The profession of a tour guide, behind the scenes and all that jazz

Leavenworth, Washington

My first job I worked as a shoe salesperson on my summer break from college. Currently I work as an office administrator. The most unique job I held was as a tour guide. I lead bus tours and was fortunate enough to travel the United States and explore parts of Western Europe. I ended up leaving the job after a year and a half because it was just too much to wake up every morning in a different city and not know where I was.

During my time as a guide I trained in: California, Oregon, Washington, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, Spain, Portugal and Morocco.

I was lucky to even land the job as all I did was one excellent interview! At the time I lived on the East Bay of San Francisco and went to an interview at a hotel outside of the city. That day I met the right person and gave the right impression. There was an interview/training tour where candidates went on a bus tour of the Grand Canyon learning about the area and giving commentaries. I missed that interview as I was in Palm Springs for one of my best friend’s bachelorette party. My contact at the company had faith in me and in the short span of four weeks from interviewing I quit my job and went to orientation.

At tour guide school we learned the basics of what guides do with the company, learned how to fill out paperwork, received our company uniform, met new friends and partied. We also received our all so important first assignment. I was lucky to be assigned to the state of Washington.

On my first tour I shadowed an excellent guide. I held a tape recorder in my hand taping her every word. I reviewed a written plan of the tour and added notes trying to put everything into memory taking pictures along the way. I also had an opportunity to sit in the front of the bus in the jump seat and give my first commentary on Leavenworth, Washington which is a German themed town. I had a big rush from the experience and the rest was history.

The company that I worked for had a rule, whenever we call you it’s time to work. We had a schedule of our tours, but that didn’t always mean that the schedule would be followed. My first experience with this was less than 48 hours after completing the Cascade Loop tour of Washington. I was at home on break before doing a training tour of California when the call arrived. My trainer had broken her foot and they needed me to fly to Seattle in the morning. I stayed up the whole night organizing my materials, studying, and memorizing details. That first tour was my worst. I can still remember one passenger saying “You don’t even know what you’re doing”. That was true, but after that first tour I became very sharp and learned the art of being a tour guide.

One time I received my tour package in the mail and learned that instead of travelling Seattle to California on the Pacific Coast Highway tour I had a detour north, Seattle to Victoria and Vancouver. I had to take a group on the ferry to the island of Victoria for a few nights, then take another ferry to Vancouver, tour that city and finally drive down to Seattle by bus and start the regular tour to San Francisco. I had never even been on a ferry before but I nailed it! Guide books are amazing.

Tour guides have very little flexibility on how to run a tour. You are told to go from place A, to place B, to place C. Eat at place A, then place B, and then place C. Sometimes you are told to go to a certain store and you are given commissions on what your passengers buy. You always push those places. Sometimes there are special options that passengers can purchase. You are given commissions on these options so you push them. Sometimes there are options that are not company endorsed and these are called “black options”. There could be a liability issue with a black option, but you receive a much higher commission directly from the vendor instead of a check in the mail a few weeks later. Tour guides proceed with these type of options with caution, and each decides if they want to offer them to their passengers. The passenger never knows what’s going on. Now you do.

One time as a guide they sent me a package to lead a tour of the Canyons. I had been once to the Grand Canyon with friends, but knew absolutely nothing about the area. Even with a written guide to help me I did not want to do it. These types of tours are called “cold tours”. I called the office and told them I was going to pass on this tour, too much stress and the passengers are paying a lot of money for the tour which I didn’t find fair. It was marked in my file, I said “no” to the company. They do send all guides on cold tours at some point; you either do it or you don’t. I could manage a few days of a cold tour, but 100% was too much for me.

My last tour was a two bus tour with a rather large group. My girlfriend and I had a blast going from Seattle to San Diego with a few inland destinations as well (Yosemite and Solvang to be exact). At the beginning of that tour the office called me and said I would need to fly directly back to Seattle to start another tour, no break, no re-charging. I thought on it for a bit and on a break in the redwoods of Big Sur California I called the office and told them to ‘shove it’.

Tours are great! I did one myself when I was 21 years old, a 13 country tour of Europe. You meet great people and everything is taken care of for you. If you are not an adventurer or want to just sit back and relax please do a tour. I just wanted to let you know some of the behind the scenes of the tour guide world. Sometime over the next year I’ll be sure to share a story about giving one of my favorite tours.

Topic for tomorrow: The car alarm remote is NOT working!!

(day 9)


One thought on “The profession of a tour guide, behind the scenes and all that jazz

  1. I always thought that it would be so much fun to be a tour guide. My most memorable vacation moments usually seem to happen on a tour, especially small tours. Several years ago, I took a tour of Savannah, Georgia with a few family members and nobody else sign up, so it was just three of us and the guide. Even though we were sitting right next to her in a small van, she got on the mic and acted like we were a full car load. She was a nut and complete character! Thanks for the tour insight. I always wondered about those stops at the gift shops.

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