How to Hire, Train and Retain the Best Guides: A Tour Operator’s Handbook

In this post, seasoned tour guide and operator Erik Hormann of Vantigo runs us through his best strategies to finding and keeping the best tour guides in town. Find more tools to help you with the hiring process at the bottom of this blog!

It’s Friday. You finally got around to that dreaded dentist appointment and it happens to coincide with the start of the morning tour. As you wait for the dentist, you check your phone and see a voicemail from the guide leading the tour. Then a message pops up: are you free for a quick chat after the tour is over? Suddenly you’re more nervous about what your guide is going to say than your impending root canal!

As you leave the dentist office, still half numb, you call your guide and get the story. They tell you that ten  people showed up for the morning tour the capacity is only seven. The guide went through his roster and checked everyone in except a family of three whose names were not on the list. When the guide tried to explain that he had no record of their reservation, the father quickly became agitated.

What followed was a sort of 60s-style sit-in protest: the customer standing in front of the van, trying to make the guide conjure up three extra seats. Disaster.

But then, your amazing guide figures out a solution. Even though he can’t get a hold of you (root canal time!), he offers the family a private tour right after he is done with the morning group – for free. Despite the fact that he had other plans after this tour, he puts on his superhero cape and saves the day. The father steps to the side, satisfied with the solution, and the tour is able to go ahead.

Turns out, we had been trying to reach the family in question for the last month to tell them their tour had been canceled. An hour after the morning tour took off, the father finally checked his email and discovered his mistake. He called to let us know that he wasn’t sorry for his actions, but he wouldn’t need the private tour.

Moral of the story: I hired the right guide.

As the owner of a tour company, you can’t be everywhere at once, so it’s vital that you’re hiring the right staff for the job. Below are my favorite ideas on how to do the best job possible when hiring, training and keeping your tour guides.

How to Find a Guide

Finding a new guide can be as unpredictable as the ocean. Sometimes, candidates come along in huge waves. Other times, you get nothing. If you’re having trouble, here are some good places to start:

Social Media
Some of my best guides have come from advertising on our own social media pages. Chances are, people that loved your tour and follow your company want to work for you! Plus, posting to your own Facebook and Instagram page is totally free!

One of our social media job postings

This U.S.-based site is great for recruiting tour guides. It’s also pretty cheap typically $150 a month. Be warned though, not all enquiries you get from these ads will be tour guides. You’ll have to sift through some random responses before you find the right candidate.

Indeed, GlassDoor and LinkedIn
These sites help me to distill my applicant pool when I’m looking to fill a more senior role. For example, if you’re looking for a General Manager or similar I highly recommend using these networks.

Other operators
If your company is one of the best in town, it’s possible you may be able to snag some great talent from your competitors. When posting jobs on social media, keep your eyes peeled for responses from guides that are with another operator. Guides will often reach out to you through these channels if they’re unhappy.

Friends and family
My very first hire came from sending an email to my own network of friends and family. This is another free way to get your advertisement out there, and you may be more likely to find someone you can really trust. Just remember, it can be harder to let employees go when they have a personal link to you.

How to Interview and Hire a Guide

Training a new guide is always a challenge. There is no rule book – other than the one you write. If this is your seventh hire, then you may think you have it in the bag. But trust me, no matter how many hires you’ve made, the interview process can always throw you a curveball or two.

Here are some things that have helped my interview processes go smoothly:

It’s all in the details
Make sure the job description is up-to-date and has all requirements listed, to screen out potentially unqualified candidates. My best example: all of our vehicles in San Fran are manual transmissions. Not listing that on my first job posting wasted a lot of my time.

Use phone interviews wisely
Take time to develop some solid questions for a phone screen. A phone interview saves valuable time and can weed out weaker candidates without the need to bring them in. Come up with your own make or break criteria and make sure you cover it in the call.

Tip: Check out some of my best phone screen questions in Peek’s “Tour Guide Hiring Process” resources  find them at the bottom of this post!

