Not just anyone can be a good tour guide. As both the front line and backbone of the operation, tour guides carry a huge responsibility to make the guest experience memorable, entertaining, informative, and seamless. The job is much more than reading facts off a sheet.
So whether you are looking to hire a tour guide or thinking about pursuing this career, there are a few must-have qualities of an effective tour guide you need to know about. Of course, every tour (and guide) is different, but the best of the best tour employees have a particular set of skills that are few and far between.
Let’s quickly go over the top ten characteristics of a great — nay, unicorn — tour guide who has 5 star quality. (Stick around for bonus skills of a tour guide at the bottom of this post).
Top 10 characteristics of a great tour guide
1. Powerful communicator
“Can you hear me at the back?!” Megaphones might be a tour guide’s best friend, but a good tour guide can project and leave that clunky amplification device behind.
Communication is one of the most important skills of a tour guide. Guests rely on tour guides to provide direction, share facts and information, and keep them entertained throughout the tour. As such, a tour guide must speak fluently and coherently. Not to mention, be able to command attention despite the inevitable distraction of surrounding sights and sounds.
2. Memory like an elephant
Many aspiring actors and comedians take on the role of a tour guide, and it’s not hard to see why. Like the road to stardom, tour guides become masters at memorizing scripts and delivering performances that come across as natural, rather than rehearsed.
However, unlike their actor counterparts, who sometimes let fame go to their heads, tour guides should also be good at remembering names and faces. Although tour guides interact with different guests daily, they can quickly transform a tour from average to extraordinary by addressing every guest by name so that they feel valued and not just another tip.
Tour guide hack: Learning names on the fly is no doubt a tricky task. With the Daily Manifest, tour guides can memorize names beforehand, making it easier to put names to faces during the round of introductions.
3. Storytelling chops
Delivery is everything when it comes to tour guiding. Anyone can regurgitate a script word for word, but an exceptional tour guide can add a little bit of zest, make it their own, and take guests on a journey through storytelling.
In fact, tour commentary helps bring life to the subject matter, captivate an audience, and give guests something to remember/pass on to their friends for years to come. If a tour guide can tell a story with animation, expression, and a plot twist — they’re a keeper.
4. A good sense of humour
No one wants to stand or sit through a dry, boring, humourless history lesson — they zone out, get bored, and, worse, turn to their phone for amusement. Get off your screen, Becky! Be in the moment. On the other hand, making guests laugh out loud is a surefire way to show them a good time and land a super positive review.
That said, slapstick comedy doesn’t bode well in a professional tourism environment, and repeating dad-joke after dad-joke might get more eye rolls than laughs (unless it’s a Father’s Day tour). Instead, a funny tour guide is someone who can banter with guests, poke fun at themselves, and share humorous and relatable stories.
5. Charismatic and genuine
It’s one thing to make guests laugh, and another to laugh with them. A tour guide who is likeable and personable can light up a destination and make every guest feel like the most important person in the group.
Out of all the good tour guide qualities, this one is probably the hardest to come by. Many extroverts end up talking too much, and although public speaking is an essential part of the job, real charisma comes out in conversation, when a tour guide has the chance to build rapport with guests — like asking where they’re from and what they do for a living.
And a tour guide who shows genuine interest, listens intently, and recalls details later on, can make a far greater impact on the tour experience than the attraction itself.
6. Quick-witted and flexible
A tour guide isn’t up on stage, delivering lines to a passive audience. Guaranteed, guests will have random questions and comments at one point or another, and a tour guide must know their stuff while being able to respond with authority and enthusiasm.
Also, anything can happen in an hour-long tour (or more). Next to communication skills, adaptability is essential because people are unpredictable. Guest might stray from the group (or uninvited guests might lurk), roll an ankle, have a bathroom emergency, or simply ask for an ice cream break. A tour guide must be ready to handle things as they come.
7. Sensitive to guest diversity
Tour guides encounter guests from all walks of life, who undoubtedly come with their own cultural expectations, social norms, and special needs. Although we’d like to think the tourism industry accepts everyone and embraces diversity, we still have a long way to go.
Since tour guides spend the most time with guests, they have a moral responsibility to:
- respect cultural differences, all abilities, and language barriers
- tailor their deliveries accordingly
- demonstrate a hospitable attitude on behalf of the destination
- inspire tourists to leave a positive social impact
- and reinforce a tour company’s core values
For reference, here’s a list of do’s and don’ts in tour guiding.
