Tour guides plan and oversee travel arrangements and accommodations for groups of tourists. They assist travelers with questions or problems, and they may provide travelers with itineraries of their proposed travel route and plans. Tour guides research their destinations thoroughly so that they can handle any unforeseen situation that may occur. There are approximately 32,000 tour and travel guides employed in the United States.
History of Tour Guide Career
People have always had a certain fascination with unknown or faraway places. Curiosity about distant cities and foreign cultures was one of the main forces behind the spread of civilization. Traveling in the ancient world was an arduous and sometimes dangerous task. Today, however, travel is commonplace. People travel for business, recreation, and education. Schoolchildren may take field trips to their state’s capitol, and some college students now have the opportunity to study in foreign countries. People spend much of their disposable income on recreation and vacation travel.
Early travelers were often accompanied by guides who had become familiar with the routes on earlier trips. When leisure travel became more commonplace in the 19th century, women and young children were not expected to travel alone, so relatives or house servants often acted as companions. Today, tour guides act as escorts for people visiting foreign countries and provide them with additional information on interesting facets of life in another part of the world. In a way, tour guides have taken the place of the early scouts, acting as experts in settings and situations that other people find unfamiliar.
The Job of Tour Guides
Acting as knowledgeable companions and chaperons, tour guides escort groups of tourists to different cities and countries. Their job is to make sure that the passengers in a group tour enjoy an interesting and safe trip. To do this, they have to know a great deal about their travel destination and about the interests, knowledge, and expectations of the people on the tour.
One basic responsibility of tour guides is handling all the details of a trip prior to departure. They may schedule airline flights, bus trips, or train trips as well as book cruises, houseboats, or car rentals. They also research area hotels and other lodging for the group and make reservations in advance. If anyone in the group has unique requirements, such as a specialized diet or a need for wheelchair accessibility, the tour guide will work to meet these requests.
Tour guides plan itineraries and daily activities, keeping in mind the interests of the group. For example, a group of music lovers visiting Vienna may wish to see the many sites of musical history there as well as attend a performance by that city’s orchestra. In addition to sightseeing tours, guides may make arrangements in advance for special exhibits, dining experiences, and side trips. Alternate outings are sometimes planned in case of inclement weather conditions.
The second major responsibility of tour guides is, of course, the tour itself. Here, they must make sure all aspects of transportation, lodging, and recreation meet the planned itinerary. They must see to it that travelers’ baggage and personal belongings are loaded and handled properly. If the tour includes meals and trips to local establishments, the guide must make sure that each passenger is on time for the various arrivals and departures.
Tour guides provide the people in their groups with interesting information on the locale and alert them to special sights. Tour guides become familiar with the history and significance of places through research and previous visits and endeavor to make the visit as entertaining and informative as possible. They may speak the native language or hire an interpreter in order to get along well with the local people. They are also familiar with local customs so their group will not offend anyone unknowingly. They see that the group stays together so that members do not miss their transportation arrangements or get lost. Guides may also arrange free time for travelers to pursue their individual interests, although time frames and common meeting points for regrouping are established in advance.
Even with thorough preparation, unexpected occurrences can arise on any trip and threaten to ruin everyone’s good time. Tour guides must be resourceful to handle these surprises, such as when points of interest are closed or accommodations turn out to be unacceptable. They must be familiar with an area’s resources so that they can help in emergencies such as passenger illness or lost personal items. Tour guides often intercede on their travelers’ behalf when any questions or problems arise regarding currency, restaurants, customs, or necessary identification.
Tour Guide Career Requirements
Although as a tour guide you will not necessarily need a college education, you should at least have a high school diploma. Courses such as speech, communications, art, sociology, anthropology, political science, and literature often prove beneficial. Some tour guides study foreign languages and cultures as well as geography, history, and architecture.
Some cities have professional schools that offer curricula in the travel industry. Such training may take nine to 12 months and offer job placement services. Some two- and four-year colleges offer tour guide training that lasts six to eight weeks. Community colleges may offer programs in tour escort training. Programs such as these often may be taken on a part-time basis. Classes may include history, world geography, psychology, human relations, and communication courses. Sometimes students go on field trips themselves to gain experience. Some travel agencies and tour companies offer their own training so that their tour guides may receive instruction that complements the tour packages the company offers.
Certification or Licensing
The National Tour Association offers the certified tour professional designation to candidates who complete 200 education credits in two areas: professional study and professional activity. Candidates must also have a minimum of five years of employment in the travel industry, unless they have an industry-specific degree from an accredited college or university. Candidates with a college degree must have a minimum of three years of industry employment.
To be a tour guide, you should be an outgoing, friendly, and confident person. You must be aware of the typical travelers’ needs and the kinds of questions and concerns travelers might have. As a tour guide, you should be comfortable being in charge of large groups of people and have good time-management skills. You also need to be resourceful and be able to adapt to different environments. Tour guides need to be fun-loving and know how to make others feel at ease in unfamiliar surroundings. Tour guides should enjoy working with people as much as they enjoy traveling.
