I became a tour guide because I was tired of seeing people do my city ‘wrong’.
I was tired of seeing people come to NYC, never leave Times Square and comment; “Wow, NYC is amazing, but I don’t know how you can live here.” (Spoiler- I live here by not going to Times Square too often.)
As a tour guide, I felt like I had been given the power to be a protector of my city.
I would portray my city truthfully for travelers, for better for worse, and would shed light on the stereotypes they saw in the movies.
I would point out to the guests when they were doing something obnoxious, which in my city includes stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, or asking for your bagel to be toasted (depending on which New Yorker you ask).
Being a tour guide is a huge responsibility.
You are often the only authentic interaction a traveler has with a local. Which means that whatever you tell them, whatever impression you give them of your city (or your country), is what they will take home with them and share with family & friends.
A big responsibility, but also a huge power.
Below, I’ll give you two strategies for taking advantage of your power to educate and influence how travelers see your place.
Model good behavior
NYC is famous for its drinkable tap water (or at least, that’s the myth we’ve started & perpetuated…).
On a hot summer day, travelers would often buy multiple plastic water bottles on my tour, and it wasn’t uncommon to see trashcans in tourist hotspots literally overflowing with them.
So on my tours I would carry a water bottle, and simply announce at a regular cafe stop; “I’m going to fill up my water bottle in the bathroom if anyone else wants to do so.”
Almost every single time someone would ask me, “Wait, you can drink water from the bathroom tap?” and then I could elaborate and explain about our drinking water. Often as a result, the group would refill their plastic water bottles.
If no one had asked, I would have simply filled my water bottle, then moved on. But someone always asked.
Modeling is a great alternative to preaching to your group.
Saying to my group, “Don’t stop in the middle of the sidewalk like that, you’re getting in everyone’s way!” will most likely make them defensive and resentful of being scolded.
However saying, “Let’s move to the side while I explain this so we don’t get in anyone’s way” plants the seed of ‘stopping in the middle of the sidewalk gets in people’s way’.
You can even make it fun, by giving your group tips on ‘how to blend in like a local’. Even the most obtuse traveler doesn’t want to be pegged for a ‘tourist’ and will be eager to hear your advice.
Have a clear theme
My personal guru of tour guiding, Sam H Ham, says in his tome ‘Interpretation’ that successful tours must;
- have a theme
- be organized
- be relevant (to the audience)
- be enjoyable
It doesn’t matter what kind of tour you’re giving.
It could be a super in-depth tour about something you’re passionate about, or a generic highlights tour, or a tour you didn’t create.
Every tour can have a theme.
Ask yourself, what do you want your guests to get out of your tour? The one thing you want them to take away.
In the book, ‘Power of Moments’ (my favorite tour guiding inspiration), they call this a Moment of Insight.
For example, the theme of an Ellis Island Tour I gave was that immigrants shaped NYC culture, and that they continue to do so every day.
I know a guide in Venice who’s theme was that Venice is dependent on tourists, and tourists themselves held the power of whether they helped or hurt the city.
Having a heavy theme doesn’t mean you have to have a heavy tour (remember, it has to also ‘be enjoyable’), nor should you heavily preach your theme if it’s a subjective political hot topic. You are simply planting the seed and guests will either think about it or they won’t. But that’s up to them in the end.
After seeing tourists ‘do NYC wrong’, Nikki Padilla Rivera became a tour guide, helping people fall in love with her city for over 9 years. For the past 5 years, Nikki was with Intrepid Urban Adventures, creating a community amongst their 1000+ free-lance tour guides delivering consistent & quality experiences in over 160 cities around the world. Nikki writes about tour guides, experiences & sustainable travel on her site Trip Kinetics.