Letting Go of Tour Guides: 5 Tips for a Painless Process

This is the first in a series of posts from Erik Hormann, owner of successful San Francisco tour operator Vantigo. Here, he shares some of his best tips on how to tactfully utter those words that no operator wants to say: “You’re fired!”

You did it! You created an amazing tour company, and you grew fast. You built a solid team around you and spent time making them great.

But… then came the slow seasons, the economic downturn, the unpredictable weather. Now,  you’re facing the prospect of letting some of your staff go.

Sound familiar?

I started my company five years ago, and in that time I’ve seen my fair share of tour guides come and go. As the man in charge, firing staff is a tough but necessary part of the job.

The perfect guide shows up to work 30 minutes early, covers for other employees, gets five-star reviews and donates all his tips to Save the Whales. But we’re not talking about that guide.

We’re talking about the guide you spent two months training. The guide who started out great, but then started showing up later and later for their tours – and sometimes not at all. The guide who, on more than one occasion, came into work smelling like the bar from the night before.

Unexpected changes like these are a reality for any tour operator. Sometimes the guide doesn’t perform as expected, or slow season hits and you need to shrink your team.

Whatever the reasons for firing your guide, here are some of my best tips for making the process as smooth as possible:

1. Run the numbers

Sometimes the financial realities speak for themselves. Can you really afford to keep a guide that isn’t booked out all the time? Slow seasons and slow profits often require reductions in staff. If this is the case, it could also be a chance to “clean house” and get rid of anybody not pulling their weight. After all, it’s hard to argue with the numbers. If the machine isn’t making money, your guides can’t rage against it.

2. Stay calm and take your time

I once had a guide who was due to co-lead a tour with me. The only problem: they didn’t show up until 30 minutes after it ended. At the time I wanted to explode – but instead, I told the guide to go home and take the rest of the weekend off. By the time Monday came around, I was calm and collected. I met up with the employee, gave them their last paycheck, and we parted ways with no hard feelings. Protecting your reputation as a boss as well as a tour operator is vital if you want to hire and retain the best guides.

3. Use the hard facts

Does this guide have a ton of bad reviews? Are there a bunch of emails from unhappy clients with their name mentioned? How much in refunds or canceled tours have they cost you? I like to make my staff imagine themselves in the shoes of the father-of-four who only had one day to explore the city with his family. How would they feel if their experience wasn’t top-notch?

4. Put yourself in their shoes

How loyal has your guide been? Did they see you through some hard times? If an employee was really there for you or even helped you grow your company, letting them go can be super tough. If this is the case, let them know how much you valued them and thank them for their help. Breakups are never easy, but sometimes they’re necessary. If you handle the situation well, your guide will understand.

5. Leave the door open (or open another door for them)

As a boss, one of my personal goals is to have every person that leaves my company be headed towards another great opportunity. Like I said, sometimes it’s nothing your guide did, and you want them to succeed. I found myself in this situation recently: one of my team members was burnt out in his role but didn’t have the network to find a new path. Using my connections, I reached out to several industry contacts to see if they had any positions available. Fast forward two years, and that team member is thriving with a nearby brewery and even comes back to guide a tour with us from time to time.

5. If all else fails, keep it simple

I truly believe in meeting face-to-face when letting staff go. But occasionally, employees won’t want to face reality in person. If you’ve tried your best to get in touch with no response, send them a text thanking them for their service and mail them their last paycheck. After all – you have a business you need to focus on.