The Cold Truth about Tour Guiding

When you work as an overseas tour guide, people think you live some kind of fantasy jet-set lifestyle, constantly on the move, meeting interesting people, having fabulous experiences and, between trips you are to be found lying under palm trees on white beaches drinking copious amounts of pina coladas. Whilst this is not entirely true, it looks pretty good in your head when you are stuck in a 9-to-5 job, year-in, year-out. Thus I often get emails from women wanting a slice of this “jetset” life and apply to my company for a tour guiding position: Most of them read something like this: “I am a people person. I love people. And I am very organised. I LOVE to travel, and have been to 10 countries.” OK. That’s nice. But sorry, honey, it ain’t enough. People think you don’t need any more formal training or experience other than these qualities and totally underestimate it as a job. There is a lot more to it than meets the eye. Let’s get to the nitty gritty.

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From day 1 of my working life, I have lead an unconventional life: most of my life has consisted of living overseas, away from my birthplace (New Zealand) and family. I have never really had a regular nine-to-five job, but instead have always worked in tourism leading groups, as an adventure guide (on cycling, sea-kayaking and raft trips), as a tour guide in New Zealand and abroad, and have managed small tourism businesses as well. My life has had limited routine as i have drifted seasonally from hemisphere to hemisphere to work for various companies in the summer season. I often have long periods with no income (which I consider a privilege), because to me money was never as important as having a good life! And you can live cheaply and still enjoy life if you wish to. Thus with my lifestyle, and lack of ties, tour guiding suited me. But would it suit you?

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What is life really like as a tour leader? What are the ups and downs, and what do you have to deal with? Here are a few tips and things to think about before you apply for a job:

What to keep in mind:

Do you have experience with group dynamics? It is one thing being a people person, it is another thing dealing with people! OK, so you might think you are good with people, but you probably mean good with good people, right? Every person, every group and every set of group dynamics is different, no two groups are ever the same. What is important is how you deal with those individuals and groups, and this really only comes with years of experience and a bit of insight into how humans operate. It’s not something you can really learn out of a book.

When I am tour guiding I can honestly say that I become a different person. I have copious amounts of patience for a start (more than I have at home!). You have to put up with having to repeat yourself several times to people who don’t listen (which can be very irritating), people who ask a lot of stupid questions and are late, selfish or ungrateful. In these situations you may have to react differently to how you might otherwise act as you are “on the job” and have to look professional and can’t for example, just abuse someone, which you might do when not at work! You need the patience of a saint.  It is not so easy dealing with the bad apples and takes a lot of diplomacy, calmness and politeness, even when you might feel like telling the person to go to hell. You have to step back from the situation and evaluate it beyond surface level and make some very wise decisions so that they do not affect the whole group every day.

Guiding people is sometimes like herding cats.  Especially if you have a group of ten shopaholic women! I once got the bus driver to stop to let the girls go into a mall to buy water. I gave them 10 minutes to return…but they found a shoe sale and came out an hour later with shoes! Oh well, as long as they are happy 🙂 If you are a control freak, you might struggle with this.

You have to be interested in people, and ask them about themselves. Even if you don’t want to know about every one of their grandkids, that is your job. And nobody wants a tour leader who just talks about themselves the whole time. It’s not about you.

You have to be kind and caring. All your clients are your little ducklings. Which doesn’t mean to say you have to babysit them, but you need to care about their well-being, and if someone is being left out by the group, you need to make them feel included. As the tour guide you have to be as neutral as Switzerland. You cannot be seen to have favourites and you have to spend time with everyone, so that if there is a problem, you are approachable by everyone. There will be dynamics happening in the group that you won’t even be aware of, as the group often keeps some things under wraps! Which is sometimes a good thing because you don’t want to get involved in personal petty dislikings of each other.

You are on the job 24/7. There is very little downtime, and there is always something to do. Even if you look like you are just staring out the bus window, really you are planning the next day and making arm-length mental lists in your head. Downtime is necessary both for you and the group so none of you go crazy. If you are stressed out, you can’t let it show. You have to be cool, calm and collected ALL the time. Sometimes you have to pull back if you are getting overly tired and maybe leave the group to go out for dinner by themselves while you pop a sleeping pill and get an early night!

If you really want a tour guiding job, one of the biggest advantages you can have is personal knowledge of the culture of the country you want to guide in. Go and live there for a few months and then apply for a job. There is nothing like insider knowledge if you want to be an outstanding tour guide. Don’t just read a guide book, because chances are, your clients are reading the same one. You need to give them a deeper insight into how the local people live, think, socialise etc. and you only get that by living in a place and mingling with the locals.

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Go on a few guided tours yourself. Even if just for a day trip. You will develop your own unique guiding style, but it is good to observe others and see what you like and don’t like. These people are your mentors. Do they talk to much and lose everyone’s attention? Are they not interested in the group, eg it’s 40 degrees and everyone is nearly expiring from the heat and the guide hasn’t noticed…Seeing how others guide is invaluable.

Sometimes the proverbial S**T hits the fan. You need to be professional at all times and never swear or lose your cool. If you lose it, the group loses it. They are judging how to react to things by your face! Always act like everything is under control (even if it isn’t). If you freak out, the clients sense it and they freak out and believe me, it is hard to put humtpy dumpty back together again.

You can’t please everyone all the time. But if you can please most of the group all the time, then mission accomplished. Some people are naturally glass-half-empty types, and no matter how hard you try, they are going to keep the poe-face on and not enjoy themselves. Just accept it and don’t take it personally (as hard as that might be when you are busting your butt to give everyone an excellent time!).

Occasionally you have to put some risk management into practice – like judging whether it is a good idea for someone to do an activity they might not be suitable for, or just thinking ahead and making sure nobody gets into trouble, even if its something as silly as keeping the men at bay in one of those countries where the men are known for loving tourist women!

The downside of tour guiding: It’s not all a bed of roses. Here are some things to consider…Can you handle long working hours, irregular income, and an unconventional lifestyle? You won’t always have back-to-back tours (and who wants that, it is very stressful!), and in your “off-seasons” you will have to think of other ways to fund your downtime. One way to do it is to live somewhere cheap, like India, Egypt, Bali etc and maybe do some online work. Probably the biggest drawback for me over the years was my time not being my own. When you work in tourism, you often work crazy, unpredictable hours, or you are on tour, so you never have time for yourself…it is hard to maintain any sort of hobbies or routine. You also may not see your friends or family very often, and you can’t own pets and it’s hard to have a relationship. Oh, and there are the many, many dull hours spent at boring airports…either travelling yourself, or picking up your clients. That really sucks.

The upside of tour guiding: it has to be a lifestyle that you love. I love the lack of materialism (you can’t cart your house around on your back, you’re not a snail) and try to keep my belongings to a  minimum (OK, so I am a female, which means I am wired to shop occasionally, but i do TRY!) I love the lack of attachment to money (that means you’re more spiritual doesn’t it?).  You meet lots of people, and some of them are even interesting! You learn a lot about yourself and your own mentality/culture.  You understand the (biased) news and world issues more. You are free of “the system”, (which means banks and people in normal jobs often don’t know how to deal with you!!) You dance to the beat of your own drum, and do what you want, when you want (when you are not on tour). You often have a lot of amazing experiences.  You learn what it is like to live minimally and realise in the west we are too focussed on accumulating. You realise happiness is being content with what you have got. You become a better person. And you sometimes get to lie under palm trees on white beaches drinking copious amounts of pina coladas – if that’s what blows your hair back.  🙂

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