NYC ‘fanatics’ find career niche with offbeat family-run tour business
- Last Updated: 8:06 AM, February 27, 2012
- Posted: 10:15 PM, February 26, 2012
When Matt Levy graduated from college with a poetry performance degree — a major he says he “invented” — there wasn’t exactly a clear career path ahead. Leaving Boston, where he’d attended Emerson, the animated, eccentric Brooklyn native ended up back in the Ditmas Park home where he’d grown up, contemplating his next move.
While a return to one’s childhood home isn’t generally considered a career springboard, in this case it led to an unlikely calling for Levy, and the blossoming of The Levys’ Unique New York!, the tour business he now runs along with his father, Mark, which also employs younger brothers Gideon, 29, and Jonah, 25.
“That we stumbled onto this business is just a hoot,” says Matt, now 31, who had no prior business experience. “If we were to ever write a business manual, we’d call it ‘The Accidental Businessman.’”
All four Levys have found a niche in the offbeat family biz, which offers public and private tours of New York, delivered with a hucksterish flair and a city-history buff’s passion.
“We’re total New York fanatics in every way,” says patriarch Mark Levy, whose three sons inherited both his love for local history and his penchant for the spotlight. “We just love sharing our love for the city.”
A third-generation New Yorker, the senior Levy had grown up in The Bronx with dreams of becoming a historian — but also an accompanying suspicion that he was “just too active and hyper to sit inside and read all day.”
A long and varied career with city agencies ensued — until, on a whim, he took the city’s 150-question guide test, and picked up part-time work as a tour guide for a double-decker bus company.
“I got to talk about history, be the center of attention and make some money,” he remembers. “I thought, ‘This is great!’”
So great, in fact, that when the city offered him early retirement from his job as a Ground Zero construction manager, Mark — by then a widower, after his wife died of cancer in 1999 — decided to take a stab at launching a walking-tour outfit. But he struggled to get the biz off the ground in a “saturated” market.
Then, he says, he had an epiphany: The best way to stand out from the slew of other operators — and “old, boring tour guides” prone to “droning on” — was to capitalize on his live-wire sons, and “talk about history in an engaging way.”
The brothers were game, and Matt took the lead, becoming his father’s partner They rebranded the company as The Levy’s Unique New York! and shifted their efforts from public tours to lucrative student group tours (“the Big Mac of the industry,” says Matt).