Tour Guide Work

Tour leaders can make or break an escorted tour. Katherine Lawrey investigates the recruitment process

A Riviera Travel tour leader in action

A tour manager can have a huge impact on the holiday experience for your clients. A bad leader can make a tour memorable for all the wrong reasons, but a good one can really bring a tour to life. So the pressure is on for operators to ensure they get the recruitment and training process right.

Here we ask three different tour companies – Riviera Travel and Newmarket Holidays for a UK perspective, and Collette, for a US perspective – to talk us through their selection strategies. We also chat to a TrekAmerica tour leader who knows what it’s like to go through the recruitment process.

Julie Anderton, head of operations, Riviera Travel

Julie Anderton, head of operations, Riviera Travel

How many tour managers does Riviera Travel employ?

We have about 260 on our books. Some work as much as possible, as it’s their main job; others may be semi-retired and cover tours less often.

Only our long-haul tours operate throughout the year – the short-haul work is seasonal (April-June and September-October), and we employ all our tour managers on a freelance basis.

What skills do you look for?

It’s vital that our tour managers love working with people, and they need to be calm and unflappable. We prize language skills so that if an emergency does happen, the tour manager can take control and communicate with local suppliers and services.

And they need to have a passion for the places we visit. It’s the little things that clients like to know – not only anecdotes about history, but which is the best coffee shop and where are the hidden architectural gems, for instance.

“It’s the little things that clients like to know – not only anecdotes about history, but which is the best coffee shop”

How do you select the tour managers?

Sandie Diaper, operations managers for tour managers, and I interview them together, and as part of that process, we will ask them to deliver a presentation on a subject of their choice. It’s important that our tour managers feel comfortable in front of a group of people and it’s a great way of finding out where their passions lie.

How do you train tour managers?

We train on the job as much as we can. After the initial interview, a new recruit will shadow an existing tour manager for an entire tour. In addition, we run a training course for our river cruise team, where we bring the tour managers to our head office for a two-day induction at the start of the season. Even when a tour manager has worked with us for years, they will still shadow a colleague before taking people to a new destination.

Sonja Okpu, product manager, Newmarket Holidays

Sonja Okpu, product manager, Newmarket Holidays

How many tour managers does Newmarket Holidays employ?

We have about 1,000 freelancers on our database, split between our various divisions. Some might only do one tour a year or cover our Wimbledon tennis breaks, for example, but about 700 are regularly active and make a good living out of it. Coaching is year round, but air charters are high season, and our educational travel division is mid-week only.

How many applications do you receive?

We are oversubscribed and we receive unsolicited applications every week. As we’ve had our big annual recruitment drive in January, it currently says on our website that we’re not recruiting, but where the applicant has relevant experience, we will always keep their letter on file.

What skills do you look for?

Our tour managers must be professional, presentable, friendly and calm. On receiving an application, we check for experience, and if they don’t have any, then we look to see if they have completed a relevant training course. We work with Worldwide Travel Training, and they send referrals to us.

The next stage is to see where they fit best, as the different divisions need different skills. For example, a coach break to see Cliff Richard in concert needs a tour manager who is bubbly, and not averse to playing Cliff Richard songs on the coach.

“We ask candidates to present on a particular subject. The group setting helps us see how other people react to their style”

How do you select tour managers?

We screen people at the application stage – we will always reply, whether we’re interested or not. We phone everyone we’re interested in, and draw up a shortlist for face-to-face interviews. These are held in groups – around 15 at a time.

We ask potential tour managers to present on a particular subject, and the group setting helps us see how other people react to the individual’s presentation style, as that can be quite telling.

How do you train tour managers?

We make a decision the same day – we do send applicants home if we feel that we can’t find a match of tour manager to tour, rather than accept them on to our books and then not be able to offer them any work.

That same afternoon, representatives from our various divisions talk to the new recruits, when they can ask as many questions as they need. We don’t have a shadowing policy, but we do keep a close eye on our new recruits through customer feedback.

Can your tour managers work for other companies?

