Originally from the North East of England, 20 year veteran of the tourist industry Mike Norton arrived in Shanghai in 2009 with the first double-decker tour buses in China. Ever the innovator, he has just launched GPS Walks, and is all set to revolutionize the Shanghai walking tour scene…doing away with flag-wielding, sidewalk-hogging tour groups for good.
Tell us about your double-decker bus background?
I started in London as a tour guide doing tours on the double-decker buses. One thing led to another, and when the company I worked for started expanding to different places around the world, I became part of the team that set up and developed the new operations.
I was working in Hong Kong when the opportunity arose to start tours in Shanghai, and in 2010, we brought the first double decker tour buses to China in time for the World Expo. Since then, I’ve been involved in other tourism infrastructure projects in China and in Vietnam.
How did GPS Walks come about?
The pandemic has been really tough for the tourist industry, but it’s also given people time to reevaluate and innovate. I started to think about different ways tours could work in this slightly altered landscape.
When you join a walking tour, you normally join a group which assembles at specific times, maybe only once or twice a month. It moves slowly too, because everybody has to gather around a guide when they have something to say. If you stop to take a picture, you need to catch up; if someone else stops, everyone needs to wait.
What I wanted to do was create an experience for people to be able to explore the city on their own terms, without the need for tour guides or to be a part of large groups.
Shanghai has a great history and so many historic buildings, but sometimes the interesting stories behind those places, and some of the great characters that made Shanghai their home, aren’t told. There’s often something really interesting hidden down a lane that we walk past every day, but we had no idea it existed.
I created these GPS Walking Tours to give people a chance to explore the city and find a few things that perhaps might surprise them.
How does it work?
It works through a WeChat mini-program, which uses your location to play commentary automatically so that, while you walk, you can listen and focus on your surroundings.
You can start our walks at any time and stop whenever and wherever you like, for as long as you like. You don’t even need to hit pause; when you start moving again, then playback will continue.
You can follow your progress on the map, but the commentary also gives you directions, so you don’t need to be glued to your screen.
What can people expect from a tour?
We have three tours online now, each one lasting around one-and-a-half hours. On each tour, we have some well known and famous places, and great photo opportunities, but also some hidden gems tucked away for people to discover.
The aim is to pick out the stories that bring a bit of Old Shanghai to life, and go a little bit deeper than the dry statistics there might be on the plaque on the outside of the building.
How do you pick your routes?
Obviously the key is to find the right buildings with the right stories and then put them together with a narrative. I want to have a mix of places – famous and lesser known – and some surprises where you walk through a gateway and go ‘Wow, I never knew that was here!’
I’ve done a lot of exploring in recent times, which has been great.
We heard you also tailor make tour routes for clients?
We do. We work with 5-star hotels and corporate clients to create bespoke routes. We can start the tour from your front door and create custom branded tours that can be used to enhance guest experience or reward loyalty club members.
Any more tour routes lined up?
Yes. We’re starting with three, but have more in the planning stages, and we’ll be doing some special seasonal tours each year.
Scan the QR for the GPS Walks WeChat mini-program:
[All images courtesy of GPS Walks]