Following from Part 1 I’ve continued to write about other aspects and experiences of my inaugural year of being a tour guide.
I was ‘selected’ and went through to training because I came across as having an outgoing personality (who could engage with guests), was demonstrably organised, physically fit, appeared trustworthy, had an attention to detail, was customer focussed and displayed some energy/enthusiasm for the tours. This is my conclusion at least! Whilst it reads well then I feel most folk have these attributes. However, you do need some agility and emotional intelligence to ‘read the room’ with a tour party and prevent or resolve challenges.
It started in February with a reconnaissance trip, with other newly hired guides, around Northumberland and very briefly in Yorkshire. We visited the walks, towns and attractions (albeit usually just to the outside of these great buildings.) The days were chilly, wet and bleak and we ended up with a curtailed programme as Storm Dudley blew in and we spent (too) little time in the Dales. The other guides were experienced, with other operators ,and I was the complete newbie. From here there was the plan for me to obtain a Private Hire licence so that I could drive the guests around in a small minibus. This was aborted after starting out to complete the process in Newcastle. You needed detailed street by street knowledge of the Toon to get qualified, I was never going to achieve that. Each council have their own specific requirements and other councils don’t necessarily stipulate this. This meant, this season, I’d be relying on other guides to drive or we’d have to use taxi minibuses.
Two other sets of training were mandated. First was obtaining an Outdoor First Aid Certificate. This was 16 hours of kissing dummies (or cardiopulmonary resuscitation – CPR) in the Peak District. It was a long two days and involved pretending to be half alive rolling in the grass whilst another course member had to establish your cause of injury as you lay ‘comatose’ (avoiding the nettles.) Anyway, I got the Certificate and if problems arise then I’m ‘off Go’ but apart from the responsibility of giving First Aid I’ve come to learn that the paperwork is horrendous if a guest has an episode or accident (on behalf of the tour operators.) I now request all guests mind their feet and take no risks just to protect me from endless form filling (rather then their health.) Some laugh at this but I’m being serious! I learned many things I never knew and in many ways I think all folk should do some First Aid training.
Lastly, I had to complete a five hour online course for one operator. Most of it was about adopting their ethos and procedures. I suppose the issue is that the guest has bought one of their holidays and the operator wants consistency and maintenance of the brand equity. However this was a global operator and so much seemed irrelevant. Having been on similar tours overseas many issues and processes are different and it all seemed ‘box ticking’ as it wasn’t appropriate in the UK. For example the guides were meant to check the accommodation prior to arrival. In a shack in Nepal this seems a good idea but is it relevant with the equivalent of a Premier Inn in Northumberland?
So that was the formal training but separately I must have visited the Dales on four separate occasions to familiarise myself with the sights or experiences eg. Fountains Abbey, Bolton Abbey, Aysgarth Falls, llama walking, location of hotels etc. This is time consuming and personally expensive in terms of car miles (round trip of 120 miles) but it was vital to give that, attempted, seamless experience and to be able to field those inevitable questions.
It was important to develop a good relationship with all the guests and have a decent daily conversation with each one. However, there are inevitably places ‘not to go’ such as politics. Innocently you can be drawn into conversations on Boris Johnson or economic policy! If all that merits a swerve then you also may need to be discreet on your own life. I’m not sure if I was stalked or I let it slip about the blog but one lady kept coming up with cryptic comments about my writing. You have to remember that you spend around 12 hours a day with these folk and keeping mum on everything isn’t easy if they’re inquisitive.
Our old friend GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) was high on the list of the operator. We were instructed not to share information between guests. So we always sought consent prior to any data sharing. Frankly, the guests had no concern about giving their telephone numbers not only so that we could have a link in case problems arose but also to set up a WhatsApp group. On WhatsApp, which it seemed 90% of the guests already had, we all shared, during the week, photos, restaurant options, menus and occasionally advance notice of coming weather especially if it was wet! Some women start the holiday with the usual ‘I don’t want my photo taken’, ‘bad hair day’, ‘wrong clothes for a photo shoot’, ‘I always look terrible’ etc. So, of course, I respected their wishes but after a couple of days they’re scouring WhatsApp for all the photos and asking to be included. They’ve now worked out it’s a great way of quickly passing the best images on to family and friends and they’ve relaxed to be a bit more confident in the group. Needless to say I quickly deleted all this information post tour.
I always was kept in mind of playing the role of Mr Carson, the butler from Downton Abbey. That is, you’re not part of the group but you are ever present literally opening doors for them as they walk serenely along, answering all sorts of questions with supposed authority, operate as the very personification of discretion, be able to communicate on their level but never let it turn into a conversation where you let slip your wealth or superior travel experiences, be prepared to resolve anything no matter whether it is large or small, attempt to be invisible and whilst you’re ultimately in charge you’re never as important as the guests. Again I know, Tony ‘Humble’ Ives does seem like a long week for me but it wasn’t. You’re working, and as we all do, you adopt different behaviours in a work place.
In my next blog I write about the challenges. There are quite a few!