Tour Directing and Guiding: Plunging In
I’ve just returned from a five-day work conference. This annual event included breakout sessions, keynote speakers, and workshops on best practices and current developments in the industry, along with interviews for those participating in the job fair portion: all standard conference fair. But my event was Symposium, put on by ITMI, the school for travel managers and guides, so we spent much of this 5 days aboard the Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas, and integral events included dancing and drinking, a Follies Night where members’ talents from belly dancing to singing to poetry recitations to musical parodies were celebrated, and guided tours of Miami and the Everglades when we returned to land.
More than anything, it was a chance to schmooze and laugh and share and celebrate with our fellow Tour Directors alongside representatives of some of the major Tour Operators in the country. We’re an incredible bunch, ranging from our early 20s well into our 70s and living all over the world, with a generous mix of political, racial, religious, sexual, and cultural identities represented. Most have college degrees but some are proudly self-educated. We love to travel, and we love people, and we love each other.
Many TDs become full-time employees of a single company, such as Globus or Tauck, who receive x number of days of work per year and also benefits. More of us are independent contractors who pay for our own health insurance, etc.; we may work anything from a few days throughout the year to as many as 300, sometimes spreading time during the season between several Tour Operators. Most gratuities remain voluntary, although the companies we work for typically recommend a standard amount per person per day, and this can easily add up to more than half our compensation. Most companies concentrate on either student travel or adults, but since spring travel is more popular among school groups and summer/fall more so for adults, many of us split our time between these two types. All this flexibility means this is an exceptional career for those ready to tailor their own work lives, including those able to semi-retire.
Tour Director as a Second Act
Few of us started out as Tour Directors or Tour Guides. [TDs, sometimes called Travel Managers or other names, generally travel over the road by motor coach, train, or plane with a group, handling logistics and supervising vendors as well as providing regional commentary, while Tour Guides are local guides who share extensive commentary on a smaller area for a day or a few hours at a time; many people do some of each.] When I asked about experiences from women over 50 for whom this is a Second Act, I immediately found 20 people eager and ready to explain their backgrounds to me, in typically generous Tour Director style, whether I had met them before or not. I found many unique stories but also some commonalities to share.
Where We Came From and What We Brought
Our professional backgrounds vary widely, although most involve “people skills.” Several of us began in Education as teachers or principals, while others worked in the hospitality industry as event planners, PR specialists, hotel managers and concierges, trade show producers, and the like; three ran their own small businesses and others were the face of their business’s departments as directors or service reps, and one was a dental assistant while another was a grant writer. We bring a wide range of skills from those previous experiences, all essential in the world of Tour Directing.
Neck and neck in the #1 spot, listed by nearly everyone, are organizational and people skills, along with their corollary abilities such as communication, time management, problem solving on the fly, managing groups, researching, planning, and anticipating needs. A few people had been actively involved in singing or storytelling, while others of us are still trying to develop those strengths. A couple of people also mentioned that comfort and facility with technology are helpful: whether filling out financial reports or sharing media about a destination with our guests, our job is made much easier with modern tools. And anyone who’s fairly fluent in a foreign language regularly finds herself in demand.
Making a Living
Most of my respondents have other sources of income throughout the year. Several of us tutor or substitute teach in the winter, typically November through March in North America, when there is far less touring work to go around. We also have one AirBnB hostess, one Avon rep, one singer, one catering supervisor (Event Planning is a natural avenue for many with our training), and several people who supplement over-the-road touring with local guiding.
In addition, easily half of us depend on Social Security, a spouse, or retirement/pension benefits to supplement our work earnings. All of this reduces the number of days per year we feel compelled to work as Tour Directors. The number of days worked per year among those I interviewed for this article ranged from forty days to 150 and more, and certainly there are many people who work more than that, but quite a few of us with other means work from 50-120 days total.
Why Did We Decide to Do It?
Six of my respondents have just become TDs within the last year, so several of those are just getting started, but others plunged right in and are already working regularly in the business. The rest of us have worked everywhere from 1 to 12 “seasons,” as they’re often referred to, although we by no means represent the upper limit of years in the business. At least three-fourths of those who talked with me became TDs after the age of 50, and that may be due partly to the wording of my inquiries, but I can confirm this is a rare realm where “mature” women can feel accepted as newbies and excited about learning new skills.
We made the leap for many reasons: death of a spouse or parent, retirement from a long career that enabled us to try something new and stay active, looking forward to social and intellectual gratification, joy in meeting new people and experiencing new places and cultures, and a desire to get paid for something we enjoy doing anyway are all motivations I’ve heard. Several people mentioned this is a great fit for their skillsets of working with people and organizing tasks and group activities (see “What We Brought” above).
Lori Lang shared that, “One of my favorite things to do is show people around the places I love and watch them enjoy it too.” Beth Mohan added an emphatic, “I was bored out of my mind sitting in front of a computer all day writing proposals for the same organization–out of a home office, so very lonely. A friend of mine was posting photos on Facebook about her travels as a tour director and she encouraged me…” In fact, a quarter of us within this group were introduced to the idea by traveling with or meeting Tour Directors ourselves, and one, Alex Edmonds, fell in love with and married a Tour Director! It’s not surprising that professionals already happily enmeshed in the business are willing to share their insights and encouragement.
