Four lost tourists from Norway were fumbling with a map in a West Lampeter Township gas station when they bumped into Lancaster native Phil Lapp and his daughter.
It was Memorial Day in 2017 and the tourists were hoping to catch glimpses of Lancaster’s famous Amish community. Lapp escorted them himself and they all became fast friends. A year later, in fact, the Norwegians repaid Lapp’s kindness by offering him and his daughter a tour of their hometown in Norway.
After returning from the Scandinavian vacation and inspired by the friendship that arose from his impromptu tour, Lapp began creating and hosting tours for visitors itching to see Lancaster through the eyes of a local.
“When I came back I started listing experiences,” said Lapp, a marketing specialist with close ties to the Amish community.
Lapp began by offering tours through websites like Airbnb and TripAdvisor. The tours took visitors through Lancaster’s Dutch country to see Amish farms and homes and to enjoy traditional Dutch cooking.
Soon the tours became too much for Lapp to handle on his own. He founded a company with his wife, Annamarie, and two friends, A.J. and Mike Simmons. Annmarie is a former real estate agent with a background in hospitality. A.J. Simmons and her husband, Michael, own Fluent Business Solutions LLC, an accounting firm in Lancaster. Michael Simmons is also the former owner of Simmons’ Bake Shop.
LoKal Experiences was founded in March and takes its name from the Norwegian word for local, recalling the trip that inspired Lapp to begin offering tours in the first place. The company soon grew to offer history and craft-brewery walks through the city and tours of local stores, in addition to its tours of the area’s Amish community.
Over the last four months LoKal has grown from holding sporadic tours once or twice a week to a weekly schedule of about seven tours. Michael Simmons attributes the growth to the relationships he and his fellow founders have made with both the Amish and business communities of Lancaster.
“We are all local and we have been here a long time,” Simmons said. “We have a lot of relationships with people in Lancaster that can help us create experiences you normally wouldn’t find.”
They have included a screening of the 1985 film “Witness,” followed by a tour of the farm where some of the scenes were filmed. It ended with a dinner featuring traditional Amish fare.
LoKal also offers corporate team-building experiences such as scavenger hunts on an Amish farm.
In the coming months, LoKal expects to begin laying the groundwork for a new project: a bus tour that would take visitors on an hour-long loop of both the area’s Amish sites and the city.
“We are being disruptive in touring and we also want to be disruptive in this hop-on, hop-off bus-loop conceit,” Phil Lapp said, adding that bigger cities have similar loop tours but not Lancaster
LoKal plans for the bus to take tourists through locations like the Conestoga House & Gardens and the Rock Ford Plantation. The tour would have numerous stops and visitors could get on and off at their leisure.
The company will be starting a six-month research period this fall with the hopes of purchasing a bus and beginning tours by next year.
“This will really be an extensive six months of research,” A.J. Simmons said. “We will then come back and make sure we have the investors to support the project.”
Tours are available from other local organizations, such as the Historic Lancaster Walking Tour and Lancaster County Food. However, LoKal is distinguished by the range of what it offers, according to Joel Cliff, director of communications and advocacy for Lancaster County’s tourism information center, Discover Lancaster.
“They are trying to encompass quite a fair number of aspects of Lancaster County, whether it is the Amish community, food and dining or Lancaster city,” Cliff said. “LoKal dovetails nicely with what we’ve been doing in that they are pushing a variety of experiences in a variety of places around the county.”
And there is more to see in and around Lancaster than there was a decade ago.
“The bus tour would be something unique and a nice addition to the downtown tours to get folks around to different things within the city,” Cliff said. “It isn’t a guarantee this will work but there is certainly a lot more to put into the tour in terms of experiences.”