The tour guide, that all-important resource for creating unforgettable vacation memories, is undergoing a technology makeover, wielding a host of evolving tech resources that could help execute the job.
But technology is also presenting new challenges, forcing guides to bring something to the vacation experience that cannot be obtained on the Internet or a device.
"We have to accept that technology is here to stay," said Barbara Foos, president of the National Federation of Tour Guide Associations (NFTGA). "There are those who are threatened by technology."
Foos, who has worked as a tour guide at the Molly Brown House in Denver for more than 20 years, said that today some tour guides are worried that technology could ultimately eliminate the need to have a guide altogether.
Freelance tour guide Diane Chase leads a G Adventures biking, hiking and kayaking tour through San Francisco and Napa Valley. Photo Credit: TW photo by Michelle Baran
"On the flipside," she said, "there are people who are really using it to their advantage."
The 21st century tour guide travels with a phone, tablet and/or laptop, which gives him or her the ability to make calls, send and receive email and documents, fill out paperwork, access online data, check the weather, track flights, store photos and create presentations -- all while on the road. Few if any of those abilities would have been at their disposal as recently as 10 years ago.
The apps that have made their way into the hands of tour guides in recent years not only have helped smooth out many of the logistical wrinkles that are a daily reality of any tour guide's life, but they have literally lightened the load by eliminating the mountains of paper documents they used to have to travel with throughout a tour.
"I often wonder how guides survived prior to cellular phones," said Diane Chase, a freelance tour guide who has been leading groups throughout the U.S. since 2007. "My detailed notes are saved to Google Docs and Dropbox, and I can access them on my iPhone or iPad. ... I lead a lot of hiking tours, so I keep pictures of some of the trickier parts of a hike [on my devices] to show guests if they are worried about being able to do it, and I keep backups of maps. When I am working with students in [the District of Columbia], I have some audio downloaded so that I can give the students an additional sense of history."
With apps such as Viator, far left, and Triposo, middle, at travelers’ fingertips, the tour guide is no longer the sole authority. Front: Last year, Collette supplied its tour leaders with iPads.
There is no question that technology has the ability to enhance tour guides' performance and capabilities in countless ways. But it has its drawbacks, too. It can lead to an over-reliance on the Internet and sites like Wikipedia for facts and figures. It can be a distraction from the one-on-one interactions that are crucial to guiding. It can inadvertently give guides more work and responsibilities. And it can arm travelers with the belief that they don't need a human tour guide at all because of the countless travel apps and Internet resources they now have at their own fingertips.
"Technology gives guests opportunity to be experts, too," Chase said. "Tour guides really need to know what they are talking about; making up facts to cover up that you don't know something doesn't work."
Indeed, as tour operators have moved to offering more wireless Internet on motorcoaches and with more guests traveling with devices that have cellular data capabilities, the tour guide is no longer the sole authority. Guides are now traveling with a group of potential aficionados on any given topic who can search for facts and figures as quickly or quicker than their tour leader.
Colleen Main, vice chairwoman of the British region for the International Association of Tour Managers (IATM), said this fact forces guides to find ways to differentiate their value.
"The fact that people can Google things so easily makes us more innovative in the stories that we tell," Main said. "Anyone can Google a date; what we have to do now, even more than before, is bring out the stories you can't get just by Googling."
Main is a full-time, freelance tour director. She works with major global tour operators, taking predominantly North American tour groups through Europe.
In operator parlance, the type of work a guide does is differentiated by title. The term "tour guide" generally refers to a local or city guide, while the terms "tour director" and "tour manager" usually refer to someone who stays with a tour group for an entire, multiday itinerary.
(In this article, all categories are lumped under the broader term "tour guide" unless using the title of a specific person or the description used by a specific company.)
Tour guides and the associations that represent them acknowledge that technology is definitely keeping them on their toes. But they also say that it has reinforced those things that set tour guides apart and that will ultimately keep them relevant in the modern world.
"If you're looking for information, if you're looking for knowledge, go to the [Internet]. But if you're looking for stories, you need a good tour director," said Ted Bravos, CEO of the San Francisco-based International Tour Management Institute, which trains prospective tour guides for some of the country's largest tour operators.