Exploring Tour Guide Career
One way to become more familiar with the responsibilities of this job is to accompany local tours. Many cities have their own historical societies and museums that offer tours as well as opportunities to volunteer. To appreciate what is involved with speaking in front of groups and the kind of research that may be necessary for leading tours, you can prepare speeches or presentations for class or local community groups. You may also find it helpful to read publications such as Courier (http://www.ntaonline.com/), the National Tour Association’s monthly travel magazine.
The major employers of tour guides are, naturally, tour companies. Many tour guides work on a freelance basis, while others may own their own tour businesses. Approximately 32,000 tour and travel guides are employed in the United States.
If you are interested in a career as a tour guide, you may begin as a guide for a museum or state park. This would be a good introduction to handling groups of people, giving lectures on points of interest or exhibits and developing confidence and leadership qualities. Zoos, theme parks, historical sites, or local walking tours often need volunteers or part-time employees to work in their information centers, offer visitors directions, and answer a variety of inquiries. When openings occur, it is common for part-time workers to move into full-time positions.
Travel agencies, tour bus companies, and park districts often need additional help during the summer months when the travel season is in full swing. Societies and organizations for architecture and natural history, as well as other cultural groups, often train and employ guides. If you are interested in working as a tour guide for one of these types of groups, you should submit your application directly to the directors of personnel or managing directors.
Tour guides gain experience by handling more complicated trips. Some workers may advance through specialization, such as tours to specific countries or to multiple destinations. Some tour guides choose to open their own travel agencies or work for wholesale tour companies, selling trip packages to individuals or retail tour companies (see “Travel Agents”).
Some tour guides become travel writers and report on exotic destinations for magazines and newspapers. Other guides may decide to work in the corporate world and plan travel arrangements for company executives. With the further development of the global economy, many different jobs have become available for people who know foreign languages and cultures.
Tour guides may find that they have peak and slack periods of the year that correspond to vacation and travel seasons. Many tour guides, however, work eight months of the year. Salaries range from $6.37 per hour to $22.25 per hour. Experienced guides with managerial responsibilities can earn up to $65,000 a year, including gratuities. According to the National Tour Association’s 2000 Wage and Benefits Survey, the average daily rate of compensation for tour directors/escorts was $113, a 25 percent increase since 1995.
Guides receive their meals and accommodations free while conducting a tour, in addition to a daily stipend to cover their personal expenses. Salaries and benefits vary, depending on the tour operators that employ guides and the location in which they are employed. Generally, the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, and Southern regions of the United States offer the highest compensation.
Tour guides often receive paid vacations as part of their fringe benefits package; some may also receive sick pay and health insurance. Some companies may offer profit sharing and bonuses. Guides often receive discounts from hotels, airlines, and transportation companies in appreciation for repeat business.
The key word in the tour guide profession is variety. Most tour guides work in offices while they make travel arrangements and handle general business, but once on the road, they experience a wide range of accommodations, conditions, and situations. Tours to distant cities involve maneuvering through busy and confusing airports. Side trips may involve bus rides, train transfers, or private car rentals, all with varying degrees of comfort and reliability. Package trips that encompass seeing a number of foreign countries may require the guide to speak a different language in each city.
The constant feeling of being on the go and the responsibility of leading a large group of people can sometimes be stressful. Unexpected events and uncooperative people have the capacity to ruin part of a trip for everyone involved, including the guide. However, the thrill of travel, discovery, and meeting new people can be so rewarding that all the negatives can be forgotten (or eliminated by preplanning on the next trip).
Tour Guide Career Outlook
Because of the many different travel opportunities for business, recreation, and education, there will be a steady need for tour guides through 2014. Tours designed for special interests, such as to ecologically significant areas and wilderness destinations, continue to grow in popularity. Although certain seasons are more popular for travel than others, well-trained tour guides can keep busy all year long.
Another area of tourism that is on the upswing is inbound tourism. Many foreign travelers view the United States as a dream destination, with tourist spots such as New York, Disney World, and our national park system drawing millions of foreign visitors each year. Job opportunities in inbound tourism will likely be more plentiful than those guiding Americans in foreign locations. The best opportunities in inbound tourism are in large cities with international airports and in areas with a large amount of tourist traffic. Opportunities will also be better for those guides who speak foreign languages.
Aspiring tour guides should keep in mind that this field is highly competitive. Tour guide jobs, because of the obvious benefits, are highly sought after, and the beginning job seeker may find it difficult to break into the business. It is important to remember that the travel and tourism industry is affected by the overall economy. When the economy is depressed, people have less money to spend and, therefore, they travel less. Recent terrorist attacks have also adversely affected the travel and tourism industry. If the public perceives that travel is risky, they will travel less and, as a result, tour guides may see reduced employment opportunities.