This work is not without its challenges. There are regularly 12+ hour days (but yes, in most cases we do get overtime!) and we don’t have regular weekends unless we carefully schedule one—pretty tricky to do regularly if you want to be available for over the road tours of 4 or more days (most average 1-2 weeks but there are plenty that go 3-4 weeks). As many of my colleagues mentioned, this work can be exhausting and lonely and put a stress on relationships at home. “Have a good support group of friends and family so you feel connected,” advises Donna McKenzie. “It can be very exhausting work, and it’s essential to take care of yourself,” adds Tour Director Elizabeth Young-Collins. “Too much people pleasing can do you in. Also, remember it’s their tour and being right is highly overrated.”
Jennifer Strand was surprised to find “that [some] passengers need to be told not to do dangerous things and what the weather will be tomorrow;” in other words, be prepared to deal with difficult clientele, although most of the people we travel with are a delight. The hours necessary to prepare, from researching destinations to confirming hotels, meals, and activities, can be considerable, especially for an itinerary or company that is new to you, and this can mean several days’ worth of tasks before the trip (and your pay!) begin as well as a couple of hours into the night after you finally say good night to your guests while on tour. In my first year, any time I was on the road I could not find enough time for adequate sleep—but that has gotten much better as I have gained experience and learned calm and efficiency.
It can be hard to find comparable work in the off season if your gateway city (from which most larger companies will “position” you, providing transportation to and from the start and finish for your trip) is not a major metropolis. Establishing yourself, especially at first, can be quite competitive, with periodic interviews necessary, and it’s not unusual for even experienced TDs to find themselves cut from a company thanks to low survey scores on even a single tour—although that doesn’t keep most people from getting right back in there and finding other companies to contract with.
Of course, some of these challenges are just what we love. Elizabeth Young-Collins exclaims her surprise at “how addicting it is while being so exhausting.” Former school principal Carol Kendrick, who brings many skills from her former profession and excels as a more or less full-timer, reminded me that, “as every Tour Director out on the road is the face of the company, the company really needs to know and trust their Tour Director will be able to problem solve effectively,” a responsibility and importance many thrive on. Beth Mohan told me, “How much I love it!! By nature I am a shy person and now I can get in front of a group each day and create memories. I create energy and then feed off the guests’ energy. This past season I did 13 back-to-back over the road tours with very few days off in between and could have gone on for another 6 months. It was glorious!!”
As some noted, it’s not unusual to walk 5 miles per day as part of a tour, 8 or more when with students, but that’s a great way to stay fit if you also watch what you eat. One noted that it’s essential to have plenty of self-confidence, as guests quickly detect when you’re uncertain. Several noted that developing skills as a storyteller can be important to bettering our performance. As Alex Edmonds reminds us, “NOTHING ever is the same. You have to think on your feet and respond diplomatically to situations that come out of the blue. It is not a job for sissies.”
Beyond the “rewarding challenges” lies the sheer enjoyment to be had through this work. Once we’re established we get to choose where and how often to work, and what kind of clientele and Tour Operator we prefer to work with. There are plenty of options in what we can do with our training, whether long distance Tour Directing or local Tour Guiding, event planning, facilitating group arrivals at a transportation hub, and working with students, Seniors, or families on everything from budget trips to 5-star experiences, or even starting our own tour companies. Out on the road, most often we’ll have excellent support from an “Ops” team back in the office, so if a restaurant cancels on us, a wildfire impedes our route, or a guest becomes ill, they’ll help us work behind the scenes to keep everything moving smoothly.
Most of the people we bring on trips are lovely, and we gain insights into human psychology and relationships unique to people who are traveling and exploring the world. We go to beautiful places like the Grand Canyon and the Smoky Mountains (to speak only of the US) and we experience cultural and historical enrichment in places like San Francisco, Lancaster, Nashville and Washington, DC, while in each destination we learn more every trip to share with our guests about all it has to offer. We don’t have to clean the house or cook our meals while we’re away!
One of the biggest surprises and pleasures most of us have found in this second act has been the camaraderie we enjoy with others in the profession. Whether they’ve trained at our school or another and work for whatever company we’re currently traveling with or for the competition, most fellow TDs will greet us warmly, share tips on a vendor, activity, or location, and be happy to share a drink and an anecdote at day’s end on those rare occasions we actually have time and energy left to do so. There’s a high ethical expectation in the profession, along with our idealistic mission of sharing the world and helping people everywhere understand each other better—so these are good people to have your back! With our colleagues, wherever they might hail from, young or old and reserved or outgoing, we can let down our hair, compare stories, and not infrequently, as we do at Symposium, dance.
Is Tour Directing or Guiding for You?
Becoming a Tour Director requires a risk and an investment. All of the women interviewed for this article, like myself, spent several thousand dollars to attend a travel management school that gave us necessary skills and made us attractive candidates for positions with respected companies. Schedules and income vary every year and season, the schedule juggling necessary for independent contractors can be formidable, and when we’re working we endure periodic loneliness, long hours, and occasionally ungrateful clients.
None of that is so different than what we faced in many of the jobs we held before, and in return we’ve gained freedom, rich experiences in magnificent destinations, new friends from around the world, and colleagues who are unbelievably supportive and fun. Tour Director Jennifer Strand recommends, “If you think you’d enjoy travel mixed with customer care and absorbing and sharing information, give it a try,” (and she goes on to laud the importance of the travel management training we received). As colleague Alex Edmonds says, “It is a huge gift” to do what we do, and Beth Mohan echoes her sentiment: “This job has enabled me to find the joy in each day.”
Care to join us for your second act?