Get to Know Los Angeles Tour Guide Neel Sodha

In college, Neel Sodha traveled to London for an accounting internship, where he discovered an interest in urban development. Back in L.A., he took it upon himself to learn more about the city. “I started spending my leisure time participating in online message boards, researching more about L.A. and attending civic events,” he says. “I saw change was happening in downtown L.A. and I wanted to know more about it each day.” Now, as founder of Downtown LA Walking Tours, he spends his days sharing his passion with tourists and locals alike as a Los Angeles tour guide.
Why did you decide to create Downtown LA Walking Tours?

I volunteered on Sunday afternoons at an information booth within L.A. Union Station in 2008 and 2009. Once there, I would be approached by people who were interested in walking around to local monuments in downtown Los Angeles. There were limited or members-only walking tour groups prior to that, but nothing marketed toward tourists. So I created Downtown LA Walking Tours in 2009.

What types of tourists do you cater to?

A lot of people, worldwide and local, are interested in discovering downtown Los Angeles. Currently, the company gets 80 per cent locals on our tours, because there is a lot of press about the gentrifying change in our downtown community and many locals are eager to understand why that is happening. For tourists, many seem more interested in walking tours as they are used to this type of tour in many cities worldwide.

What is your favourite walking tour, and why?

I really enjoy highlighting the Old & New Downtown L.A. tour at 2 p.m. L.A. was a city founded on wealth, and grew largely due to entertainment. However, as Hollywood left and (through) post-World War II suburbanization, the City of Los Angeles was becoming abandoned. … Through new policies and culture shifts, there has been a change in downtown Los Angeles since 2000 with market-rate residents moving into the neighbourhood. I tell the story of why that change is happening, and each guest can see it happening in front of their eyes during the tour. Sometimes, guests have told me they saw the same change in their hometown, and now they understand how and why places transform.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I spend a couple of hours in the morning going through e-mails and doing marketing outreach. Up to three tours daily can happen at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., so I’m walking five miles a day. In the evening, I take a break and then do some bookkeeping, check out the daily website analytics reports, think of new marketing approaches and work on administrative projects for the company. If I get any free time, then I’ll fit in some games of racquetball or a nice evening bike ride through L.A.

Do you have a certain style of guiding?

I love to tell people a story on the tour. I also like to point out a lot of current facts, because there is only so much history you can retain. But if you can relate to something in your hometown that is happening in downtown L.A., I will try my best to make the connection. And, since Los Angeles is the most filmed city in the world, it’s great to highlight significant filming scenes so people feel they are now “on set.”

What’s the best part of your job?

Meeting people. I’ve met people on my tours who’ve lived half a block away and thousands of miles away. Either the person is a local or a tourist. I love to hear their stories, too, as we walk together in downtown Los Angeles.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

I wouldn’t say it’s the hardest, but marketing has to be on my mind 24×7. Without effective marketing, my company would be nowhere. So I’m always thinking about the next marketing steps. … This is the most challenging part of the job. When you deal with a tour company, you need to find new customers on a daily basis.

What’s the most bizarre experience you’ve had on a guided tour?

An interested guest sent me an e-mail once asking if shoes were required for the tour. I replied back letting him know that sandals were okay. However, he replied back saying he walks around barefoot and doesn’t wear shoes. I had to turn him away as some of the places we enter require shoes and I couldn’t have a barefoot individual walk with us. It was a walking tour, so I was shocked that somebody really thought shoes were optional for a tour.

What are the benefits of hiring a guide?

The benefit is having somebody who can give you a greater background and story on the purpose of a significant building or monument. I find it more fun than reading the facts from a book or website. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a guide with great enthusiasm, who will make you excited at visiting each spot on the tour. You can never replace enthusiasm with a self-guided tour. The tour guide most likely has a passion they cannot wait to share with you.

What’s the benefit of seeing L.A. neighbourhoods by foot, rather than by car or bus?

You cannot fall asleep or doze off from a crackling speaker like you can on a bus tour. If you are in a car, you’re most likely worried about seeing too much with so little time and not relaxing to enjoy the journey. On a walking tour, you have to be engaged and awake — cannot really sleep while walking, you know. The other cool thing with walking tours is that you will step inside most of the monuments and you have a guide who’s accompanying you at all times that can give you further explanations. It’s a more personal experience.

Where in the world would you like to travel to next?

Idaho. I really enjoy biking and I heard there are some great biking trails along the abandoned Milwaukee Railroad line. I also enjoy stepping out of the urban vibe of a large metropolitan city.

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