During a recent celebrity home tour, the driver of an aging Ford bus slowed around a curve on Mulholland Drive and directed his passengers’ attention to a massive brown-and-white home on a nearby hill.
The $14-million house with the covered patio, he declared to his 10 passengers, is the home of singer Katy Perry. The house is worth the price, the driver assured them, because of its 360-degree view.
About three hours later, another driver on another celebrity tour bus navigated the same Mulholland curve but this time pointed not at the house on the hill but down into a wooded canyon below the twisting road.
“Famous singer on the left, big Spanish house. Her name is Katy Perry,” he told his passengers.
As it turns out, neither tour guide had identified Perry’s current residence.
A record 50 million tourists spent $22.7 billion while visiting Los Angeles County last year, but few of the tour guides who show them the sights have any formal training and none are certified by an officially recognized association, as they are in most other major U.S. cities.
That may be about to change.
A group of local tour guides and their supporters are creating a nonprofit association to certify and train professional tour guides. The idea is to add a level of professionalism to a workforce that is the backbone of the region’s tourism industry but has been difficult to regulate because guides are not required to have a license or a permit.
“A good tour gets people connected to the city,” said Lynn Garrett, an art director who is leading the creation of the Los Angeles Tour Guide Assn. “The more people fall in love with the city, the longer they stay.”
The certification and training for members are still being developed, she said, but will probably include classes on the history and culture of Los Angeles as well as lessons on the restrictions for operating tour buses in residential areas, such as the Hollywood Hills. The cost of the training and a final exam will be about $100, in addition to the $80 price of an annual membership.
Voluntary certification and mandatory licensing are time-honored tools to create a barrier to entry for certain professions, keeping some people out and increasing the value of those who are in.
But taking classes and joining the tour guide organization won’t be required for leading tour groups in Los Angeles — it will just distinguish them as having extra training to do the job, Garrett said.
The Los Angeles association is still small, made up of only 20 paying members and a governing board of four people, including Garrett. It has held only a few organizing meetings.
The group is under pressure to expand and get organized in time to lead the thousands of tourists who are expected to visit when Southern California hosts the Super Bowl in 2022 and the Olympics in 2028. The FIFA World Cup will be in North America in 2026, with Los Angeles and Pasadena under consideration as match sites.
The group has the backing of city leaders and tourism promoters, such as the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board and Starline Tours, the city’s biggest tour bus company.
“We credit the passionate and dedicated individuals from our local tourism industry for collaborating in this effort to deliver a best-in-class visitor experience,” said Patti MacJennett, senior vice president of business affairs for the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board.
Most tourists meet their guides along the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard, where they are often confronted by men and women who distribute brochures and try to herd visitors to vans and buses parked nearby. The prices range from $20 to $60, depending on the length of the tour. Starline, by comparison, charges $45 to start, going beyond $75 for longer tours that include admission to attractions along the way.
The California Public Utilities Commission regulates the more than 2,600 passenger carrier companies that operate in L.A. County but can’t distinguish how many of those are Hollywood tour operations or charter buses.
The information that tour bus drivers present to passengers isn’t always accurate, as was evident from two tour bus rides that The Times took from Hollywood Boulevard on a recent Monday.
Both were open-air vans. One had a roof that was made of welded steel bars and fake wood planks. Neither offered passengers headphones to hear the piped-in words of the driver. The narrations offered by both drivers were instead blasted out from speakers inside the vans.
Besides the fiction about Katy Perry’s home, the tours were plagued with other misstatements.
As for Perry’s current residence, The Times reported in 2017 that she had put up for sale a Spanish-style house with a red tile roof in the Hollywood Hills — and subsequently sold the compound to restaurateur Michael Chow for a little over $12.7 million — while completing a deal to buy an $18-million home near the Franklin Canyon conservancy.
The driver for a tour that launched from a souvenir shop on Hollywood Boulevard declared that a neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills was a famous film location for the 1982 movie “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” In fact, most of the neighborhood scenes for the movie where filmed in the San Fernando Valley, according to the movie data website IMDB.
That same driver later told his passengers that singer Bruno Mars lives in a $3.5-million home near the corner of Mulholland Drive and Dona Pegita Drive.
The Times reported in 2015 that Mars sold his Hollywood Regency-style home in the Hollywood Hills for $3.3 million. He now owns a home in Studio City, according to real estate records.
