On the outside, tour guiding might look like a fun and easy job. You get to show visitors around the world’s coolest destinations. The attractions practically do the work for you. What traveler wouldn’t walk away happy after seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time?
But that’s not true at all. There’s a lot more that goes into leading tours than most travelers realize. It’s sort of like being a restaurant server. While they don’t make the delicious food (props to the cook), they’re the ones who must flawlessly serve up the dining experience.
If the meal is good, but the service, blah, it’s no surprise that some guests will forgo the tip and leave a review along the lines of “we wanted more drinks, but our server was MIA. Thankfully, the food saved it for us.”
The same goes for tour guiding.
It’s the tour guide’s responsibility to entertain guests, interpret the sights, and facilitate the activities — all at the same time. With so many details that come into play, the bulk of making sure everything goes swimmingly happens at the very start.
So, to avoid guests saying, “the Eiffel Tower saved it for us,” here’s what tour guides should do before the tour:
Plan the tour to a tee
Winging it does not fly for tour guides — guests notice right away if you’re scrambling to get your act together. Of course, your tour director should already have the itinerary and schedule mapped out, but you can go above and beyond by planning your talking points and other ways to enhance the tour experience.
1. Know your stuff
Some tour operators have a clear outline for tour guides to follow. They will provide scripts and a binder full of key information as tour guide training material. Other tour operators are more flexible and trust their tour guides to run with it.
Either way, you should know your stuff. That’s rule #1. Before you even start guiding, it’s best to research as much as you can about a destination. While scripts come in handy when introducing a new site, guests will likely throw random questions at you left and right.
And if you’re able to swing back answers instantly, they’ll undoubtedly be impressed. It’s one of the top qualities of a tour guide and the most common review you’ll see on TripAdvisor. “Eric was the best guide! He was so knowledgeable about the history of Paris. He could answer all of our questions (and there were many).”
2. Craft personal stories
It’s not all about the destination; it’s also about you. If a traveler just wants to see the top-rated attractions, they could easily explore on their own. But truthfully, it’s the tour guide who makes the tour worth booking.
Because for most travelers, a tour guide will be the only authentic interaction they have with a local — as said by tour guide trainer, Nikki Padilla Rivera. And since tourists are often far removed from the local culture, you can help bridge the gap by putting more of yourself into the tour content.
What do I mean by that? Well, you can provide recommendations about the best places to eat, where to stay, and fun things to do around town. Hands down, your guests will appreciate the local intel. But even better, you can share personal stories of your experience living there.
Not only will it give them more insight into local life, but it will also help them connect with you better as they get to know you on a personal level. Plus, stories have a magical way of bringing people together. Tour guests will likely pipe up, ask follow-up questions, or bounce off with a story of their own.
That said, consider crafting your personal stories like factual stories. You know how awkward it can be when you start trailing on and people react with a blank stare, or worse, stop listening altogether. By rehearsing your stories ahead of time, it’ll be much easier to work them naturally into the tour and deliver the punchlines with confidence.
Need a little help with that? Here’s how to become a good storyteller.
3. Have games in your back pocket
A tour’s momentum can quickly die down during the in-between moments — like on the tour bus, walking from point A to point B, waiting in line, bathroom breaks, etc. While it’s unnecessary to talk the entire time, you can prevent your guests from getting bored by playing a few tour games.
Think Trivia, Two Truths and a Lie, Name that Tune, anything that’s easy to play as a group, but still relates to the tour experience. Basically, whatever you think is fun, go with that, because if you’re excited to play, your guests will feed off your enthusiasm.
Of course, some in the group might not be receptive to the idea, whereas others will enjoy the active participation element of the tour, besides listening to you ramble for two-plus hours. So, make sure to pack what you need for the games just in case, but don’t push anyone into joining.
4. Keep a list of conversation starters
You might be a natural talker, which is why you got into guiding in the first place. But even the most extroverted people struggle to engage in back-and-forth dialogue. And you can easily make a tour go from good to great by getting to know your guests as they get to know your destination.
So, here are some handy conversation starters to have ready:
- How long are you going to be here?
- Is it your first time visiting?
- What’s your favourite thing you’ve done so far?
- What’s been the coolest thing you’ve seen?
- What’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten here?
- What else do you have planned during your stay?
- Where would you most like to live in the world?
- How was the trip out here?
- How did you hear about this tour?
Make your guests feel welcome
One time, I was extremely late for a free walking tour in London. I frantically ran through the streets, texting my friend to see where the group was currently at so I could catch up. When I got there, it’s like I wasn’t even missing. The tour guide didn’t care who came and went, just so long as enough people stuck around to tip at the end.
For free walking tours, it doesn’t make sense to get to know every single guest when tour groups usually have twenty or more people. It’s impossible to remember that many names and faces from one tour to the next.
But paid tours are totally different. Guests expect a little more personalization than a quick headcount. So there are two options. You can either have everyone awkwardly introduce themselves at the start of the tour. OR do a roll call while pointing out interesting things about them.
What’s the difference? With the former, it seems more like your guests are random strangers you’re meeting for the first time (which is essentially true), whereas the latter shows that you’ve been expecting and looking forward to seeing them.
