Tour guides in training learn to handle the unexpected

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Students of the International Tour Management Institute take a group photo on Highway 1.
Students of the International Tour Management Institute take a group photo on Highway 1. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran

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.
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.
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.

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