By Natalie Bowen
Imagine this: You’re camping in the middle of a grassy valley. The sun has set and it’s completely black, apart from the light of your torch and lamps. Outside the pool of light the only sounds are the rustle of leaves as a breeze blows through distant trees and the occasional call of a bird or animal. You are huddled into a blanket, although it is not particularly cold, and are marvelling at how clear the stars are in the sky. You are miles from anywhere, and glad of it. The only reminders of civilisation are the row of tents behind you and the assorted debris of people living out of backpacks. It has been months since you were at home, and you are travelling with strangers who rely on you to organise every tiny detail of their trip.
“Welcome to the life of a tour guide.”
It’s a niche market to say the least, but one that’s growing at a surprising rate. Formerly restricted to backpackers and older walkers, the idea of a tour is now a more familiar one to the
holidaying population. As British families move away from the ‘fortnight in Spain’ mentality, they are opting for more exciting and exotic holidays. Two weeks on the beach is no longer enough for some people, they want excitement! Adventure! Discovering new countries in an interesting and strenuous manner! Increasing numbers of gap year students and the rise of the ‘career break’ have resulted in more people choosing to explore the wider world, and so more tour leaders are required to show them the way! Looking over a travel or work abroad job aboard often reveals many vacancies in this industry.
Tour guides or leaders have one of the most enjoyable yet challenging jobs in the travel industry. They are responsible for making sure the excursion runs smoothly, finances are kept under control, ensuring the customers are both safe and happy, and often need to organise transport, food and accommodation for periods of up to six months. Of course, there are different types of tour guide jobs, and a newly trained leader would not be expected to take a three month trip around South America straight away!
Tours are popular in every country in the world, so wherever you would like to go should be an option. The ‘easiest’ tours are those around cities, which are often provided by local people who have a sound knowledge of their surrounding area, and are full of interesting facts and anecdotes. Slightly more involved than this would be a tour around several cities, such as a European tour. There are varying degrees of involvement on offer here: companies such as Contiki arrange camping tours that require the tour leader and driver to sort out food, campsites and travel from one site to the next, but allow their travellers to arrange their own activities in each city if they so wish. Other companies provide fixed itineraries for every day of the trip, and it’s up to the tour leader to ensure they are followed. On the other hand, trips in destinations further afield may also require leaders to meet travellers at airports or meeting points in-country, and make sure they all get back there in one piece. Trips that involve camping at places other than professional campsites present a whole new range of challenges; activity holidays may need tour leaders to be able to take on the role of sports instructor or first aider; and overland expeditions need leaders who can deal with anything from mechanical failure to red tape at border crossings! There’s no such thing as ‘Groundhog Day’ with this job!
The number of people in your group depends on a wide range of factors, such as the popularity of the activity and destination, the time of year, any health and safety considerations and the accessibility/cost of the tour. An Artic expedition is likely to have fewer participants than a week’s cycling in Turkey, which will probably be outnumbered by the guests on a month long trip around Europe. Again, each trip will present its own challenges and rewards – it would be far more satisfying to get the camp set up during a sandstorm three weeks into a trip across Africa than in an Australian campsite with all modern conveniences!
To give you some idea of the demands different types of tour leading present, we have two case studies for you to consider. The first is Sara Bull, a Walking Leader with Exodus, one of the UK’s leading adventure travel companies. Exodus offers adventure and tour holidays for all age groups, including some specifically designed with children in mind so that the whole family can get involved. The second is Stuart John, an Onboard Guide with Busabout. This coach company offers an extremely flexible ‘Hop-on, Hop-off’ touring system that can be used to build a unique tour of Europe that lasts as long as time or money will allow.
SARA BULL – EXODUS
Sara has worked for Exodus and Waymark for the last seven years, but started in the industry eleven years ago after responding to an advertisement for a summer job. Originally hailing from Guildford in Surrey, she spent the winter in 2007 leading snowshoeing trips in the Dolomites, and spring 2008 leading walking trips in Tuscany. Her motivation for leading tours is clear: “I’m passionate about the outdoors, and having been fortunate enough to experience the benefits myself, I want to share it with like-minded people.”
It is not essential to be qualified or to have previous experience to apply for a job like Sara’s, but due to the high level of competition for places anything that gives you an edge is useful. To lead holidays that require technical experience, such as walking or mountain biking, you will probably need a relevant qualification to raise yourself above other applicants.
The job is not easy, requiring her to take full responsibility for the tour, from ensuring the itinerary is met, booking accommodation and meals, organising transport, making sure funds are accounted for and weekly reports are sent to the office.
Working for a few companies prevents Sara from finding her job predictable, which has both positive and negative aspects: “It is an extremely strenuous job, requiring you to constantly multi-task. It can be a challenge at times, when you are trying to juggle many aspects of the guiding job and the odds are stacking up against you. These are the times when you need to be able to remind yourself why you are doing the job. Open your eyes and see the beauty around you and above all, keep your sense of humour intact!”
