BY MITCH BACH
Last week I attended the 2019 SYTA conference, a chance for companies in the student tour market to get together and network. I bumped into an old friend who works as a tour operator, and TripSchool has sent several of our certified tour directors his way. I was excited to hear how they’ve worked out over the past season, and catch up.
Our conversation quickly expanded into what he thinks makes a great tour director, and what his company is looking for when hiring. The list of attributes we slowly created surprised us both, because they differ greatly from what he saw new tour directors spending their time focusing on, and I thought I’d share the results of our conversation.
Not sure what a tour director is? Read our article on the differences between a tour director and tour guide!
Let’s start with his three pieces of advice, with some of my own notes underneath!
1. Stop freaking out about commentary!
A new TD is, of course, very aware of what they don’t know, and often see this gap as a huge deficit. We here at TripSchool are obviously concerned about our graduates delivering excellent commentary, but we often have to spell out what that means, exactly. A good tour director doesn’t simply “know everything” — instead, they’re warm, engaging, and effective storytellers that know how to connect with an audience. Instead of worrying about the amount you know, focus on the quality of your stories. One memorable story that you tell well is worth a thousand boring facts.
Most importantly, don’t let fears about commentary consume you! What’s more important than looking extremely knowledgable is being a real person, someone who engages with the group and makes the experience enjoyable for everyone. Focusing too much on commentary can give you a sense of stage fright you don’t need.
2. Knowing logistics is important, but not at the expense of developing relationships.
Any group—students or adults—is just a collection of human beings who want to be engaged and have a good time; your job is to facilitate those relationships, which means that despite your brain being so focused on the behind- the-scenes aspects, that shouldn’t overshadow the people. In fact, it should remain hidden! I see so many tour directors out there with stacks of papers everywhere, reading glasses on, iPads and phones out, and a look of bewilderment and frustration on their face as they also try to interact with guests. Our advice is always this: be a duck: you never see the paddling feet keeping a duck afloat in the water. To your guests or lead teacher, you should look like you’re gliding along the water, effortless. It keeps the tour experience feeling like it’s being run by a human being, and not a functionary. Or think of a great actor: we perceive their performance as natural, rather than someone who has memorized lines perfectly. If that actor has made a connection with the audience, we’ll forgive a forgotten line. If you’ve put in the relationship work, then a group will forgive logistical errors.
3. Don’t be so assertive and combative that you get the job done at the expense of your supplier relationships.
A great tour director is in control of the tour, leading the group and making decisions on their behalf. But your job is also a dialogue with your guests. My tour operator friend had stories of being outraged by how he saw some tour directors behaving with others on the tour. Remember, vendors supporting the tour are not there simply to “serve” your every need. I’ve personally seen tour directors walk up to hotel check-in desks with entitled, arrogant attitudes that turn me off immediately. I’ve had teachers tell me about their last tour director who they liked, but saw them treating the bus driver and restaurant managers so poorly that it turned them off from traveling with them again. This can happen to all of us—we get wrapped up in our tours, our nerves are running high because we have 40 people we’re trying to please, and it heightens our aggravation and we end up becoming a meaner version of ourselves than we really are. This doesn’t go unnoticed, and it’s often a symptom of a new tour director thinking a problem is larger than it really is, and losing perspective.
The moral of the story…
In other words, we’d like to think that our guests and groups are responding to our expertise- the quality of our commentary, organization and logistics. While that’s true, we shouldn’t focus on those traits at the expense of a more essential ingredient: fostering meaningful human relationships! It’s that simple, and this should set any new tour director’s nerves at ease.
My tour operator friend mentioned that someone can always learn more about a destination, and understands it’s a process. But what turns him off from a new tour director is those moments when their aggressiveness, anger, control, and dominance get the job done, but at the expense of the essential relationships with the teacher and their students, or with a group of adults who are put off by your attitude or condescension. And the problem exists for seasoned tour directors, too! I know personally that after 20 years, I think I “know” how things should be done, but it doesn’t mean I get my way each time, and it’s ultimately not a big deal.
Next we talked for a long while about the traits and values that we think make an excellent tour director. Hearing them again helped me remember the core of my job, which is not about endless itineraries and research and changing routes and getting annoyed at tour operators for booking things wrong. In short, this conversation reconnected me with what I love about this job.
In no particular order, a good tour director has these skills:
I’m guilty of this: I think I often know better than the group leader. And even when I do, I need to listen to the teacher’s or guest’s request, and take it seriously. Mention their request again later, showing them you haven’t forgotten. Make eye contact, and ask a meaningful follow-up question to what they’ve shared, instead of waiting for them to finish so you can share your ready-made response. Respond by rewording what they asked for, to acknowledge their request. If guests or teachers make a request that you know won’t work, remember to begin by affirming them—“that’s a great idea!” And instead of saying “we don’t have time”, say “I’d love to make it work, but it’ll mean that we lose time at the next stop. If you’re OK with that, let’s do it!” That shows you’ve heard the request, and puts the ball in the teacher’s court, who feels affirmed and listened to.
