What is a Tour Director?

How is it different than a tour guide?

If you’ve found this page, you’ve discovered the best place to learn about a job that doesn’t appear on career quizzes and is often discovered so late in your life that you regret not learning about it sooner! You may have a friend who suddenly announced that they’ve become a “tour director” or, perhaps you’re looking for a job for yourself. Whatever your curiosities may be, TripSchool would like to welcome you to the group travel business. We’ve built this page as a resource to help you better understand whether or not the tour directing life and the group travel industry might be a good fit for you!

What is TripSchool? We’re a training program that helps new and experienced tour directors and guides learn the craft to begin a career in this industry, or take your skills to new level!

Is a tour director just another name for tour guide? No!

A tour director is responsible for leading a group on a travel experience over several days. Tour Directors deliver commentary, handle the organization and logistics of getting the group to and from where they need to be, and often involves using a motor coach (and sometimes a cruise ship) as transportation. They “bring the fun” by acting as an entertaining presence on the microphone, enriching the group travel experience, and promoting bonding over the days spent together. You’ll sometimes see a tour director also referred to as a Tour Manager, Tour Leader, Travel Director, Course Leader, or other terms. But it’s still the same job. What varies is the way the particular tour company defines your role, and their particular expectations.

What is a tour guide? They’re someone who usually spends just a few hours with a group of people, delivering more detailed commentary based in a city or a small area of a battlefield or national park. You might be hired for a few hours to add “local flare” to a large group tour that passes through your town. In that case you’re called a step-on guide. Local guides may also contract with “destination management companies” or DMCs to provide all sorts of travel-related services, not only as a tour guide, but sometimes also just to meet people at airports, or even host a welcome desk/concierge service for an event or conference that’s in town.

However…

Today, the job of tour director entails many of the aspects of being a tour guide, and the two roles often overlap. Your job as a tour director today is not simply to handle logistics, but also to deliver good, detailed commentary wherever you go. While some group tour itineraries will introduce “step-on” guides along the trip, on may tours you are the only one giving information, and you better know your stuff! (Luckily TripSchool offers commentary and destination trainings across the United States, Canada and Europe!)

An overview of the group tour industry

Most would define “group travel” as any time individuals purchase a pre-planned trip through a company that brings together likeminded people and leads them on some sort of travel experience. What this looks like in practice is incredibly varied. A group might be 10 adults who all know each other and decided to purchase a private tour for 5 days to New York City. Or, 50 strangers might come together from all over the world to see the U.S. National Parks for 14 days. Finally, the group could be a high school band of 100 students traveling together to Europe to perform in concerts. The trip might be a general visit to a city or it might be a specialized art history tour of just museums. It could be based on adventure activities like hiking or kayaking. Or, the tour could be pure leisure: wine tours, luxury hotels, and spa days. Group travel experiences sometimes last half a day, or they can be 30 days of traveling together. The long group travel experiences are called “over the road” tours and they usually involve several destinations across hundreds of miles. The most important distinction as you start out in this career is between student and adult tours. The student travel market is immense and growing exponentially. Student tours are likely going to be your first jobs that you get offered within the industry. Adult tours are often more work and usually (but not always) require some experience in the industry before you’re hired to handle them.

What’s so great about the job?

For many people, discovering tour directing opens up a new world of possibilities for their lives. They often wish they’d discovered it sooner. Others realize it is not the life for them. Below, we have tried to spell out as honestly as possible why you should consider becoming a tour director. We also felt it is important to share some of the challenges involved with tour directing as a  job and as a lifestyle. So, here are some of the great reasons why you might want to consider working as a tour director:

This is a job for people with a sense of adventure. No two days are alike. Nothing is cookie-cutter. Much of what happens is unpredictable but you can use your creativity and personality to lead your guests on incredible travel experiences. Depending on where you end up working, you may see natural wonders, diverse cities, quiet canyons, or the open seas. It’s a job for people with a yearning to explore.

You bring your own personality to the job. You can tailor the bus activities you do and the stories you tell to suit who you are. You’re not a robot.

Flexibility. You can work where and when you want. Some companies hire you as an employee but most hire you as an independent contractor. You can decide how much you want to work. Some tour directors do just a few tours each year while others work 250+ days on the road. You can take the time off that you want.

You are constantly learning. There’s not a single day that goes by that you’re not learning something new. So much of your job is centered around researching, taking trips, reading books, watching videos, and reading guidebooks in order to learn as much as you can so that you’re prepared to share information with your travelers.

The tour director community is supportive and enriching. This really is not a cutthroat industry. Online forums allow newbies and vets alike to share their helpful hints and commiserate over war stories! There’s a lot of work out there and there is certainly plenty of room for everyone.

You really are making people’s dreams come true. Students have heard from their siblings and classmates about their upcoming trip to New York City. Adults are checking off their bucket lists. These trips are often taken as one of life’s highlights and it feels great to help enrich your travelers’ lives.

You’re a teacher but you don’t have school boards, examinations, or administration breathing down your neck. Lots of ex-teachers come to tour directing as a way to still do what they love without a lot of the headaches.

It’s a very social job. You must enjoy meeting new people, hearing their stories, and sharing the journey with them to be successful in this industry.

The Challenges…

No job is perfect. And, tour directing is certainly not a job for everyone. We want to be as honest as possible about what this job really entails.
  • In this industry, opportunities don’t just fall in your lap. You need to be motivated to send out your resume, network with other tour directors, attend a hiring conference (or two), and continue to learn and train throughout your whole career. For the first 1-3 years, you’re going to need to build up the amount of work you have. A full travel season’s worth of work doesn’t just magically appear.
  • It’s a precarious life. Your work schedule is in the hands of companies who may or may not continue to hire you year after year. It’s easier to get work in the spring and summer when there is an abundance of student groups on the road; however, at first, it is harder to fill your fall season with adult and less-frequent student tours.
  • Some types of clients may not be right for you. There are luxury groups who demand an elite level of customer service, there are students whose attention needs to be grabbed, and there are groups of families with competing interests. You need to find your niche by knowing yourself, what you like, and what you can handle.
  • You’re often working with several companies, juggling expectations, name badges, different itinerary types, and paperwork.
  • You’re self employed. This means that you have to pay self-employment tax and cover your own health care, unless a tour company pays for it (few do, and usually only if you’re a full-time employee). However, as a small business owner you are open to all sorts of deductions.
  • You’re evaluated by the company and the guests, all the time. You need to grow a thick skin and realize that evaluations and judgements are just part of the job. You’re going to feel that criticism is unfair at times but you can’t let your emotions get the better of you.
  • The job is a stress on relationships and friendships. You’re gone constantly, especially if you’re going to make this the only thing you do. Developing a romantic relationship when you don’t see the person for months at a time some times, can be stressful! And you can be lonely on the road. You’ll soon bump into many people you know but it’s for fleeting moments.
  • You can’t be a perfectionist. You’ll never be perfectly prepared, or deliver your commentary and handle logistics perfectly. You do the best that you can, but you need to be flexible about changes.

TripSchool helps you train for and navigate through this new career path.

We’re proud to be the most innovative, practical, and affordable solution for both learning the tour directing craft and getting you work in this industry. We’re a passionate community of tour directors committed to helping each other improve our skills and get more work. TripSchool’s classes range from our signature Boot Camp and Fundamentals courses, to intensive destination trainings around the world. Learn more about us by reading testimonials of our classes, or by exploring our destination trainings and Boot Camps!
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