SAN FRANCISCO — A massive storm was heading toward the
California coast as a group of 27 tour-guide students pulled out of town for a
two-day training familiarization trip to Monterey and Carmel.
“What would you do on a day like today, when you’re having
one of the biggest storms coming your way?” Ted Bravos, CEO of the
International Tour Management Institute (ITMI), asked the students.
“Reverse the trip!” one shouted.
Bravos nodded. That was precisely what ITMI was planning to
do: Drive down the coast on the tortuous Highway 1 the first day, while the
weather was still calm, then head inland for the return trip, when the forecast
called for a massive downpour and strong winds.
Much to the delight of ITMI’s instructors and executive
team, the big December storm turned the two-day training journey into a
more-realistic-than-usual exercise in troubleshooting and problem-solving on
the road, dealing with the kind of unplanned itinerary disruptions tour guides
face on a regular basis.
Among those who were especially pleased was Jordan Allen,
director of field staff for Trafalgar and Insight Vacations, who had gone along
on the trip to observe ITMI’s methods.
“I was impressed because they were teaching the
[hypotheticals] of the business that someone off the street wouldn’t think
about,” Allen said, adding that some 75% of the travel directors he and his
team hire each year are ITMI graduates.
“I’m a big proponent of learning by doing,” he said, noting
that ITMI’s approach to the storm was, “This is a challenge, but we can turn
this into an opportunity to teach.”
And those kinds of challenges, he noted, are “something that
can happen on any trip in the world.”
As the tour industry continues to rebound and tour capacity
continues to grow, 57% of respondents to a recent U.S. Tour Operators
Association survey said they planned to increase staffing this year. To
accommodate that growth, operators are going to need more tour guides to take
their groups out on the road, both as a result of normal turnover and to meet added capacity needs.
ITMI student Lara Alexander gives a talk on John Muir outside the River Inn in Big Sur, Calif., as other ITMI students listen. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran
For tour operators, finding qualified and personable guides
is a crucial first step in developing a product that will ultimately surprise
and delight their customers and hopefully stoke repeat and referral business. A
program like ITMI’s does a lot of the prep work for operators by giving people
who apply and are accepted to complete the rigorous curriculum a solid foothold
in the skills that define a good guide.
“The tour director who really excels really knows how to set
the mood for the entire trip,” said Bravos, who co-founded ITMI in 1976 and
remains an active tour director. Since its inception, ITMI has produced more
than 7,000 graduates. “[They are] the ones who know how to motivate people, get
people to stretch, to grow to do something they would have never have done on
their own, to try new food, to go snorkeling for the first time. They know how
to be a good listener and a good navigator.”
These are among the many skills ITMI hopes to instill in its
graduates during the 16-day, $2,000 course. Topics covered range from an
overview of the tour operator landscape to practical issues such as speaking
into a microphone, checking passengers into hotels, doing a baggage inventory.
And time is also devoted to developing a resume and cover letter and learning
to deal with ethical and customer service issues.
In 2015, ITMI will host eight of these two-week courses. And
last week, ITMI held its annual Symposium & Reunion in Newport, R.I., an
event that serves as a recruiting and networking function enabling tour
operators to meet and scope out potential new hires.
Among the wide range of
ITMI graduates they will meet this year will be 17-year-old Guatemala native Andres Bonilla,
the youngest-ever ITMI student; Tom Keller, a retired zoo-train driver and
social worker from St. Louis; and Giulia Denobili, a young Italian
archaeologist who lives in Chicago — all of whom attended the December session.
No matter at what stage of their careers and lives they find
themselves, they all have different reasons for taking the course. A common
thread is a desire to travel, of course, but in addition many students are
looking for a more engaging way to interact with people and cultures.
Keller said he was interested in becoming a tour director in
part because he felt that age discrimination wasn’t an issue in getting hired
in the tour director industry.
Lara Alexander of
Roswell, Ga., is a travel agent who wants to start her own tour operation.
Steve Johnson, now retired and living in Tulsa, Okla., said he missed the traveling he
used to do working in the pipeline planning industry.
During the two-day training fam, each ITMI student had to
take a turn giving presentations, similar to the type of talk they would have
to give on a tour, on a preassigned historical, geographical or biographical
topic, such as Mark Twain or sea otters. And they couldn’t use notes.
Their presentations exhibited their different levels of
confidence and creativity. Some relied heavily on humor to keep the audience
engaged, while others became very animated. Some were more obviously nervous,
while others spoke too softly or too loudly at first. Bravos would occasionally
give them subtle pointers, on how to stand more comfortably and safely at the
front of the motorcoach, or about how to find the right volume and placement
for the microphone.
Andres Bonilla, ITMI’s youngest student ever at 17 years old, gives a presentation on sea otters. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran
They took turns taking on other responsibilities, as well.
Bravos would ask if someone onboard could call a particular restaurant and let
them know what time we were arriving, or would ask that a student sit beside
the driver and help navigate, all of which exhibit the multitude of tasks tour
guides have to juggle while they’re out on the road with groups.
Allen of Trafalgar said that while the people he hires don’t
necessarily have to come from a tour guiding school, the formal training helps.
“If someone has ITMI on their resume, there are certain
things we know about these people,” he said. “They are serious about getting
into the industry; they’ve committed the time and money.”
Asked what a recruiter ultimately looks for in a potential
new hire, Allen said, “I’m not as concerned if someone gets a little nervous at
the start. When someone speaks, I want them to make me feel something. If they
can stir some emotion in me, then we can work with them over time to work with
their delivery. … Everybody has to start somewhere. Nobody comes into the
industry battle-ready from day one.”
They might not be battle-ready, but a week-and-a-half into
their curriculum, the ITMI students were certainly battle-worn. They
acknowledged that the program and tour guiding in general added up to more work
than they had expected. But they all appeared determined to stay the course to
becoming tour directors.