Ask the tough questions
I like to think of nightmare scenarios my guides have been in and ask candidates what they would do in those situations. Don’t hold back! Your guide will need to deal with unexpected situations (and questions!) all the time. This is your chance to see how they handle it.

Be upfront about the challenges
Sure, you want to sell your company as a great place to work (it is!). But you should also let candidates know about the less *ahem* glamorous parts of the job. Taking out the garbage, cleaning up the shop, maintaining equipment. This way there’ll be no nasty surprises for new employees and you can make sure you’re hiring someone who’s willing to pull their weight!

Put them on the tour
Make sure potential hires get some first-hand experience on a tour. This is a great technique which allows you to see how they interact with paying customers. It also gives one of your current guides the chance to give you their feedback on the candidate.

Bring in your team
Speaking of current guides, I see a lot of value in having a good portion of your team interview the person they are going to be working with. It helps you to create a like-minded team that supports each other and avoids drama down the road.

Probation, probation, probation
Setting a probation period allows you a fail-safe in the case of a new hire not working out. You could also use it to create an incentive for your new guide to do a great job. Why not start them on a lower wage, and offer an increase once they tour on their own? That way, you’ll give them something to work towards.

What Makes a Great Guide?

When hiring, it’s a good idea to take time to remind yourself what you’re actually looking for. What qualities will your guide need to do the best job? Knowing what you’ll expect from your guides once they start will help you look out for key characteristics during the hiring process. I’ve learned a lot of lessons during my time as a guide and a guide’s boss. Here are some of my best guidelines on what makes a great tour guide:

Knowing what you know and what you don’t
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this business, it’s that customers have a lot of their own knowledge about random subjects. They also love to test you (watch out for the beer nerds!). I’ve found that people will respect you way more if you tell them that you don’t know the answer to their question, and you’re going to look it up on the break. The best part – next time someone asks you, you’ll be ready!

Showing an interest in your guests
Just a few minutes of connecting with someone can make a huge difference and even result in a four or five-star review. Ask people on the tour for their story: how far have they travelled to be here? Where are they staying? People love to share, so make sure you’re not the only one talking.

Your guests make your tour show them some love!

Retaining information from previous guests
Your guests will be coming from all over, and you’ll be amazed at how much you pick up about places you have never been. Example: if a guest tells you an architect who built something on your tour is from their hometown, remember it! When someone else comes on the tour from the same place, this is your chance to instantly make them more comfortable.

Taking care of housekeeping
A good guide answers questions before they are asked. Frequency of bathroom stops, how many tastings are included at breweries/wineries, how long the break will be. Walk through the itinerary and utilize tools such as the map along the way.

Focusing on content your guests want to hear
If you get to know the group you’re with, you can understand what they are interested in. Is this their first time at a brewery? Maybe dial back the beer nerd speak. Keep it relevant and personalized.

Making guests part of your tour
Some guides hate having locals or experts on their tour. We love it! Have someone who was living in the city during a certain time? Stop the tour and ask them what it was like. They will be stoked to share their story, and you could even learn something new.

Being polite
Open doors for people, use appropriate language, say please and thank you. It sounds simple, but a little courtesy goes a long way.

Taking time to connect with the community
Too many times I have been on tours where the person at the tasting room or visitors center does not know the guide. I’ve even seen guides hide in their car during these parts of the tour. A good guide will go on a day off to get to know the people they see every day a bit better – if they’re known by the locals, guests will trust them more.

Staying in plain view
In the wine industry, a lot of guides hang out in their vehicles when people are wine tasting. While some wineries like it this way, you should always be checking in. It’s important for people to have some of their own time to explore, but it’s also important for you to be available for any questions that arise.

Taking photos for guests
People often forget to ask for photos if they are behind the lens. Ask people if you can take a photo for them. They will remember the tour that much more.

How to Train a New Guide

Ok, so you hired the best person for the job. Now how do you train them? My approach is a little more organic than others. But with an average retention for year round guides of two and a half years, its been a good use of my time. Trust me, it’s worth going the extra mile!

