Tour Guide as Designer: Lessons from tour guides

There are lessons for experience design in the observations and methodologies of tour guides who facilitate the interactions of their guests in dynamic environments.

It’s about people, people, people.

Johns Hopkins, director of Baltimore Heritage, wants the locals who go on their tours to be excited to point out things about the city to others. He says that the best, most successful tours are what the attendees call the “real deal,” where the presenter is an insider who is really passionate about the place. The presenter doesn’t need to be articulate, or even speak English well; they just need to be really in love with the place to talk about it. When he calls up people about doing a tour at their place, often the tour location sponsors don’t believe anyone would care to see their work place. He convinces them to schedule a time and the tour would fill up in every case. The presenters are nervous to speak in the beginning, but by the end they are so excited that they want to do it again. Being a tour guide for a day becomes an affirming experience for folks in the trenches. They get a renewed sense of pride about their place in the city.

Own your material and present it in a fun format.

The Santa Monica Conservancy held a public birthday celebration at the historic Marion Davies Guest House to share stories about the late actress, whose house is now part of a community beach house. Docents dressed up in period costumes and presented an aspect of Davies' life in each room of the house. Ruthann Lehrer explains, “Each docent plans their own talk. I provide the key “talking points” although the docents put it in their own words—they need to take possession of the material. The research for the docent talks plus viewing many of her films gave all the docents a greater appreciation for who she was. She has never received the recognition that we felt she deserved. Having a birthday celebration seemed to the docents a great way to turn the spotlight on her once again. And, we were right!”

Learn to recognize how much is enough.

Linda Feinstone, president of Archaeological Tours states, “I actually believe that planning a tour is an art and some people have a sense of what people want to see and how much they can tolerate in a day and some people don’t. A tour is never final. I always go on the first tour and make adjustments for the next one. Not every traveler will enjoy our tours. Some need a lot of leisure time whereas our clients want as much touring as possible. They want to see as much as possible. We have some clients who have figured out that some sites might be dropped after the first tour and so they want to be on the first tour so as to see it all! Many of the travelers of today are so different from those that went with us in the 1970s. They wanted an adventure. Now so many people want to know exactly what to expect in every hotel room. To me this is the opposite of adventure. I am truly grateful for the majority of our clients who open themselves to the experience and write to me expressing their feelings about the wonders they saw.”

Observe people’s personal relationship to place.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, tour lecturer and director of the Easter Island Statue Project observes, “Most of the older generation learned about Rapa Nui from the publicity surrounding the exploits of the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl during the immediate post-WWII era. Those visitors were motivated by a real passion and curiosity but had a lot of misinformation about the culture. They came almost exclusively to see the giant statues (moai). More recently, there is a good deal of aggressive advertising by competing tour companies and a wealth of travel information on the Internet. Visitors today have better information but less passion, it seems to me. I was surprised at how many people are invested in travel as part of their own identity or who they imagine themselves to be. Essentially, travel really broadens some people, but others are merely looking for confirmation of their own world view. My experiences have led me to confirm my own hypothesis that memory is really linked to place and that place and memory are the fundamental touchstones of human history.”

Understand the needs of your audience, and specialize in an area that you’re passionate about.

Sue Pon specializes in planning tours to view ice skating competitions in Europe. She says, “I have been a skating fan since the early 1970s but over the years the tours kept getting more and more expensive, so I decided to explore doing tours on my own. For my skating tours, it is about providing the basics but doing a good job about knowing the clients. Luxury hotels were great, but when you get up at 8 a.m. and head off to see ice skating and do not come back to the room until 11 p.m., what did you see of your hotel? The niche was to develop a tour that got you good tickets to the skating, gather a group of people together that know about skating and can carry on intelligent conservation and also arguments on skating, and not spend over one month’s salary doing it.”

Get right to the point, and let people ask questions.

Sally, a docent at the National Building Museum says,“Some people go on and on and on, and I don’t do that. I get right to the point. I think you lose the interest of the person. Let them ask questions if they want to know.”