When Neel Sodha was a Union Station volunteer, he frequently gave directions to people who needed help getting around Downtown Los Angeles.
Ultimately, DTLA Walking Tours was born.
“There were companies that gave tours of Hollywood, but there wasn’t anything that was focused on DTLA and catered to tourists,” said Sodha, who has been a Downtown resident since 2007. “I started out leading all of the tours myself, then as the company expanded our team grew to 11 tour guides. Our guests tend to be 50% local, 30% domestic and 20% international.”
Over the years, DTLA Walking Tours has expanded its list of tours, now offering more than 30 tours throughout LA, including Koreatown, East Hollywood, and the Venice boardwalk and canals. It also partnered with Pasadena Walking Tours in 2019 to expand coverage throughout that area.
Prior to COVID-19, the company was offering up to eight tours daily. When the pandemic hit, all of its tours were canceled. Sodha and his team put their heads together and came up with the idea to start offering live virtual tours.
“During our walking tours, we share photos and videos on iPads with our guests, so we already had all of this content,” he said.
“Then someone suggested that we could use Google Maps to show the different buildings in DTLA. We converted all of our tours to a virtual format on Zoom, and the feedback we’ve received is amazing. I get people calling me after a virtual tour to say that they can’t believe we’re doing this and how happy they are. I’m also proud of our team of 11 is still together with everyone willing to chip in and host virtual tours. Our guides have been very appreciative that during the pandemic we’ve been able to continue offering services.”
DTLA Walking Tours is offering daily virtual tours, and it recently updated its sanitation protocols to host in-person tours of up to nine people in a group setting. In addition to tours that cover different parts of LA, one of its most popular tours is Haunted Tales, which includes stories about the city’s murders, mysteries, suicides, unresolved crimes and spooky ghost stories. Other popular tours include filming locations, which highlights filming locations featured in moves like “La La Land” and “Blade Runner,” as well as old and new Downtown LA, which showcases LA’s history, from its urban development to the early 20th century.
Sodha and his team constantly create new tours to expand their offerings. One of their newest is “Future LA,” which looks at upcoming developments and the future and growth of DTLA. Every year, the company reviews its tours, looking for ways to update and improve them.
“Our goal is to continue to grow and cover many different neighborhoods,” Sodha said. “We want to be the company that people come to whenever they want to learn about a certain part of town, and we also want to provide them with interesting stories and information beyond what’s on the surface.”
Every tour is researched, and it undergoes a review process to ensure accuracy.
“We take great pride in the research that goes on, and we are much more deeply involved,” Sodha said. “We don’t just highlight tourist attractions; there’s a lot more behind every neighborhood we cover. We also give our tour guides the opportunity to create their own tours, then we do multiple layers of checks and a thorough review. The quality of our tours is very important to us, and we want to make sure that everyone gets the right information.”
DTLA Walking Tours has also shifted its payment structure during the pandemic. In-person tours start at $25 per person for a public tour and $50 per person for a private tour. The company has adopted a “pay-as-you-can” model for virtual tours that allows people to donate whatever amount they choose online. The donations help the company continue operating and provide new content and events throughout the pandemic.
“We understand that many people are currently in the middle of financial hardships, and we don’t want to turn anyone away,” Sodha said. “Everyone who has gone on a tour has been happy to donate and help us out, which we appreciate, so that we can pay our guides.”
Because of the virtual tours, DTLA Walking Tour’s social media following has almost doubled. Sodha has also noticed that more people from around the world are signing up for the tours. It’s given many more people the chance to be part of the fun, too. Sodha is grateful for the chance to educate and entertain people during these challenging times.
“I love the education aspect of what we do,” Sodha said. “I love learning how things evolve and change over time and explaining that to others and engaging in discussions. Whether I’m talking to a local who has lived in LA for over 70 years or a kid who is on a school field trip, I enjoy providing that interactive education experience.”