What Makes Today’s Tour Guides Successful?

In today’s travel industry, tour guides are more important than ever. Guides who drive business have the responsibility to enhance the travel experience by keeping guests happy, safe and inspired. This is the person who can make or break a trip; therefore, finding the right match for your group is essential.

what makes today's tour guides successful?

We spoke with several Travel Alliance Partners (TAP) Tour Operators to gain insight into what they look for in their own tour guides. In addition to key takeaways, some of the owners shared that they regularly take on the tour guide role within their own companies – not only does it keep them connected, but it’s an opportunity to impart that special sense of wonder that comes with travel, to their customers.

Note – the below examples reference guides that may cross over into tour manager/director roles (they are with the group for duration of the trip and more itinerary management is required of them compared to stand-alone guide roles).

Key Personality Traits in Successful Tour Guides

“It’s beauty that captures your attention; personality that captures your heart.” – Oscar Wilde

While specific sites or destinations are what may initially attract a traveler to an area, a great tour guide can bring a depth of knowledge to a location in a personable way that creates an even more memorable experience.

So, what are some of the main qualities a tour guide should possess? First and foremost, communication skills are key to the profession. Guides must be friendly and comfortable speaking (and even better storytelling) in front of a group in order to relay everything from historical facts to cultural etiquette and safety measures. Organization skills with an eye for detail, ability to multi-task and punctuality are a must. Humor and the ability to have fun help distinguish stand-out guides.

In episode 123 of Destination on the Left, Jason Murray, Owner of Southwest Adventure Tours explains that he tries to hire guides who have a similar love and passion for the unique experiences offered on his small group tours. The expertise of his guides range from professional photographers to anthropologists and wildlife biologists.

“I look for people from different walks of life,” says Murray. “But one thing that I hunt for is that they all can get our guests to have personal experiences, and come away from our tours with that wow factor that provides the desire to come back and do more in the area or get greater appreciation for the areas they are visiting.”

On the Fly Decision-Makers and Caretakers

Perhaps the most important attribute for a guide is the ability to problem solve and roll with the punches. If there’s one thing that guides can count on, it’s the fact that unplanned circumstances will occur. Whether travel delays, illnesses, inclement weather or reservation mishaps, Tour Operator Shannon Larsen of Ed-Ventures explains that guides need to think on their feet to provide solutions, because how the guide handles issues could affect the entire group.

“If the guide is nervous, the group will be too,” she says. “Sometimes it’s as simple as holding someone’s hand figuratively, while trying to solve something.” She refers to a guide who made up for time delays by distributing snacks, incorporating extra stretch breaks and personally checking in on each guest regularly. “It’s little things, but makes people feel they are cared for.”

Honor the Magic Moments

Tour guides have the honor of witnessing magic moments. According to Richard Arnold, who has worked for three decades with Atlantic Tours and as owner for eight years, his first love and passion is to be a host on his trips.

“When someone has saved all these years to see bucket list items and you get to see their reaction to something they’ve envisioned for a long a time – it can be quite moving,” he says. Interacting with the group by sharing special moments helps bring everyone together and often creates an emotional bond between the travelers and the guide. “They all hug you when you leave – there’s tears in their eyes.”

Connectivity with Guests Promotes Future Travel

For Murray, the relationship building between both the guide and guests, as well as the tour participants with one another, is one of his biggest rewards. Sharing such meaningful experiences make it easy to forge friendships that last well after the tour has concluded. Many customers will go on to request the same guide on future trips, or even regularly plan ongoing new travels with other group participants.

Technology Awareness

The evolution of technology has speeded up and simplified many aspects of travel for guides, including e-tickets and the ability to make last minute-changes, adds or cancellations. Communication can take place before the trip even begins, via a newsletter or group social media posts that offer sneak peaks to engage and excite the participants. Modern headset devices offer more flexibility for larger groups on walking tours or in museums.

Technology is now often expected during transport, which has led to both advantages and setbacks for guides. Showcasing a short DVD about a destination or attraction can help with enthusiasm for visits and WIFI access can help promote locations and shared images at the tap of a button. However, connectivity can also lead to managing disruptions. Guides now need to monitor customers who become too loud on their device or be prepared for guests who choose to question statements made by the guide by checking their accuracy online. A balancing act, indeed.

How to Find Tour Guides

In addition to typical career sites and word of mouth referrals, learn more about the following organizations that can serve as resources to provide contact information for reputable guides.

Since 1973, The International Guide Academy, Inc. (IGA), has trained and placed international Tour Directors and Tour Guides across the globe. Located in Denver, CO, IGA offers Tour Guide certification programs and training by certified world-class instructors and can provide recommendations for guides who have graduated from the program. Graduates have worked with hundreds of Tour Operators, Destination Management Companies, Cruise lines, Sightseeing companies, and more.

International Association of Tour Managers (IATM) is an organization comprised of 750 professional members (Tour Managers/Directors/Guides) worldwide speaking many languages and with a variety of special interests. 

Remember to also reach out to local tourism offices, which can offer local experts who often work as step-on guides.