8. In-depth knowledge
Even if a tour guide isn’t born and raised somewhere, they should know the place inside and out. As I mentioned earlier, guests will have tour and destination-related questions — like where are the best places to eat, what do locals do for fun, or how much water flows over Niagara Falls? (The answer is 2,832 tonnes of water per second).
While it’s tempting to tell guests to google it, a tour guide is far more impressive when they can answer anything thrown their way. After all, guests expect guides to be destination experts, so knowing relevant facts, figures, and tips better than Google is part of the job.
9. A whole lot of passion
Most tour guides have a passion for travel. It’s only fitting. They want to live the dream and scratch off as many countries as possible on a world map. And working as a tour guide allows them to do that. But if travel is the only reason they go into guiding, they won’t last long.
Being a tour guide is tough. Sure, they get to show off the places they love and meet travelers from all over the world (outside of covid times, of course), but they also have to work long hours, often on their feet all day, in the peak season heat, while dealing with demanding guests. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Why be a tour guide then? Because of all the other boxes the job checks off. The best tour guides have a heart for serving others, making new connections, and getting involved in the community. They also desire to advance in the tourism industry and prove that by researching more than expected and learning how to be a successful tour guide.
10. Organized and punctual
Being orderly, efficient, and dependable might be common lies listed on a resume, but are essential qualities of an effective tour guide. Guests shouldn’t have to wait around for a tour guide to get their act together. Everything should run smoothly from check-in to check-out.
Otherwise, the entire schedule can fall behind, and a tour guide plays a huge part in making sure bookings stay on time. Think of it this way; if guests are asked to arrive ten minutes early, why would it be okay for a tour guide to show up late with an iced coffee and an excuse?
4 bonus skills of a tour guide
1. A res-tech whiz
As more and more tour operators start to take bookings online, tour guides everywhere are having to learn how to use booking software in their day-to-day. On top of leading tour groups, guides are often tasked with front desk responsibilities — like checking-in guests, editing bookings, issuing refunds, and collecting forms and signatures.
This kind of tour guide work experience means they’ll be eager to download the mobile booking app and optimize the dashboard to perform multiple actions in just a few clicks will make a tour owner’s life so much easier. Luckily, Checkfront is simple, straightforward, and takes as little as five minutes for tour guides to master.
2. A creative eye
Tour guides often double as photographers. Although people are getting way better at taking selfies, setting up tripods and self-timers, or attaching GoPros to gear, it’s still not uncommon for guests to hand over their phone to the tour guide for a photo opp.
Since that might be the only thing to commemorate their once-in-a-lifetime experience, the last thing they want is for the photo to come back with a smudged finger in view, cut-off foreheads, or a mid-blinking face. Pictures like that rarely get shared and tagged on Instagram — which is a missed opportunity for the tour company.
If a tour guide knows how to take better photos on tour, guests will be forever grateful for the share-worthy souvenir. At the same time, if a tour guide has an eye for photography, they will instinctively notice magical moments to capture, giving the tour company plenty of content to fuel an aesthetically-pleasing Instagram feed.
Bigger bonus: a tour guide who understands social media marketing can make extra cash on the side by amping up a tour operator’s online presence.
3. Gutsy at sales
I get it. Persuading guests to spend more money can feel icky. But a good tour guide sees upselling and cross-selling as less of a dreadful job requirement and more of an opportunity to add value to the guest’s experience.
“I can’t believe we got to see a tapir and three toucans today! Good luck must be in the air because last night’s tour group spotted an orange-kneed tarantula. I bet the tarantula is still in the same spot. You’re still here for one more night, right? You should totally join us on tonight’s night trek; we still have space left.”
It can even be intimidating to ask guests for a review at the end of the tour. But if tour guides don’t ask, guests might not think to do it. Getting over that fear by coming up with a friendly blurb is one of the most underrated tour guide qualities.
Hands down, when a tour guide delivers a tour in a guest’s first language, it makes a world of difference. Although English has become a universal language and many tourists prefer confident, English-speaking guides, a tour guide who can switch it up depending on the tour group will be much more appreciated than a handheld audio guide.
Plus, this versatility is beneficial to the tour operator for plenty of reasons, such as:
- it allows them to appeal to a broader audience
- it gives guests more choice and personalization
- it represents diversity and inclusion