Awareness & Sensitivity
These are two words that encompass a lot, but come down to simply noticing how your group is responding, how they’re feeling, and how you’re coming across. Sometimes the time is right for a joke, and sometimes it’s right to become more assertive with a restaurant that is doing something wrong for the group. But it means understanding how you’re feeling, whether lack of sleep is causing you to be short with your guests and vendors. Sensitivity means that on a student tour, you’re noticing the students who aren’t as loud, and not talking as much, and making sure you’re engaging with everyone. Making sure you’re asking questions to guests and students, and not just monologuing all the time. Noticing when your humor isn’t working, and when you shouldn’t rush the group because they’re having a fun or rewarding experience. Noticing when you’re walking so quickly that your group feels like they’re not experiencing the world around them. Noticing when you’re losing the group’s attention not because “they just don’t listen” but because your voice is soft, you’re not projecting, and you’re not placing yourself in a location where they can all hear you. In short, this job requires that you check in with yourself, and ask critical questions about your performance that helps you grow. If you find it hard to achieve that level of reflection, work with a friend to ask you questions and give you honest feedback. The main tool of our trade is our own selves—our energy, our personality, our brains and bodies. Knowing how we are perceived by others makes all the difference.
This seems ridiculous to mention, and yet, we can get so focused on the machinery of our job, that we forget to simply be human. What do humans want out of other humans? Connection. Stories and sharing. Laughter. To feel acknowledged when a request is made. To feel heard. To have positive emotions about an experience. To be surprised and delighted. Remember that because you have a fancy name badge and special scarf, that doesn’t mean you should suddenly act like a robot that recites dates and facts, or think you’re above anyone else. Humans connect with human stories, and with positive and engaging people.
Being a chameleon
I’m a New Yorker, and know that I am often sarcastic and dominating, brash and energetic. But I also know that that’s not the energy of every group, and sometimes I have to become the person they want me to be. It’s not a matter of being insincere, but of highlighting those parts of me that work best with the group, and understanding when I need to tone it down, or pump it up, to match and modulate the energy of the group.
When you’re calling a company’s office, don’t just have complaints and problems, but also solutions. And understand they’re also human beings with a heavy workload of dozens or hundreds of groups to worry and think about, and whether you think they’re trying their best or not, your frustration and sarcasm and anger is not going to help the situation. Start by thinking of solutions before you rattle off an email saying “this doesn’t work.”
Hospitality; being a good server
My tour operator friend said when he’s looking at a resume, that he always looks first to see if they have experience in the hospitality industry. There’s something both humiliating and rewarding about wearing a name tag and being there to make sure a customer is served, whether they’re wonderful or horrible. I live in New York, and have seen how much a waiter may have to bite his or her tongue. I call my own personal strategy for dealing with difficult people “loathe-blinking:” when someone is talking at me angrily, irrationally, ridiculously, rather than escalate, I just sit there, look them in the eyes, and “blink out” my real feelings while they talk. But people in the service industry also see how great people can be—the huge tip, the note of appreciation, the incredible review on the internet that calls you out by name. You grow a thick skin, which is exactly what you need as a tour director. After that difficult evaluation, hopefully we learn from the criticism, but also learn to not put so much stock in others that our self-opinion rises and falls with another’s evaluation of you. As Alan Armijo, TripSchool’s co-founder puts it, be an “Etch-A-Sketch”—shake yourself, erase it all, and move on. Or, as President Jeb Bartlett from one of my favorite TV shows The West Wing puts it at the end of a long and harrowing episode: “What’s next?!”
This is as simple as remembering to find a way to express kindness even when you’re angry, and forgiveness even when you think the other person doesn’t “deserve” it. Understanding that everyone’s under pressure and deals with things in their own way, and the only mood and emotions you can control are your own. You’re frustrated with a tour day, with a restaurant, with a bus driver, with a teacher, BUT take a step back, forgive them. They’re humans too, and you might also ask yourself if there’s a way to communicate with them that might improve things in the short term. Being kind and forgiving to others, even when it means apologizing when you don’t really want to or mean it, is a way to be kind to your future self, and not let the anger and resentment keep rolling into a giant snowball of frustration that becomes part of the way you lead tours.
Being Teachable, Showing humility
This tour operator said what annoyed him the most was when he sees new tour directors questioning or complaining about the company’s decisions, thinking they know better, when they’re pretty new to the industry. He said of course a well-trained TD spots problems and helps to solve them, but your approach with the company should never be exclusively focused on frustration and problems and criticism. Companies remember how you deal with them, and if you’re wondering why you got great reviews but not asked to do more tours, the way you interact with the company may be at the heart of it. You should be careful to approach situations with humility, knowing that despite the best intentions of a company sometimes a less than ideal solution has been booked. And just because you have a “better” way of doing something, that doesn’t mean it’s right for this group. For example, a teacher might have her way of doing the Washington, D.C. memorials that seems infuriatingly illogical, but overriding her with your “better” plan is not going to win her over. When working with other tour directors, despite having what you think is the right way to do things, understand that you’re there to be part of a team, and sometimes the task will get done even if it doesn’t look like the way you might do it. Other TDs remember teamwork, and listening, and agreeability more than they remember how perfect all your solutions were!
Notice what all of these traits have in common: they’re less about knowledge, and more about how you’re interacting with the people in your job, and the quality of the connections you make. So: give yourself a break!