Well, not really. One doesn’t just happen to become a tour guide. Like with so many things in life, one has to want to be a tour guide and to work hard at becoming one. I know I did.
Over a decade ago when I still lived Stateside in the Seattle area, I loved to attend Rick Steves‘ annual European Travel Festival in a local small town, Edmonds, WA. Over the weekend Rick and some of his tour guides would deliver free presentations to an enthusiastic audience of travelers (and tour alumni) showcasing some of Europe’s most popular destinations where the company has run a tour program for decades. France was one of them and because I missed France and Europe I would go and attend a couple of events each year alone or with friends who indulged me.
Along the way I made contacts and met Rick’s local team. Some would play an essential part in the years that followed when my life took a new direction and brought me back to Europe after more than two decades in the US.
Like many I used to think it would be “cool!” to join the travel industry and to get paid to see the world (or at least parts of it) and share it with others as an itinerant tour guide and a member of Rick’s team.
When the timing was right I reached out to old contacts and made that happen. In January 2019 I was invited to join the annual Guide Workshop where Rick Steves’ guides get flown into Edmonds, WA so they may join logistics meetings to prepare the upcoming season; meet tour alumni during the Travel Festival and network.
I proudly became part of the “2019 Class” and made friends I am still in touch with today.
In spite of Covid and the changes it brought to our lives I have just wrapped up my 3rd season touring around la Belle France with groups of North American travelers. That’s at least 200 people a year I have shared my homeland with while on the road.
Along the way I realized being a tour guide (Rick Steves’ wear two hats, as they are also tour directors) is not as easy as it seems. Lucky for me the organization hires individuals from different cultural and professional backgrounds and is fully committed to training them. Rick’s guides have one thing in common: More than experts they are enthusiastic teachers. As such they have free rein when developing their curriculum and presentations referred to as “talks.”
In 2019, an accomplished professional in France and the United States both in the corporate world and as an entrepreneur, I humbly became an “apprentice” and trained with some of the industry’s best guides to learn a new trade spending over 100 days on French roads and leading my first tours by the end of the season.
The so-called “Covid years” gave me an opportunity to study up (books, virtual conferences, podcasts) so I could hit the ground running when life as we knew it resumed in 2022.
A tribute to tour guides
Paris is a fascinating city that brings out the “Expert” in many people who’ve visited or lived there for a while. As such the city is chock-full of guides great, good, average or bad. It can therefore be challenging to stand out in a market where so many vie for tourism dollars. To promote their services local experts may resort to off-hand comments dismissing (other) “tour guides” as a boring, predictable bunch reciting facts and dates. To each their own.
I know wonderful, professional guides who work locally or as itinerant tour directors. Because I get to do both, leading local tours in the Loire Valley in my city (Tours) as well as taking groups around France, I realize how many skills are needed to do the job right, how much effort and time it takes to learn not only facts and dates but also to understand a culture in-depth beyond dated stereotypes to be able to make stories relevant to visitors in 2023.
The best tour guides I know are excellent teachers, captivating story-tellers knowledgeable about the facts and able to get an emotional response from their audience. They know how to engage others using humor when needed; ask questions so “talks” don’t turn into boring lectures. They communicate clearly and adapt to different personalities in the group. They get to know participants so everyone feels welcome and included.
As a tour director they have to do even more, be organized, self-sufficient, punctual, (very) patient, decisive when needed as they lead a group and handle all tour logistics with the help of coach drivers, local vendors, hotels, local guides, restaurants and more. Tour directors are “doers.” They make it all look very easy, but when a crisis erupts (health-related or not) they have to jump in discreetly (yet efficiently) day or night, so the rest of the group may continue enjoying their trip.
Finally good tour guides and tour directors have cross-cultural sensitivity (empathy!) to anticipate how travelers might feel while navigating unfamiliar territory in a foreign culture.
When it all comes full circle
And just like that, I am a tour guide.
This lifelong learner has found of way of leveraging most of the skills picked up here, there and everywhere in a challenging yet fulfilling career where routine is an unknown concept – and yes! – where she gets paid to travel and continue sharing her love of la Belle France.
On the road or not, in good times and in bad, I love my job!
Dedicated to all my tour guide friends, at Rick Steves Europe and beyond
and to all the tour guides I continue to learn from – Véro, October 2023
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