Ditching Traditional Tourism for a Fun & Creative Ride

Meet Hillary Marzec- Owner & Tour Guide at Inside Chicago Walking Tours, an interior architecture walking tour company based in Chicago.

Hillary has played multiple roles in her life- she is an award-winning tour guide, business owner, teacher, content creator, website designer, PR rep, SEO manager…and the list is endless. She dons all these hats for her own small business, Inside Chicago Walking Tours. 

She grew up being the second out of four siblings, with a professor mother and a businessman father. Life at home was full of creativity, imagination, and a definite pushing towards intellectual curiosity and personal responsibility. As the middle child, she had the benefit of playing with either her younger or her older siblings in different ways than they might play with each other and she was, as she calls herself, a hands-down “performer” and “creative” child who would come up with games, ideas, etc. for all of them.  She was also the default go-to child whenever their parents needed to be negotiated with or convinced of something, which she thinks was largely due to her being a middle child and thus being naturally trained in talking to and interacting with people both younger and older than herself.  

Such experiences in childhood developed a knack in Hillary for finding a connection point with anyone she interacts with today. During grad school, she thought that she could become a professor at some college/university and wanted this for her life- teaching in a classroom. However, she got pretty disenchanted with academia while her graduation, and couldn’t stomach several more years of study/work for a PhD while she was still confused about her career. 

Consequently, she stopped studying after pursuing her Masters in Comparative Literature, and got a summer job as an architecture tour guide on boat tours in Chicago as a way to earn income while she still looked for “real work”. But her fate had finally found her calling- she fell in love with tourism and wanted to teach people about it. For her, not only it appeared as a really fun and challenging form of teaching, but she was also happy that she could be her own boss. She started Inside Chicago Walking Tours after this realisation in 2014.

Inside Chicago Walking Tours provides guests with a truly engaging way to experience Chicago’s architecture, history, and beauty. It is an authentic, non-scripted experience among all the big-box competition in Chicago’s large tourism industry. Here, Hillary teaches about architecture in a way that everyone- young and old, regardless of their backgrounds- can grasp and appreciate tourism. She uses history as a way to give context to the styles her team covers. She gives people a way to go beyond the surface that most tourists will see, to experience architecture and art and the city itself in a richer way, encouraging guests to really appreciate the moment and place they’re experiencing, rather than just being ‘passive passers-by’. With her particular background and skillset, she is able to ‘translate’ what people see as an enriching, meaningful experience that sticks with them and informs and shapes their experiences of other cities and places beyond Chicago.

For the past few years, Inside Chicago Walking Tours has been the #1 tour company in Chicago on TripAdvisor and recognised by it with a Travelers’ Choice Award (2020), for being in the top 10% of all activities in the world. It has also been ranked #1 out of an ever-growing number of tour companies in Chicago’s large and important tourism industry.

When collating her small business to large tourism companies, she talks about some of her current challenges- “Many of the big companies in Chicago tourism are able, for example, to give hotel concierges and other tourism-related people large commissions and provide financial incentives for partnering with them. A small business like mine, though so much better in quality in terms of my products and guest engagement, will find it difficult if not impossible to compete with the big-bucks, big-box companies like that.”

People have been loving Hillary’s tours-  they really like that she teaches them to look at things differently because that’s something that they can take beyond the tour itself. A lot of her guests tell her things like, “I’ve taken tours around the world, and this one was by far the best.”  People are also very supportive and appreciative of her business is a small, local, woman-owned business. She particularly loves getting locals on her tours, those who often assume they’ve seen everything, and then she shows them the layers they never saw or considered- the things they walk right by every day.  

Talking about one idea that really worked for her, she says- “I have made the jump from academia and the assumption of having a comfortable, salaried life, to owning my own business, with its ups and downs, with all its hard work, hopes, and disappointments. I made that jump because I ‘followed the fun’ – I stayed authentic, listened to myself and pursued my passions, and followed the path that was created by doing what I’m really good at and enjoying- and that has largely led me to where I am now.”