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PRESS RELEASE: 100 Days, 100 Virtual Tours: How a Small NYC Tour Company Keeps Going During the Pandemic

On Wednesday, June 17, Turnstile Tours will broadcast their 100th “virtual tour” since the New York City lockdown began, a trivia night looking back at the highlights of the last three months.

The small Brooklyn-based tour company – which develops and operates tours in partnership with the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, NYCEDC, Street Vendor Project, Prospect Park Alliance, and Brooklyn Historical Society – had to cancel thousands of tour reservations in the face of the pandemic, with no clear idea when, or if, they would be able to go back to work. 

“Realizing the gravity of the situation, we decided to make the transition to online programs, to do it quickly, and to do it every day,” said Turnstile Tours president and founder Cindy VandenBosch. “We wanted to do something that would build community in this isolated time while highlighting our strengths – good storytelling, rigorous research, and our strong partnerships with museums, small businesses, manufacturers, and artists.”

Turnstile Tours Online launched on Thursday, March 19; the first program: “Inventions of the Brooklyn Navy Yard,” a one-hour show featuring stories about anesthetic, aircraft carriers, and a live demonstration of a Steinke Hood, a rescue device from the 1950’s used to escape a sinking submarine. Since then, they have hosted a 45–60 minute program on Zoom nearly every day, with a second show on most weekends.

Daily topics have varied widely, but are rooted in the mission of the company and the themes of their in-person tours – food systems, making and manufacturing, the working waterfront, and urban ecology. One day they’ve talked to a street vendor about his story and falafel recipe, while the next they’ve explored the history of concrete in the urban landscape, and the next viewers learn skills like knot-tying or drawing techniques. Some programs have broadcasted live to public markets to check in with small food vendors or to studios and factories to learn from artisans and manufacturers about their work. Sometimes they’ve had a guest – like Prospect Park Alliance’s forest ecologist or author Jennifer Egan, who came on to talk about her book Manhattan Beach and the Brooklyn Navy Yard – while other times their expert guides delve deep into topics of personal interest, such as public speaking skills, iconic foods of New York City, and, for one of their staff members, what it was like growing up in Wuhan.

“Sometimes it feels like we’re programming a daily talk show,” said Turnstile Tour vice president Andrew Gustafson. “It’s been a lot of work to develop a one-hour program everyday and line up all of these guests, but we see this as an opportunity to bring people on and share stories we wouldn’t be able to on our usual guided tours.”

The Turnstile Tours team is just seven people. VandenBosch and Gustafson are the only ones that see each other in person – they are a married couple, living in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn – while the rest of the staff work from their respective homes in Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, and New Jersey, a few with toddlers. Everyone is responsible for generating and delivering program ideas and booking guests, but they rotate through the daily jobs of hosting, producing, and live closed captioning the Zoom sessions (probably the most challenging task).

Participants can join a live Zoom session for $5, or a monthly membership ranges from $5 to $20 to get access to live and recorded programs. More than one-quarter of the programs have been offered for no charge, streamed to Facebook Live; often these have a strong public interest, such as a discussion about PPE manufacturing with the Pratt Center for Community Development, interviews with essential workers at the city’s public markets, and a roundtable with disability advocates on accessible online programming.

Now that they have cracked the century mark, Turnstile plans to keep going, though at a slightly slower pace. They will continue to offer 3–4 virtual programs per week, if subscriptions continue to support that rate of output. 

“We are drawing an audience of viewers from other cities and countries and we have a dedicated group of people who tune in every single morning,” said VandenBosch. “We are all trying to find new ways to connect and share stories and people’s talents, and we’re thankful we have been able to give that to our customers, our staff, and our guests.”

Upcoming and Past Virtual Programs

Contact: Cindy VandenBosch and Andrew Gustafson, info (at) turnstiletours.com // 347-903-8687