's a seasoning of the lesser-known fact and attraction too. Where else is a Japanese or Belgian or Polish visitor going to find out about the three-dollar movies at the Riverview or the burgers at the Cardinal Bar?

Different Strokes for Different Folks
A few days after our trip, I checked back in with Karlsen to see how the new venture was doing, and she told me some customer anecdotes. "A young Spanish woman traveling from Paris to Canada had a nine-hour layover, and it was a beautiful day. She went to see the Mississippi riverfront, checked out the theaters downtown, ate at Rosa Mexicano, and did some work on her laptop.

"A Taiwanese family went to see the Mississippi too—the river is a big draw for foreign travelers. And there was a bunch of Londoners who only had two hours; they went to the Guthrie, had coffee on the observation deck and came right back, saying they had had a wonderful time."
Karlsen also  told me that she has begun to expand the business in response to customer requests. She heard from a couple who were staying in a local hotel for a few days and wanted to rent the tour for the whole time; another couple visiting the U of M asked that the audio package be delivered to their hotel; when they were done, they left it at the hotel's front desk.
"And I'd be very happy to rent the tour to any locals who wanted it too," says Karlsen. "All they would have to do is call, and we'd arrange a spot to meet and where they could return the unit. How about the Cardinal Bar?"

Jon Spayde is Managing Editor of The Line.

Photos, top to bottom:

Jon Spayde, Don Katagiri, and Chieko Karlsen plan Jon and Bill's trip.

"We're thinking of making about three stops..."

Jon listens to Jeremy Messersmith's "Light Rail" as the train pulls in.

A visit to the falls, audio-augmented

Chatting with a volunteer greeter at the State Theater on the last stop of the trip

All photos by Bill Kelley

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