Yes, as all of our tour managers are freelance. Plus, most of our tours need a minimum number to operate, so if we can’t guarantee the work, we will support them if they take on additional work that is guaranteed. Besides, if our tour managers can experience how other escorted operators work, that feedback is beneficial for us too.

How do you monitor tour managers’ performance?

All managers are assessed by customer surveys on their first three tours, and after that we carry out ad hoc surveys. We also use online review service Reevoo and will look for patterns in responses relating to tour managers.

Our customers, by their very nature, like to write letters and emails after their tours, and it’s always heart-warming to pass that on.

Kelly Nevins, director of tour management, Collette

Kelly Nevins, director of tour management, Collette

How many tour managers does Collette employ?

It varies year to year, but we usually have more than 300. They’re not all full-time but the majority work exclusively for Collette.

How many applications do you receive?

Every year we receive at least 2,000 applications. We hired only eight new tour managers this year because we have such a high return level. The average length of tenure is nine years and we have several who have been with us for upwards of 30 years.

How do you select tour managers?

We invite about 200 applicants for first-round interviews, when we analyse their behaviour and how they respond to situations. About half of those will have second interviews, and then we invite about 40 people to a hiring fam, which is a week-long competitive interview with exercises to test problem-solving skills in action.

“The average length of tenure is nine years and we have several who have been with us for upwards of 30 years”

How do you train tour managers?

Training varies based on the skills and experience a tour manager brings to the table. A tour manager who is new to Collette will go through a two-week residential induction. This will cover how to communicate with customers and with head office while on the road. There’s a lot of theory on how to manage tours in general and how to execute specific tours.

They will then go off and shadow a tour before they lead one. We will do shorter-length training for those with more experience and focus more on the “Collette” way of delivering service.

We also use webinars and e-learning to deliver ongoing training and we gather all our tour managers together at the start of the year for a week-long symposium.

What age are your tour managers?

They range from the mid-20s to the mid-60s. We look for a mix of experience, and we do frequently bring in younger folk because we find they don’t have so many bad habits to break.

How do you monitor tour managers’ performance?

We give every tour manager an annual appraisal and every guest fills out a survey on their return to rate the tour and the service of the manager. We hold tour managers to a really high standard. They have to retain a minimum 97% “excellent” or “good” rating for the year to maintain employment with us. We set the bar high, and that is why we do so much training – we want to say we have the best in the business.

The applicant’s story

Emily Fielder, tour leader for Trek America

Emily Fielder, tour leader, TrekAmerica

I spotted the job with TrekAmerica on the recruitment website It stood out because I would be able to come home to America and be paid to show people around my own country. I applied in December 2013 and did a Skype interview in February 2014.

The application process probed my likely responses to different scenarios – for example, if there was a member of the tour group who was late every day, how would I deal with that without offending them?

After the Skype interview I was invited to a hiring event in San Francisco. There were 30 of us together, with different backgrounds but all united by a love for travel.

We had to present to the group, as if we were talking to a group on the morning of a trip in a national park, so briefing on hiking, safety and weather, and so on. I found it nerve-wracking because I wasn’t used to public speaking, but everyone was very nice and we all gave each other constructive feedback.

The next morning, I received an email to say I had the job. But before I could start, I had to spend four weeks in a training camp in California. The first week was mainly office-based, and focused on leadership training and conflict resolution. We also went to a grocery store and did a test shop for 12 people. They gave us a rough budget, but we all went way over.

Then we took a road trip, and every day we took it in turns to be the leader. That was challenging because we were all friends by that point too. I led on the day we arrived in Vegas, but luckily everyone was on their best behaviour!

One girl ended up dropping out – she was quieter and realised it wasn’t for her – but the rest of us were still there in the end, and it felt like Christmas Day when we learned what trip we would lead first.

It was intensive training, but it gave me the confidence to lead a group – but knowing that if and when things did go wrong, I had a support network and the company would be behind me all the way. My first summer was awesome and I’m counting down the days until I start again this year.

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