Here are two examples. What do you think sounds better?
- “Let’s quickly go around the circle, say our names and where we’re from. I’ll go first.
- “Let’s see if everyone is here. Camila, Laura and Victor? Hi, thanks so much for joining us today! I hear you’re visiting all the way from Argentina. How was that long-haul flight for you? Doug and Mary-Anne? Hello! Happy 35 years of marriage! You’re in the right place: Paris, city of love.”
Trust me; doing your homework and paying attention to the details goes a long, long way in making your guests feel valued.
But where do you get this information?
Checkfront’s Daily Manifest breaks down who and how many guests are going on each tour in one easy-to-read spreadsheet. Pulling details from the booking form and Guest Form, you can get a quick overview of whatever you need to know about each guest — not just the primary booker.
For example, a tour operator who uses Checkfront as their online booking system (they can try it out for 21-days, if not) can add specific fields to the Guest Form for everyone to fill out before check-in. Such as address, age, email, dietary restrictions (for food tours), reason for visiting, special requests, etc.
Most of this information is best for marketing purposes or knowing what extra things to prepare for individual guests, like visual aids, audio guides, or pesca-pescatarian food options. But you can still print it off, study the guest list quickly, and hide it on your clipboard as a cheat sheet for introductions. I won’t tell if you won’t.
Give a detailed tour briefing
Okay, your guests have arrived, checked-in, and you feel confident about leading the tour after all that preparation. It’s go-time!
Hold your horses. Just because you’re ready, it doesn’t mean that your guests are too — they’re going to need a little preparation as well.
A few years back, I did a divemaster course and had to give many dive briefings as part of the training. I always rushed through them because I just wanted to get in the water and thought everyone else did, too. But I soon realized how important these briefings are once I started diving in other places as a customer.
New experiences can be a little nerve-racking. While you may know what to expect, your guests do not, other than what they’ve read in the tour description when they first booked. So, you can ease their minds by going over a few things before heading off on the tour:
1. Do a run-through of the route
Start the brief off with a bang by quickly reviewing the itinerary while emphasizing the tour’s major highlights. Whenever I hear what kinds of fish we’ll likely encounter, it gets me so excited to suit up. But more so, it confirms that I booked an awesome dive. Everyone loves a reminder that they made the right choice.
This is also an excellent opportunity to let your guests know about any changes to the tour. “I’m so sorry; we can’t visit the Luxembourg Gardens today. The grounds are closed for maintenance, but that’s okay because I’m going to take you to Parc des Buttes Chaumont, which is one of the most notorious sites of medieval Paris.”
Your guests will be less disappointed if you’re upfront from the beginning — no bad surprises.
2. Go over rules and guidelines
Scuba diving can be dangerous, so I never feel comfortable going down until it becomes clear the divemaster puts safety first. I want to know what the conditions are like, what we do if someone separates from the group, how the divemaster will get our attention, what hand signals everyone should use, etc.
While your tours might not be as extreme as scuba diving and other adventure activities, it’s still highly important to let your guests know what rules and guidelines you have in place so that everyone has a safe and enjoyable time. Here are a few things to cover:
- How you’ll let them know to stop, listen, and give you their full attention — like raising your hand or blowing a whistle (maybe a bit aggressive)
- What they should do if they somehow get lost and what you’ll do to make sure no one’s left behind
- When it’s okay for them to ask questions, and how they can respectfully communicate with other members of the tour group
- How to be responsible tourists, like re-filling water bottles, using the proper recycling and compost bins, not taking photos of the locals, etc.
- Specific rules and safety guidelines there might be for your stops, like being quiet in a cathedral, or not sitting on the ledge of the Pont Neuf bridge for a better Instagram photo
- Your tour company’s COVID-related practices that you expect them to abide by, aka social distancing, hand sanitizing before and after every stop, etc.
3. Leave room for questions
Your tour brief doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out lecture — hence the name brief. You can’t possibly go over every detail. It’ll take up way too much time, and your guests didn’t pay for a play-by-play. Get the most important information out of the way, and then allow your guests to ask anything gnawing at their mind that wasn’t covered.
4. Break the ice
Most of the time, a round of introductions isn’t enough to get a tour group of strangers to mix and mingle. A first name and country isn’t a lot for them to work with, and your guests won’t have conversation starters at the ready like you do.
So instead, it might be a good idea to play an icebreaker that brings out fun and interesting facts about everyone. That way, your guests can discover things they have in common with others in the group, giving them compelling topics to build a connection from there.
“I can’t believe you lived on Big Corn Island for two years! Do you happen to know Captain Ike? I stayed at his guest house for a week. What a nice guy! That’s where I got this shirt, actually.”
I love finding out more about my fellow dive buddies before going underwater, where we aren’t able to talk. It helps us build a fast bond and often leads to meeting up for post-dive drinks. In other words, you get to create new memories for people as a tour guide and potentially new friendships, too — the best part of the job.
What tour guides do before the tour has a significant impact on the experience. By putting in the work ahead of time and ensuring everyone in the group knows what to expect, you can start the tour off right.