Abercrombie & Kent Egyptologist Akram Allam has been taking groups through Egypt since the 1970s. Photo Credit: TW photo by Michelle Baran
"The tour director that really excels really knows how to set the mood for the entire trip," Bravos said. "They are a congenial host. They are the ones who know how to motivate people, getting people on tour to do something they would have never have done on their own."
And that in itself is a crucial differentiator, he said: "Google does not know your group's interest. It doesn't know your group's background. It can't see their faces."
The evolution of the tour guide
Back in the day, tour guides acted more like walking encyclopedias. Without the easy access to information we have today, guides were expected to spout endless historical facts and figures as they walked groups through cities or around important historical landmarks.
And while they certainly still do some of that today, the role of the tour guide has changed. Today's traveler doesn't need, or want, a long list of factoids that they can easily find themselves online.
"In general, clients are asking more questions about lifestyle issues pertaining to a particular region," said Paul Niskanen, co-owner of Portland, Ore.-based Cruise Masters/Concierge Travel Advisors. "In the past, guides focused more on facts and figures. Today, a guide becomes more of an 'instant friend in Italy or Spain,' in that he or she talks a little more about his or her family life, good restaurants and local traditions. "
For example, he said, "In addition to guiding clients to see the Colosseum while in Rome, clients are now asking guides to take them on a tasting tour of a Roman neighborhood or to find the best gelato."
Geoff Harrison, a Collette tour guide, uses a smartphone and tablet to help with tour logistics along the way. Photo Credit: TW photo by Michelle Baran
In an increasingly competitive vacation landscape, in order for tours to remain relevant, the tour guide has to elevate the experience beyond canned information, evolving into an emotional touch point, a person who represents all of those things that technology cannot provide.
"It is a talent," said Akram Allam, an Abercrombie & Kent Egyptologist and tour director. "It is a gift you are born with, to be able to bring history to life and make it an interesting story for everyone to understand."
Allam added: "My style in tour guiding is simple. I tell the history in [the form of] a story. People understand it better this way and remember it. But also, I always want every tourist in my tour to know that I'm his friend. Every tourist in my tour should feel very special."
Allam, who has been taking groups through Egypt since the 1970s, does not rely on notes. He has his information and anecdotes stored away in his memory.
A classic example of the more traditional style of guide, Allam has volumes of historical information tucked away in his memory. And his unique storytelling style, which is equal parts funny, heartwarming and engaging, has kept him relevant into the 21st century. He doesn't need or use much technology (probably in part a result of Egypt's lagging connectivity). Instead, he is focused on connecting with people.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Geoff Harrison, a tour manager for Collette in Iceland. Harrison travels with a smartphone and with a Collette-issued iPad on which he has countless resources at his disposal, ranging from destination notes to images and presentations. He plays audio of Viking folk legends on the motorcoach and keeps his group abreast of up-to-the-minute itinerary developments as he receives them via email.
While Harrison uses technology for information he might not have otherwise known, or to enhance his presentation, he still has to execute the tour in a unique way and connect on a personal level with the passengers. On the final night of a recent tour, he was enthusiastically applauded by his group, not because of the crafty ways in which his iPad helped him behind the scenes but because of the personal connections that had been made on the trip.
The world at your fingertips
Collette began issuing netbooks to its tour managers in 2011 and in 2013 swapped those out for iPads loaded with several apps, including iTour, a proprietary live reporting system; Secure Content Locker, a proprietary app that holds static documents in a "file cabinet" for them; Keynote for PowerPoint presentations; Mobile Pay for credit card processing; SuccessFactors, for access to the company's learning management system and online training classes that are proprietary to Collette; OpenTable, a restaurant reservation app; a currency converter; Translate; Weather Channel; Flight+, a flight-tracking app; and Google Maps.
Collette now provides iPads to all of the company’s tour leaders to use out in the field, loaded with apps to assist with everything from on-the-go navigation to back-of-house documentation.
Tour managers are free to innovate with their iPads as much or as little as they want. On their own accord, some have used their tablets to customize handouts such as welcome letters, create photo slide shows to show guests at end of the tour, and access the Web to do things like make reservations for guests at local restaurants and check flight schedules.
As tour guides increasingly look to their devices for assistance, there is a growing market for apps that cater to their specific needs.
