What is a tour operator?
A tour operator is the business or corporation behind each and every tour and they can widely vary in size. Large corporations (like Trafalgar, Tauck, and Contiki) typically brochure multi-day itineraries for numerous states and/or countries. TO’s (as they’re called in the business) most often have sales and marketing teams and departments that contract with hotels, vendors, bus companies and tour guides.
However, a tour operator can also be a small, local company responsible for building and executing a tour from the ground up (like Florence for Foodies and Biking Buenos Aires). Now this may seem simple if you’re only advertising a one-hour walking tour, but there are small start-ups who cater to hundreds of guests and only have a few employees. Often, when you’re dealing with a large brand that offers tours internationally, you may book a tour through their company and their website but once you arrive at your destination you may come to discover that they’ve actually sub-contracted with a more local company. For example, I went on a two week tour through India in 2010 and I booked my tour through Imaginative Traveller. When I arrived at the starting point of my tour I realized it was actually being run by a company called Geckos Adventures but was being branded as both. While this really shouldn’t affect any part of your tour, it’s worth noting that large tour operators sometimes don’t run ground operations in each brochured destination.
What is a tour guide/manager/leader/director?
For multi-day tours:
Simply put, your tour guide is the face of the company you booked with while you’re on tour. But they are so much more than that. A tour guide’s typical job responsibilities include all ground logistics. They do things like check the group into the hotel, confirm meals and dietary requirements with restaurants, call in confirmations to activities like wine-tasting or hot-air ballooning, and handle all issues that arise while on tour. Sure, they have an operations team that can help them when serious issues come up but it’s really up to your tour guide to make sure the tour runs smoothly. This is not an easy task and (in my experience) most guides consider customer service to be their most important job function—their guest evaluations and gratuity depends on it (more on that later).
Additionally, a sufficient tour guide should be able to provide historical and cultural information about the places you visit and should also be able to answer questions about the itinerary or the properties you’re staying at. For example, your guide should have a rough idea of what time you’ll be arriving at the hotel and should know if the hotel offers laundry services or a continental breakfast.
When booking multi-day tours with large tour operators, the guide is usually touted as a tour director or manager or trip leader. There are some people in the business who make a distinction between this role and that of a local tour guide. On multi-day tours it’s quite possible that you will have what’s called a step-on guide (literally a local guide who steps-on your motor coach to provide a city tour) who has more in-depth local knowledge. With that being said, any guide who takes his/her job seriously should also be able to provide information about the places you are going—perhaps not to the degree of someone that actually lives there, but the guide should have a solid knowledge base of the places visited. For example, your tour director should also be able to explain the Boston Tea Party to you if you’re headed to Boston though they might not be able to suggest a restaurant that serves gluten free crab cakes. It is ok for the traveler to assume the guide has actually visited all of these places before, as most companies offer what are called “shadow” trips to guides who are learning new itineraries. However, this is not always the case! “Fake it till you make it” deeply applies to being a tour guide. When I started in this industry I had a flip phone, a paper atlas, and a binder with printed out information about the places we were going. Needless to say, it’s so much easier now for a guide to quickly look up information to answer questions when needed.
Do not assume your guide knows everything about everything. During my first year guiding across America (2008, I had a flip phone), I had an Australian journalist come on my two week tour of the west coast and follow up with a magazine article about the tour and the company. In the article, he mentioned that my knowledge base was a mile wide and an inch deep and at the time I remember being highly offended. But the more I traveled and thought about it, the more comfortable I was agreeing with that statement. Guides are often only spending a night or two in a destination before moving on or they might spend half of their calendar year leading tours on one coast and the other half leading tours elsewhere. It is not until guides build up the experience in destination after destination that they will be able to tell you where to eat the best sandwich or get the richest coffee. We are lucky technology now provides the guide and traveler with endless information, but the bottom line is that any traveler should not rely on their guide for the answer to every question they have. I once had a women point to a golf course in the distance off the side of a highway and ask me what the green fee was. To something like that, I will never care about not having an answer.
For local tours:
Local tour guides are typically invaluable—especially if guiding is their full time gig. The city/park/farm/etc is their office. Use them for their knowledge. Ask them questions about anything from how to use the metro system to their favorite craft beer bars to the cleanest public restroom. It is almost a guarantee that their knowledge will be much more accurate and in depth that the guide book you’re carrying with you.
