Stephen Bailey
Can Tour Guiding Be Better?
Can Tour Guiding Be Better?
Stephen Bailey

Most often we remember who more than where. Yet our guides, the people most responsible for our travel experience, are undervalued and often not a consideration.

Unorthodox Travel spoke to Nikki Padilla Rivera about what we can all do to help improve the quality of tour guiding. Nikki helps travel companies to improve their guiding through Trip Kinetics and she also recently organised the first virtual Guide Week.

Nikki, who makes a good tour guide?

I have a very long personal list, but at the very basic level you need someone who is an excellent storyteller and someone who has a lot of empathy. 

Empathy is the most useful skill for a tour guide because you use it in so many different ways. Obviously you need to have decent customer service, which is empathy, but you also need to be able to read the tour and guest dynamics immediately. 

Guides need empathy to understand the cultural background of their guests, so they can make them feel at home. 

Guides also need to be able to read their guests. What is new for them? What is shocking? What is against their personal values? And then using that information, they can better bring people in and get them on board with the tour. 

Are these skills things that guides can learn? Or are they inherent inside certain people?

People often ask me how do you hire guides? What questions do you ask? And it’s so funny. With many companies the questions are very human resources approved? Like, what are your favorite facts about the city you guide in? Or how would you get from here to here in a tour bus? Or how would you manage a guest that has to use the bathroom?

But really I want to know, are they good listeners? Do they have that empathy? And there are truly questions you can ask to gauge that.

Some of it is innate, but then companies can enhance that and give their guides tools so they can do their job easier and more efficiently. Some of these tour guides during high season are working insane hours, so patience runs thinner and thinner and thinner. So you really need to have the tools to guide in a way where you can keep up the skills. 

As a traveller I believe the guide makes all the difference. Sometimes they’re amazing, but I believe there’s a big middle ground where the guiding is just guiding, it’s not something more important to the experience. Why do you think that is? 

This is what keeps me up at night. Two main reasons in my mind, one is the training that is given to tour guides. And I say tour guides generically. I should say that includes tour leaders and trekking guides and museum guides, it’s an umbrella term. 

In many places you have to do a lot of mandated training, sometimes it involves years and years of very expensive schooling, and the focus is purely about the facts. 

Often guides are trained in facts, with a bit of customer service. And it’s what they know. And it’s what they think they should provide for a guest. It’s so archaic. 

Even as travelers, we still have this expectation of value equaling a guide who knows a lot. And it’s very hard to move away from that. So it’s sort of this self-fulfilling cycle where the customers kind of expect lots of facts and the guide is trained to do that. 

It takes a guide who is willing to take the risk of telling more stories and not using as many dates and numbers. And that’s scary for a lot of guides.

Guiding is a very tough job, especially balancing the expectations of different guests. Do you think it is rewarded well enough within the travel industry?

This is another huge problem. It’s a difficult job. It takes an incredible amount of energy. When I was guiding I was doing three-hour walking tours. And after a tour I was dead. That’s it. After three hours, I’m completely depleted for the rest of the day. It takes so much mental energy. And on top of that, you’re managing all these people. 

We’re also talking about a highly specialised skill set as well. History is always changing. It’s a full-time job to do the research and check out what new shops are opening on your route. And talking to the owners, getting stories, etc, and yet tour guides are frontline workers and treated as such. 

They’re paid extremely low wages. They’re seen as disposable. Very few companies have any sort of perks. 

A lot of tour guides are freelance. So they just spend their time sitting at home, waiting for a call from a random company that they have no connection for. And they show up, they give the tour and they go home. They have zero connection and they’re paid peanuts. It’s wild. 

So what can we do better than travelers? 

Holding some of these tour companies accountable is a little bit political as an answer, but I think what needs to happen is the demand needs to change.

So I would say emailing these companies and asking, is this tour going to have storytelling in it or just be the facts? Is this tour going to really teach me about the local culture? 

I think travelers can kind of set those expectations, because tour companies don’t cater to that because they don’t think there is a demand. 

I also think that travellers need a simple understanding of how the system works. You need to understand that when you book something through Viator or another online portal, they are posting other companies’ tours.  

So you booked through Viator, which is actually company A and now you show up and it’s a freelance guide of company A who works for many other companies. 

The guide might have no idea that you booked through Viator or how much you paid or what coupon you used. If you say, I want to talk to your boss, understand their boss has absolutely nothing to do with the company that you’ve actually booked through. 

Often the guide is the only face that you see. So have some empathy towards the guide. 

If you’re booking through a service or a company or a travel agency, tell them that you want to book with a local company that employs local tour guides.

And you know, I’d love for travel advisors to start calling up companies and be like, how much do you pay your guides? How many of them are local? We need to put this pressure on them. 

How about travel providers, how can they improve the quality of their tour guiding?

Think about this. You have a tour company and you put all this money into your marketing and your brand and your colors and your logo. Then you have all this targeted brand marketing on Facebook. You say to the world this is our brand, this is how we feel. 

And then all that disappears the minute those guests go on the tour. It all goes away because the guide probably doesn’t know the brand. Maybe they’ve never even gone to the website, they’ve probably never looked at the tour description. 

This is super, super common because nobody sent the web link to the freelance guide. So all that brand work completely stops. And now the guests are just on a tour and there’s no branding left. So it’s actually a missed opportunity. 

The way to solve that is to bring your guide into the brand. You know, maybe you don’t have enough work for them that you can pay them full-time. But making them part of the company by simple things like sending out newsletters that are appropriate for guides, saying, these are some cool new tours, or here’s a highlight of another guy that works for a company in another city, little things like that. 

Make them feel like they’re a part of the company. You can also give them training by having a guest come in to speak with them about storytelling. 

Tell us more about what you do at Trip Kinetics

I really like to work with companies on branding and how to communicate your brand to your guides, how to incentivise guides, and how to offer guides value. 

I basically act as the translator between tour guides and tour operators because they operate very differently. They’re from very different backgrounds. They think very differently and they’re speaking in different languages. 

We ran a virtual guide conference in May and it was a total test. There are no real conferences for tour guides. We were helping them understand the industry and so we had sessions on pricing, on how to build a brand, and what these larger companies are. 

Now we’re hoping to do Guide Week regionally around the world. Guides are all by themselves. They don’t even interact with other guides, and it’s so incredibly empowering to get guides together, in the same room, even if it’s virtual.. 

Stephen Bailey from Unorthodox Travel was speaking to Nikki Padilla Rivera from Trip Kinetics.