Both tour bus drivers directed their customers to the house of actor John Stamos on a hill overlooking Mulholland Drive, noting that he had installed a large “D” on his guesthouse. Stamos, star of the “Full House” television series, has said publicly that the “D” was once part of a Disneyland sign that he bought on Ebay. One driver said Stamos paid $30,000 for that piece of memorabilia and the other said he paid $45,000.
Both drivers had trouble with West Hollywood musical history.
One of the drivers told his passengers that the Jackson Five and Elvis Presley played the Roxy Theatre, a famous rock venue that opened in 1972 on Sunset Boulevard. They did not.
The other driver said that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones both played at the famous Whisky a Go Go, another iconic venue that opened in 1964 on the boulevard. Not true.
In Beverly Hills, one of the tour bus drivers directed his passengers to the ornate Beverly Hills Police Department building, saying actress Lindsay Lohan had been repeatedly arrested by the department.
“Lindsay crashed her car in Beverly Hills six times, to be exact,” he said.
Organizers of the Los Angeles Tour Guide Assn. say people who complete the group’s training and certification classes will wear a lapel pin or some other designation to distinguish them from non-certified guides.
“I’m surprised that they didn’t have an association before, because all the major cities have them,” said Ellen Malasky, president of the National Federation of Tourist Guide Assns., a trade group for the country’s tour guides.
Malasky is a tour guide in Washington, D.C., one of only four cities in the nation where tour guides aren’t just certified, they’re required to have a city license. New York, New Orleans and Charleston, S.C., are the others.
Garrett said she doesn’t want Los Angeles city or county to mandate tour guide training because some of the cities that now require a tour guide license have been sued by a libertarian public interest law firm, which claims that such requirements violate the tour guides’ 1st Amendment right to free speech. Some of those legal challenges have been upheld in court.
“We need to figure out over time what works best for our group,” said Garrett, a fifth-generation Angeleno who created the online guide Hidden LA to direct visitors to often-overlooked sights. “It’s going to be a big mountain but if you don’t start kicking some pebbles you won’t get anywhere.”
The goal is not to put an end to bogus tour guides who take tourists’ money only to feed them false information but to make it easier for tourists to pick out professional guides from the rest.
“There are guides who just kinda make up what sounds good,” said Trish Procetto, a former grade-school teacher who trained at the International Tour Management Institute in San Francisco before launching her food and sightseeing business, Tourific Escapes. “I want to be part of the group that is getting certified and be somebody who proudly represents Los Angeles.”
In the Hollywood Hills, homeowners complain that tour buses crowd residential streets and often flout the restrictions, imposed to protect their neighborhoods, so that tourists can get a closer view of the iconic Hollywood sign.
Christine O’Brien, a member of the Hollywoodland Homeowners Assn., said ride-hailing services and large tour buses often block narrow, dead-end streets, trying to get close to the sign.
“We get hordes of people walking on streets,” she said. “It’s just kinda nuts.”
Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu, whose district includes parts of the Hollywood Hills, has proposed several regulations for tour bus operators, but his staff acknowledges that the operators continue to ignore vehicle weight restrictions on designated streets and operate vans without seat belts.
“Not only do we want tourists to have accurate information about this city … but we also want to ensure that they are safe,” Ryu spokesman Estevan Montemayor said.
The tour companies along Hollywood Boulevard primarily offer to take visitors to see popular attractions such as Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Venice Beach. Garrett said she hopes guides will spend more time on sights that reflect the city’s culture, such as Museum Row on the Miracle Mile and art galleries near downtown Los Angeles.
“We hope the Los Angeles guides will give the larger narrative about how diverse, inclusive and in many ways innovative we are as a community,” said Jeremy Quant, vice president of the new association and founder of Red Dot Art Tours in downtown Los Angeles.
On a recent weekday, tour guide April Clemmer, dressed in 1940s era clothes, led a group on her Old Hollywood Walking Tour, operated out of an office on Hollywood Boulevard.
Clemmer, who came to L.A. years ago with dreams of becoming an actress, leads tours for the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance, a nonprofit that manages a business improvement district along the boulevard.
Her tour featured visits to Hollywood’s oldest landmarks, including the Warner Pacific Theatre and the Egyptian Theatre. Along the way, Clemmer displayed black-and-white photos of the landmarks as they looked in the 1920s and 1930s.
One of her customers, Kevin Miller, a pastor from North Hollywood, recalled taking a celebrity sightseeing bus tour in Hollywood about six years ago. He was unimpressed.
The guide, he said, pointed at mansions along the bus route, describing them as the homes or former homes of celebrities.
“There was no way to check it,” Miller said of the information he got on the tour.