How to be a Good Tour Guide

You might think that a good guide needs to have a PhD in Art History or a family that dates back for seven generations in the area. Neither could be further from the truth. If you are reading this, you already have the best quality in a guide: curiosity. A good guide is curious about his/her surroundings and likes to learn about new things. Wherever you live can be boring or full of things to explore. The difference is your perspective. A good guide is also curious about meeting new people. Beyond curiosity there are three main qualities that make for a good local guide.

  1. A good guide is sensitive to the needs of others.
  2. A good guide is well organized.
  3. A good guide has knowledge of the local area.

A tour guide can be as gregarious and funny as Robin Williams or as knowledgeable as a professor but neither talent will make for a great experience unless the guide is sensitive enough to realize when someone’s feet hurt. A good guide always tries to think about the needs of the people he/she is hosting before their own agenda.

For example, lets say you are to provide a tour of San Diego Bay. You plan to walk the couple you are hosting along the boardwalk down to Seaport Village and then down to see the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier and to the old merchant ship the Star of India. After this you are planning on taking the ferry over to Coronado Island. Your couple shows up and they are in their 70’s and she has a cane. If you try to carry out your planned agenda all three of you will quickly be tired and frustrated. Instead you can dump your plan and ask them what they are interested in seeing. Once they have expressed an interest in seeing the Star of India; you could mention to them that this is a very long walk and that hiring a Pedi cab would provide them with a great way of getting over there while still being able to see the scenery of the bay from the boardwalk. You might then give them a shorted version of your San Diego Bay history talk while you wait for the Pedi cab. You then send them on their way and tell them you will meet them over there in 15 minutes if they have not offered to hire you a Pedi cab as well. After seeing the Star of India the ferry ride provides a nice view of the USS Midway Carrier and you can continue to talk and tell them about the history without having to risk either one of them falling on the treacherous passages inside the Carrier.

As is evident from this illustration, a guide must sometimes be quick witted and innovative. Above all else the guide needs to be sensitive to the needs and limitations of his guests and realize when they are tired, hungry, bored or simply unable to do the things they have signed up for.

The above example also illustrates how important it is for a good guide to be well prepared and well organized. The guide above was able to save the situation because he/she had the Pedi cab company’s phone number in his/her cell phone. A good guide will have plans, back up plans and contingency back up plans to help them deal with unforeseen problems and complications. Being organized also means that as a guide you won’t forget to meet someone or show up in the wrong place. A good guide knows when the museums, parks, restaurants and other attractions are open. A good guide stays current on all local events so that he/she can suggest lots of things to do and see.

Lastly, a good guide is knowledgeable about the area. This includes places to go, things to do, museums, local attractions and places to eat. Put together a collection of local attraction brochures and keep them with you. A series of web links that you can e-mail is also a good idea. If possible get this information to your guests before they arrive. Have them tell you what they are interested in seeing and doing.

As a local guide it is smart to advertise what your interests and specialties are. If you love to sail you will likely make a great guide for a boat lover vs. someone who gets seasick even looking at the water. Look at your hobbies with fresh eyes. Maybe you quilt-put together a Quilt Lover’s Tour. The opportunities are endless. Tourists interested in the same things will love the opportunity to explore these things with you and as a group you will have a wonderful time together.

Make sure you think about taking your guests to some of your favorite little local places. As a local, you know that obscure walk behind the cemetery or the little place that sells the best plate of ribs. This type of real local information you take for granted will often end up being one of the highpoints of your guest’s vacation. Especially include things unique to your region. Back to the San Diego example. Fish Tacos are San Diegan. As a local guide you would take your guests to the bar next to the OB pier for great tacos and because that dive captures the Southern Californian beach life style perfectly. Remember that your guests have chosen your destination for a holiday above a lot of other places. Why have they done this? Ask them and then enhance your tour using that information. Having a healthy tourist industry brings clean money into your local economy and that in turn will indirectly help your life and the lives of the people in your community. Try to focus on this point when you get that family tour group with the two screaming kids!

Lastly, a good guide enjoys his/herself and likes meeting new people. You won’t like all the people you host but the good people you do meet will be the ones you will remember. Moreover, maybe next time you are in their hometown, they can show you around!