Jeff Wilson and his wife, Gerri, stood on a street corner in Old Town Montreal in 2012, trying to figure out what the beautiful building was at the top of the square.
As they wandered around looking for a plaque with information about the building, Jeff overheard someone say, "Wouldn't it be great if we could get a history of this on our iPhone?"
Jeff, a longtime Hilton Head Island resident, thought that was a great idea and could be a fun project to work on with his son, Jay, who was a history major at the College of Charleston.
So Jeff met with the Historic Charleston Foundation, and they gave him the history of all the downtown structures. Jeff said he and Jay, who lives in Beaufort, created a written history for the tour. But when Jeff tested it out, he knew one thing had to change.
He said most of the time when people go on tours, the sun is out. If the sun is out, it can be difficult to read a written history on your phone. He decided it would have to be an audio app and website.
Jeff asked his wife, along with Hilton Head residents Michele Ferguson, Linda Richards and E.G. Robinson, to narrate the tour. He also asked Rachel Sellers, who does voiceovers for television shows, commercials and movies, such as the "Harry Potter" films. They all obliged.
The audio tour offers the history of 65 historic sites and structures, most of which are business establishments, banks and churches. Museums, bed and breakfasts, and a few guest houses are also on the tour. The app and website also offer information on local weather and events.
The tour goes in a figure eight, so Jeff said participants don't have to backtrack. They head across Market Street, down to The Battery, back up through Broad Street, along Waterfront Park, and back up to Calhoun Street and Marion Square. The entire walking tour would take about five to six hours if done all at once.
But the biggest advantage of the app, Jeff said, is that people can take the tour at their own leisure. Carriage tours can last for hours, so this is nice for people who don't have that kind of time.
Instead, they can click on the app and hear what they want to hear when they want to hear it. If they are at Marion Square, they can click to hear the history of Marion Square. If they are at the Battery, they can hear the history of the Battery.
"You can sit in a cafe in downtown Charleston, and if you don't want to walk, you can hit the red bubbles on your map, and then hit the audio bar and you can listen to the histories of the churches," Jeff said.
Jeff does not think this will hurt the tour business. It will just give people more options.
"People who want to take a carriage ride are going to take a carriage ride," he said. "But instead of spending three or four hours on a carriage ride, they may want to spend 10 minutes hearing the history of that one building."
Jeff said the app has been well received. The app has had more than 8,000 downloads, and there have been 30,000 hits on the website.
"If you give somebody something for free, they are not going to resist a whole lot," Jeff said.
It's free to download the app for now, but the Wilsons will begin charging a few dollars toward the end of this year. Jeff said the cost will be comparable to other tour apps.
The Wilsons hope to expand the concept to other historic cities, such as Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Washington, Montreal and London. But next up are Beaufort and Savannah.
Follow reporter Amy Coyne Bredeson at twitter.com/IPBG_Amy.