The Sheriff of Nottingham in USA – Part eight – San Francisco

We worked out a schedule, I blogged that schedule and we hit that schedule. It’s a first and a wonderful first at that.

Today was a day of Iconography and infamy. Our first call saw me change my name to Cristol. A surprise to me, but my accent is clearly so hard to understand that when I gave my name to the lady behind the breakfast counter, she translated John to Cristol. As well as free name changes, the breakfast cafe were experts in sourdough sculpture as you can see from these assorted Alligators and crabs.

Our breakfast destination was a place that did sourdough and liked to make it into funny shapes
Our breakfast destination was a place that did sourdough and liked to make it into funny shapes

We headed for the Golden Gate Bridge with a huge sea mist rolling in under its spans. Its not golden, so I really don’t know why its called that, but it is enormously popular. In the time we were there, there had to be 200+ people walking the bridge and nearly as many cyclists. This was on a day when you literally couldn’t see the bridge apart from a few brief glimpses through the mist.

The Golden Gate Bridge, peeping through the mist
The Golden Gate Bridge, peeping through the mist

Designed by Irving Morrow, it has a central span of 1280m, and a height from the top of the tower to the water of 230m. That is seriously huge. the cables to hold it up are as big as a sewage pipe.

If you're gonna use a cable to hold up the Golden Gate Bridge, use a big one
If you’re gonna use a cable to hold up the Golden Gate Bridge, use a big one

Built between 1933 and 1937, it links Marin County to San Francisco. The water underneath is very cold apparently and the temperature differential causes the now trademark fog, which is as common as the bad roads in the region. This freezing Pacific water is also the reason that Alcatraz is so hard to escape from. Freezing cold, combined with visibly strong currents gives it a menacing grace.

The sheriff of Nottingham under one of the huge Golden Gate towers
The sheriff of Nottingham under one of the huge Golden Gate towers

How have they commercialised it? Well, they haven’t really. No charge to walk over it, a tiny gift shop and an even tinier café. Bt even a taxi rank from which they can make money. I guess they appreciate that people come to the city for the view and enjoy all the rest if what it has to offer whilst they’re here.

So what do we learn from this? Well iconic works. Why would that many people come to see and walk on a bridge that is just that – a bridge. Because it is beautiful spectacular and on view from almost every part of the city. It also has a team of 38 painters who work full time, just trying to keep the old girl looking at her best. We spoke to one of them, Michael who chatted to us in his break, whilst the bridge creaked, groaned and swayed in the strong wind.

Michael - One of 38 Golden Gate Bridge painters
Michael – One of 38 Golden Gate Bridge painters

We have written in numerous presentations about how much our city needs something iconic. A Swiss Re a Pompidou or a Golden Gate. Again, something world class, that draws people for the sake of it. To see it to walk across it, to walk underneath it and to be photographed with it for them to add it to their little list of tick box ‘must see’s’.

Global warming also isn’t an issue in San Francisco as everywhere you go, if they want to draw you in, they have burning patio heaters, or in this case a huge open air (and totally pointless) heater.

Global warming isn't an issue in San Francisco
Global warming isn’t an issue in San Francisco

It’s also incredibly touristy in places. Looking along the road of the hotel we are staying at shows why. There are massive cruise ships stopping at the end of the road, unloading loads upon loads of twinset ridden tourist types.

A massive cruise ship at the end of our road
A massive cruise ship at the end of our road

We had booked a trip across to Alcatraz Island. A state controlled ‘attraction’ that draws 1.3m visitors per year. For $26 you get as long on the island as you want (although last ferry home is 6.15pm and don’t be late. You get an audio tour, all sorts of other escape and famous convict tours and absolutely no food and drink. None. Not even a token bag of crisps. It’s not as though you can do a runner with it. I can only imagine this is a covenant thing that they’re not allowed to sell food. They have a captive audience that are spending 3-4 hours on an island and they have no food. Derrrrr. If you sold them food, by UK averages, you’d make an extra $7m a year.

Alcatraz, infamy and iconography all rolled into one enormous visitor attraction
Alcatraz, infamy and iconography all rolled into one enormous visitor attraction

The shop is pretty profitable, as it takes between $20-30k per day. That’s a good $7-10m per year. Add that to the $30m or so they are getting from the visitors fees and you have a very big business.