Sara sees her job as a way of life, but admits that many tour leaders move to an office-based position after four years or so. It is possible to do this type of tour leading as part of a gap year or on a more casual basis, but on the whole leaders are given a contract. As far as wages are concerned, she is pragmatic: “Working as a leader is never going to be that well paid, but you will be rich in so many other ways”. Accommodation and day-to-day expenses tend to be included, plus your cost of living is likely to be lower than average, so it is unlikely you will starve!
Sara’s day-to-day routine varies enormously depending on which trip she is working on, but an average day on the Tuscany trip involved:
- 6am. Get up; assess day’s weather; perform maintenance checks on the company minibus; help serve breakfast.
- Confirm day’s plans with group, make any calls regarding bookings for following day;
- 9am. Leave farmhouse. Drive group 20-30 mins to start of walk; give briefing about walking pace, route, use of equipment etc. Set off.
- Eat packed lunch on the hill
- 5pm. Walk finishes back at bus; drive back to farmhouse.
- Serve tea and coffee to clients; time for the group to relax.
- 7pm. Sort out any queries or problems,
- 7.30pm. Help serve dinner. Eat with group, serve tea and coffee, clear away dinner and set up for breakfast.
- Give group a briefing about the following day, then spend some time socializing with them all.
- 10pm. Bedtime!
Sara’s enthusiasm for her work is the reason she has been in the industry so long, but she has a few words of warning for those only in it for superficial reasons: “Don’t try to make yourself enjoy the job, just because of the places that it takes you – the clients will soon see through it. I wake up every day and am excited about the new day ahead and even though I may be walking the same route that I have done over the past few months, I’ll always see something new. I am more passionate now than I was when I first started. That’s how I know that I’m in the right job!”
STUART JOHN – BUSABOUT
Stuart started working for Busabout in 2006, after travelling with them in 2005 and thinking the job of Onboard Guide was pretty cool, and something he felt he could do too! It’s not a suitable role for someone shy and retiring, as he has to speak in public to complete strangers every day – he had some previous experience in radio so confidence was not a problem. The other requirements are to be organised, approachable and capable of using computers, but full training is given before starting the job.
The guides travel continuously around the Busabout routes; overseeing each journey and helping travellers understand the system. As well as getting everyone from A to B with the correct backpack, the tour guides provide information about each city and country as they enter. They don’t give a history lesson though, preferring to tell their customers practical information they might not find in the guidebook, like where to get cheap food and the best places to go clubbing! Many guides have travelled with Busabout before working for them, so they know what facts travellers want to know.
This job is not seen as a career, but more as an extended gap year, as Stuart says: “You get to experience life and meet a truckload of people before settling down”. Busabout has a thirty day training period which prepares guides to go straight onto the coaches when the season begins in May. An email system between staff enables them to keep updated with what is going on elsewhere on the network, and all the guides exchange information amongst themselves. Days off depend on how busy the season is; at peak times Busabout runs double coaches to cope with the volume of passengers and so he might not get a day off for a few weeks. They are always on call for any emergency, which makes sightseeing places off the route difficult.
However, the freedom he has is enviable; he is free to spend his evenings as he pleases, either exploring, socialising with colleagues on other buses or going out for a drink or two with the guests. Meeting such a variety of people is Stuart’s favourite part of the job – especially when guests tell him he is their favourite guide! On the flip side, the inconstancy can be quite wearing. He compares a coach trip like Contiki to “an intense holiday romance”, whereas Busabout is more like “a series of one night stands, where you might have a great coach one day, but then never see them again.”
Like Sara, Stuart is frank about the wages: “You’re not going to be buying houses – I still put in for the lottery!” Accommodation is included from start to finish so he only needs to pay for food and drink, but he’s doing the job because he enjoys it. The important thing to remember, he says, is that you are not on holiday. It is not possible to just do the bare minimum and hope to get away with it, because you are responsible for the holidays of other people, who will not be happy if you ruin their trip through incompetence. His upbeat outlook won’t allow him to be too critical though, as he believes that it’s how you deal with negative things that is important.
Stuart’s day-to-day routine is quite standard: what changes is the destination and challenges Busabout travellers can throw at him!
- 7.30am. Arrive at buses 30mins before departure swipe on passengers and book sectors.
- 8.00am. Leave hostel for next city on route. Tell passengers about health & safety info and some details about the city.
- Throughout the day sell excursions for next city; give information about new countries after border crossings; call ahead to confirm hostel bookings.
- At rest stops ensure all passengers know where bus is and when it is leaving.
- 5pm(ish) Arrive at destination hostel in new city; stay to help passengers check in.
- 7pm(ish) Get dinner and prepare for next day’s journey.
So, if this is the life for you, the best way to apply for a tour leading position is to research the sort of company you would like to work for, then contact a few of them directly. Many tour companies have annual recruitment periods, usually a few months before their peak season begins, and a proactive approach will get you noticed. Do not despair if they have no vacant positions straight away; keep asking if anything has opened up. Think about any previous organisational experience you might have and make a point of mentioning it in your application – and if you don’t have any, get some! Most tour operators provide their own training once you have been successful, and it is far more important that you are able to demonstrate your enthusiasm for customer service and passion for travel than any number of certificates.