"At the end of the day, a good tour manager is a good tour manager, whether they use technology or not," said Kelly Nevins, director of tour management at Collette. "For us, a good tour manager is focused on providing excellent customer service and meeting the needs and wants of our guests on a daily basis. The technology might help them give that service more efficiently, but we have plenty of non-tech-savvy tour managers whom our guests love, because it's about the personalized service."
What Collette requires of its tablet-toting tour directors is that they check their company email at least once a day and that they fill out the necessary company-issued paperwork and documentation, such as supplier evaluations and customer reports.
The fact that paperwork has become more automated and thus easier to ask for in larger quantities is a bit of a mixed blessing, many tour guides say.
"There is much more work now than there was 25 years ago," said IATM's Main. In the past, she said, the tour operator "sent you your documents, and everything was in a single envelope. And you sent back a report."
Today, she said, primarily due to liability and litigation concerns, tour managers have to meticulously document everything that happens each day on tour. Still, despite the additional work, Main said the reporting ultimately protects tour guides.
"In general, there's more accountability now than there was 25 years ago," she said. "It works to your advantage if something were to happen."
Always in touch
Another area where technology has vastly improved tour guides' lives is in the realm of communication.
A tour guide on India’s Ganges River captivates travelers with stories and in-depth knowledge about India’s rich religious traditions. Photo Credit: TW photo by Michelle Baran
For one, the wireless headsets tour guides throughout the world now use almost uniformly have completely changed the ways in which guides can walk, talk and explain their surroundings. Travelers can roam and take photos at their own pace while guides continue with their commentary. Guides no longer have to shout or compete for sound space with other tour groups; they can quietly speak into their microphones and have their entire group hear them.
Also, tour guides were once flying solo on the road for weeks on end. But today they can better connect with their head office and on a personal level with friends and family back home through low-cost or no-cost apps such as Skype or WhatsApp. They can also keep in touch with their tour guide colleagues, giving each other helpful tips and exchanging advice about problems along a tour route.
A virtual world
"Often the first question you get when you get onto the coach is, 'What's the password? Is the WiFi on?'" said Main, who pointed out that WiFi is increasingly being made available on motorcoaches.
An animated local tour guide in Bolzano, Italy, with a Trafalgar tour director looking on. Photo Credit: TW photo by Michelle Baran
She added that the question comes from tour members of all ages, even if they have just emerged from a hotel where they had access to wireless Internet.
People want to be connected 24/7, and their attachment to their devices, to texting, social media and Web browsing means that tour guides have to compete even harder for travelers' attention. They might look at a busload of passengers only to find the tops of heads that are buried in their smartphones. The question then becomes whether operators need to adopt and enforce cellphone policies or just grin and bear it.
Each tour guide takes a different tack in that regard. Some ask travelers to turn off their cellphones during portions of a trip or when they are visiting an institution where cellphones are prohibited, such as a museum or cathedral. Others have come up with creative work-arounds such as letting travelers know how long they intend to speak and informing them there will be breaks in the dialogue during which they can check their phones.
"And at the end of the day, if they would rather be on their phones ... they paid for the tour, as long as they don't bother other people," said the NFTGA's Foos, who takes a self-described "just roll with it" attitude when it comes to technology, something she said her grandchildren have helped her hone.
Tour guides are also grappling with how to deal with social media. Virtually all of their clients have accounts with at least one service, which means that inevitably the guides will get Facebook friend requests from past passengers.
Tauck Tour Director Wayne Allen uses comedy and charm to keep travelers engaged. Photo Credit: TW photo by Michelle Baran
"We advise our tour managers to tell guests to go to the Collette Facebook page and friend us," Nevins said. "We don't have other social media policies -- if a tour manager wants to allow a guest to friend them on a networking website, that is their choice. We do remind them that any posts about work, guests or vendors should be professional, but we don't police it at all."
All told, in an increasingly virtual world, tour guides feel that in some ways they are needed now more than ever. As the population spends more and more time staring at computer and smartphone screens, spending time with a real-live person, one who can evoke emotion and laughter and interest, one who can nudge people out of their comfort zone, has become an even more coveted resource in technology-driven lives.
"Everyone in their workplace is doing so much with computers, they want to connect with people on their vacation," Foos said. "As a tour guide, it's that person-to-person relationship that any type of electronic device cannot possibly replace."