July 19, 2009

Tours Get High-Tech Approach

Allyson Bird  /  Post and Courier

Two former band mates, one techie and one tour guide, took a decade-old stroke of happy-hour brilliance and turned it into an Internet innovation and now a brick-and-mortar business in a prime downtown location. Last year, Chris Metts and Tommy Dew introduced Charleston City Slicker, a walking tour for the Apple iPhone that delivers photos, text and high-definition videos at hand.

That means no stupid questions or set hours and as many detours as the visitor desires. "This is how touring is going to be done in the future," said Metts, the techie half of the two-man team. He and Dew opened a City Slicker store last week just off the City Market on Church Street, thanks in part to a slow economy that made the real estate that much more attainable.

They call it the first physical store designed to promote and distribute an iPhone application. The 1,200-square-foot space, still a work in progress toward a 1920s Gothic industrial look, includes red couches and black flat-screen televisions, plus a theater of white chairs. Metts and Dew intend to show their tour, which runs an hour without pausing to walk between sights, on a projector for those guests who don't want to make the trek.

Apple recognized City Slicker as the first self-guided walking tour for the iPhone and doled out its invaluable kudos early on. Through that attention, Metts and Dew connected people around the world, including a small group that became their 10-person team. City Slicker offers tours of Paris,London, Rome and Charleston but within months could cover 50 European cities. "Some of the largest companies in the world are sniffing around our software right now," Dew said.

With discussions ongoing, he declined to elaborate. The application works like this: A customer, likely a tech-savvy person who heard about the application through social media, downloads it for $9.99 (It's only 99 cents right now because the men hope to capitalize on volume from Apple's recent plug). From there, the customer can tune in with earbuds or play the tour on a speaker and walk around town while letting Dew, who owns On the Market Tours, do all the work –- virtually.

The iPhone recognizes the user's physical location and configures the tour accordingly. Because only a small percentage of tourists own iPhones, City Slicker has an arsenal of 15 of the sleek devices ready to rent in four-hour increments for $20 plus a security deposit. Metts and Dew call the store the second phase of their business model.

First came the tour, and next they plan to expand the application. The men played in four bands together and expect to launch their newest group, Fertile Dirt, as the world's first "app band." That means interactive music available with a click. "Both of us, in our heart of hearts, we'd like to be rock stars more than anything," Dew said. But instead of chasing that dream, they intend to provide the portal for other musicians.

Charleston just happens to be home for Metts and Dew, but they contend that there's no better place for their business, given the ratio of tourists per square mile downtown, and that nearly each of those tourists will venture to the City Market near their shop. "We're going for the world, but at the end of the day, we just want this," Metts said. "Charleston is enough."