One of the nice things they did in the retail outlet was sell exclusive merchandise. Almost every shop in SF sells Alcatraz stuff, but most of what you can buy there, you can only buy there. Clever way to make more from a (hungry and bloody thirsty) captive and captivated audience. When I wrote about the Alcatraz brand a few months ago here, I had no idea that I would experience it myself so soon, but now I have.

The full force of the Alcatraz brand is used in all of the merchandise
The full force of the Alcatraz brand is used in all of the merchandise

One of the crap things they did however was try to sell you a terrible photo of yourself posing against a backdrop’ of the island. Not even a shot in the real cells, but against an awfully printed backdrop. They printed the film and then tried to get you but two 7×5 prints for $22. I hung about, but I didn’t see anyone buying any. Perhaps a lesser price or a bigger single print, or maybe even digital technology to avoid them having to print, may enhance what they do quite badly.

The Island itself is very engaging. An excellent 45 minute audio tour takes you on a personal and slightly isolated (as you wear headphones throughout) wander around the prison and a tiny part of the grounds. This tour uses the voices (or claimed voices) of four former inmates and four former warders. It uses sound effects to an excellent level and it caught the imagination of all ages from kids to grandparents.

We can’t do our own island in Nottingham, and we can’t do a boat ride in with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, but we just have to do an audio tour that catches people’s imagination like this.

We have Robin Hood, ghosts, caves and the story of the city itself. The technology they use is hardly break the bank stuff, but if it’s scripted right, we could manage the timings, the flow and the entire visitor experience for anyone from any country and with any interest.

The Alcatraz Audio Tour is powered by a clever little digital device with great sound quality
The Alcatraz Audio Tour is powered by a clever little digital device with great sound quality

I don’t think that you would see this unless you saw it. This system of capturing and isolating the punter on the way through really works. Its not always comfortable, but we have to learn from this and ensure we use it to our advantage.

And so to Segway. Or City Segway Tours to be precise. Number one on Tripadvisor in San Francisco – and I’m not surprised. It was phenomenal.

All abord the Segway's = the only way to travel
All aboard the Segway’s = the only way to travel

One of our party, Nick Hammond, summed it up by saying ‘it’s not often you get to do something that is totally new to you.’ And that’s it, its totally new. Very few will have ever ridden on a gyro balanced personal transportation device. When we got chatting to Pam, the proprietor, she said that they were ‘going gangbusters’. If this isn’t a huge part of the future of tourism i’d be amazed.

This is Pam, the owner of City Segway Tours SF
This is Pam, the owner of City Segway Tours SF

It was perhaps one of my highlights of the trip because (I am terribly geeky about technology) and I had wanted to have a go on one, since I first saw them on TV in 2002. I assumed it was an April fool or CGI because it looked so freakish, and I can now confirm that it is freakish, but also very easy to learn, master and enjoy.

Our tour, was beautifully managed by Larry, a publisher by day and Segway expert by night. It seems mad that having signed the biggest most wordy CDW, you are then allowed to take their $5k piece of kit on the open roads with ten minutes training and an ill fitting bike helmet – but this is the ludicrous situation of US law.

You can’t do a thing one minute without a lawyer, and you can hang of the side of a cable car and Segway the next. How does this stack up and who would want to pay their insurance? The waiver you sign, agreeing to pay the first $500 of any damage you may do to their kit does rather explain this, but who can blame them, or their insurers?

We rode around the town with Diane and Keren from South Dakota, with the group of us getting catcalls and questions from the walking public. It’s not an outing for a shy person as everyone watches you and children point, laugh and in one case, cry. Perhaps she thought we were alien robots?

At the end of South Beach Pier with Alcatraz as a backdrop for our Segway's
At the end of South Beach Pier with Alcatraz as a backdrop for our Segway’s

Pam described the value of their Tripadvsor placing as being central to what they do. To get to number one is hard, but to stay there is really hard. But there’s a reason they’re number one and that’s because they’re brilliant. Nothing was a problem and you weren’t a berk if you found it tricky.

We have to find a way to bring Segways to Nottingham. The hills in San Francisco are hillier than ours. The traffic lighter. A tour around the castle, the square and the park, is a sure fire winner, so I may be applying for a City Segway franchise as soon as we get home.

Anyway, Seattle tomorrow. Space Needle and the Rock and Roll Museum, that many rate as the best museum in the world. Its another very long day with only breakfast and lunch – due to the supersized standard portions) and another very late night, but San Francisco has been an incredible adventure that Nottingham just has to learn from.

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