Something to note: Most of the time tour guides are independent contractors. There are a few large tour operators who hire their guides full time and provide a salary and health benefits but in my experience 3/4 of the guides you’ll come in contact with work contract to contract. This means the same guide who leads certain tours for a five star luxury company may also work for a budget family company at other times of the year. Guides often change hats depending on the day. I have a drawer full of uniforms from all of the companies I contracted with over the years. However, does that mean my knowledge base or customer service skill set changed from tour to tour depending on the company I was working for? Of course not—I always wanted to maximize my income potential.
Which leads me to…
Tipping and Evaluations
I’ll keep this short because I hope for most it’s common sense. Tour reviews and tipping are taken very seriously by everyone in the tourism industry. Please review your guide fairly. If it was raining one day and an activity was cancelled because of inclement weather, it’s not the fault of your guide and should not be reflected in his/her evaluation. I’ve been blamed for snow storms in the Grand Canyon and wildfires in Yosemite. It happens.
Gratuity is often how tour operators justify paying their guides really low wages. When I started with my first company in 2008, I was making $5.50/hour. You read that correctly. Guides, like everyone in the service industry (in America), heavily depend on gratuity. Regardless of if your home country tips or not, please follow the suggested amount given to you by your tour operator and note that those are the average suggestions. If you had an outstanding guide who made your holiday a joy, please show your appreciation.
What are multi-day group tours?
Itineraries that range anywhere from 2 days and beyond qualify as multi-day group tours.
You would find these in the brochure of a large tour operator. I like to call them sampler platters because TO’s are consistently trying to pack in as much activity as they can in an allotted amount of time. It’s all about the bang for your buck. This, however, doesn’t bode well with some (more on that later). Most often, this is what is included on a multi-day group tour:
- ground transportation (in the form of a motor coach with driver) from the starting point to ending point of a tour—not all companies provide shuttles/transportation to/from airports
- hotel accommodation is typically based on double occupancy. This means that if you are a single traveler you will be paired with a same-sex roommate—unless you choose to upgrade to a single occupancy room, which costs more but you’ll get some privacy
- a tour guide/manager/director/etc to take care of all tour logistics and to make sure your tour runs smoothly (hello!)
- SOME meals—this is huge. Rarely does a tour operator provide all meals. It is very important that if things like breakfast are especially important to you that you read the fine print of the brochure. More often than not, the TO will provide some breakfasts and some dinners. Lunch is hardly ever included unless you are traveling with a luxury brand, and even then it’s few and far between. If a company does not provide breakfast, DO NOT assume that your hotel will offer a free continental breakfast. I truly have had countless guests blow up in my face because they were not provided breakfast by the TO or the hotel. This is all in the fine print. Like all things in life, if you are getting a really inexpensive deal on a tour you will make sacrifices along the way for it. However, does this mean that because you are not provided each and every meal you will go hungry? Of course not. Food options are always available at the guests expense
- some activities—this really varies by TO
Typically NOT covered by a TO:
- traveler’s insurance
- air travel + baggage fees
- some meals (again, read read read fine print)
- hotel incidentals
- most activities
Are group tours for me?
If you’re contemplating a multi-day group tour here’s a small pros/cons list:
- most things from start to end (on the ground) are handled for you by your tour director—it’s a easy way to travel especially if you’ve never been to any of the locations or just don’t feel like always having a map out, traveling with a group can alleviate a lot of stress
- group tours come with a base price that covers the above mentioned amenities so you’re not worrying about booking hotels/restaurants/etc. You pay once price for the majority of your holiday
- It’s a great way for single people to travel—this is especially true for single women who might not be comfortable venturing out on their own in big cities
- if you don’t have time to research your destinations before your holiday but still want to learn about all of the places you’re visiting, group travel (through your tour guide) truly does provide you with so much historical/cultural/local information
- groups are often big. The average motor coach can seat 54 or so passengers and each and every TO is trying to maximize their profit margin by selling each seat available (some companies will even cancel departures if not enough seats are sold). There are a handful of TOs who cap their group sizes around 15 or so depending on where you’re traveling (African overland tours come to mind) but in America/Europe/Australia you can often expect large group sizes—read the fine print if you take issue with too many co-travelers!
- tours are not leisurely holidays—see above regarding packing it all in. Therefore, if you enjoy really taking your time places, a group tour may not be your cup of tea. Every time you disembark your tour coach the tour guide is going to tell you a pretty strict time to be back on it. That’s just the way it goes
- there are often early mornings and late nights—if you enjoy sleeping past 7:00am (most days) you may want to reconsider a group tour. There’s a lot of ground to cover!
- you might not like your travel mates or tour guide. This is rare but it can happen
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