Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Brief: This is an article for I wrote for tourist guides in Africa for a small professional publication called update. I had my own column for a year where I was able to stand on my soapbox and the corns of as many of the people in the industry as possible.

"Kindness in thinking develops profoundness."
Lao Tsu

It all began in the laundry.
The laundry is a remarkably creative place, where one has time in between wash cycles to contemplate the deep mysteries of life... like " Why am I here?", "Where am I going?" and "Will there be a place to park when I get there?."
After getting tired from the mental effort that comes from solving the worlds energy crisis, my thinking meandered towards the industry we all know so well.
I wondered..What makes tour operators tick? What in their minds makes or breaks a good tourist guide?... I was determined to find out....
All the tour operators I phoned were unanimous in one respect. Professionalism amongst guides is important to the tour operator. The bottom line is that the tour operators good name goes with the guide. A poor tourist guide is a poor reflection on the operator.
Tourists deserve service - they are paying for it. Where those interviewed differed was defining good service. A contrast between empathetic friendship and an eye for detail emerged.
For the majority of those interviewed, human relations skills stand out as the most important ingredient in being a great guide.
Whether this is acquired or something one is born with, a gut feel, it separates the good guides from the exceptional ones. Margaret of Mag-shi coined the phrase professional empathy that sums it up quite well. Have a genuine love of people, in spite of all their idiosyncrasies.
Allied to this is the fact that as tourist guides, we spend a tremendous amount of time listening. Intuitively finding out what the client is really trying to say or ask.
While talking may be where our bread and butter comes from, this enigmatic "professional empathy", of which listening forms a key ingredient, is the caramel topping.
Many new guides fail through not understanding who the tourist is and that they are here to have a holiday.
Remember, details matter - it makes an impression on clients if the guide does not know the difference between a soup spoon and a table spoon. In all respects the guide’s conduct should be exemplary. Grooming, table manners, prompt handling of check ins and check outs as well as the nuts and bolts of vouchers and bills, is delicately mixed with the knowlege of what wine to have with which courses.
How much traveling do you as a guide do yourself? This is not only a great way to keep sharp as a pin, but also good for brushing up on areas you may not have been to for some time.
A good example is the upcoming Centenary of the Anglo Boer War. Some of the tourists likely to make the trip will be far more knowledgeable than the average guide regarding the units involved and their respective movements. Who they were, where they were stationed, but the tourist guide has one great advantage, if he has gone to the effort of doing his homework well. Visiting the terrain can be the difference, particularly on a battlefield, terrain determines the flow and ultimately the outcome of the battle. (Which leads me to my next point.)
Tourist guides need to be excited story tellers. When Tommy reaches the white cliffs of Dover he needs to still be able to smell the subtle mixture of fire, smoke and the bushveld grass after a battle. If he does, we as tourist guides have been successful.
So, lets go out there, get it right, and never let the truth get in the way of a great story!

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