Here are some of the key steps:

Let them jump right in
Have the new hire start touring (along with your best guide) right off the bat. In my experience, it often takes a good month before someone has mastered our tours. They may be pretty rough in the beginning even after a month but hey, everybody has to start somewhere. The only way they’ll learn is by doing, so get them out there right away.

Use your library
The person you hired should have an interest in what your company does. We have a library of books new and old all about the area we tour in, and we encourage all guides to brush up on their knowledge. Our guides often “nerd out” about fun new facts they learned. Your new guide will be a total sponge when they start, and will likely want to join in on the fun.

Have them teach the content in their own way
I always make sure my guides know that the tour is what they make it. Sure, the content is super important, but they should always focus on what makes them excited. We do city tours in San Francisco and there is a lot of history to take in. If the guide is not excited about the content, the guests will see it.

Encourage guides to tell their story
People love to hear stories about others almost as much as they love to tell their own. One of the easiest ways for a new guide to make a tour their own is to weave in their story. How did they get here? What made them fall in love with this place? Make sure your guide knows that it’s super important to focus on the personal side of a tour as well as the general content.  

Have them create their own tour or product
This one has always been a great success for me when training a new guide. Get your new guide to think of a tour they’d love to run, and have them set it up as if it were real. This allows the guide to literally see what it’s like to put a tour or activity together from start to finish, with all the logistics behind it. The best part is, sometimes they think of something new that could be a big hit win-win!

How to Retain a Guide

Retaining good guides takes a lot of work. It’s not an exact science, and I learn new ways to improve my retention rate every day. Here are some strategies that have really worked for me:

In-service days
Around here, we call them District Days, or “D-Days”. These are paid days where you bring the team together once a month to learn something new or just to go have fun. We use these days to brush up on our skills and knowledge of districts, and it’s a great way to let the team connect better with each other.

Our D-Day on Angel Island!

Shake up your tours
Letting the guides not say the same thing over and over again each day is a great way to keep them from the dreaded burnout. Having more than one tour and allowing guides to rotate will help them stay sharp. Even if a different tour is not as profitable, it could still save you money if it means your guides stay with the company longer.

Respect them
Create a fair schedule and stick to it – but also try to make sure you give your staff flexibility. For example, I always allow my guides to take major holidays off if they want – with enough fair warning, of course.

Create a bonus structure
We used to give bonuses in the form of payment. After learning how much the government taxes a bonus, we switched to a Paid Time Off (PTO) Bonus. For every 10 five-star reviews a team member gets, they accrue four  hours of PTO. Everybody wins.

Wellness perks
Simple things like paying for a birthday dinner, monthly 30 minute massages, or bike to work incentives can go a long way. Show your staff that you care about their personal wellbeing, as well as their professional development. Happy guides make happy customers and a happy boss.

Little incentives go a long way!

Take an interest in your employees
Take time to understand what your guides’ backgrounds are. Why did they get into this line of work? What goals do they have? How does working for your company help them get there? Knowing your guides’ interests and ambitions will help you make sure they’re in the right role for them.

Watch for signs of burnout
If you see the signs of burnout, attack it right off the bat. A few key things to look for:

  • They show up five minutes before a tour, and finish up super quick
  • They complain dramatically if the tips are anything less than stellar
  • They’re suddenly unwilling to cover any of their colleagues’ shifts

If it seems like they’re heading for the door, figure out a game plan. Make sure you’re doing everything you can on your end: adjusting their role, incentives, regular reviews. If they’re determined to move on, offer to help them with a new direction. By helping figure out their next steps, you’ll be amazed at the ability to get a couple more good months from someone.

Great guides are an essential part of any tour company. They are the heart and soul of your operation, and the key to growing your reputation – and your business. Finding a great, well-rounded guide can be a challenge. But, by putting your best efforts into hiring and training, you can help ensure that your guides reflect your company’s mission and do you proud.

Want even more ways to make your tour guide hiring process go smoothly? Why not download our FREE hiring process tools, featuring candidate trackers, interview templates and exclusive interview questions from Erik! Simply fill out the form below to access your resources!