How Do I Become an International Tour Leader?
September 22, 2010 4:30 PM   Subscribe

I want to lead international tour groups. Please help me figure out how to find a job!

For the last several years, every time I considered a change of career, my only thought was that I wanted to work abroad. Fast forward to three months ago when I finally had the good fortune to Google “tour guide” and find information on international tour leaders (or directors or escorts: the same job seems to go by all these names).

I have five years of teaching experience (read working with groups, public speaking), another decade plus in publishing (read research, communications). Including the United States, I’ve lived in five different countries. I also speak several languages, enjoy showing people around, am a good problem solver, like groups. . . . From everything I read, I have the perfect background and personality.

The trouble is, very very few of these jobs seem to be advertised. Thus far, I’ve only really found one (potential) tenable route in: a certificate program at a dedicated school. (There are actually two schools, but the second, along with a couple of individuals who offer their own “courses” all seem a bit, mmm, scammy.) The first school, however, does seem legitimate. Not only do they spend a few weeks teaching you various industry-specific tricks and techniques, but they also promise job placement for life, and hold an annual job fair with prospective employers (tour operators). Unfortunately, all of that comes at a cost of four or five thousand dollars, which I adamantly don’t have.

So in attempting the direct route, I first went to my local public library, where they were kind, but flummoxed. Then I went to see a job counselor at my alma mater. He helped with my resume, but also didn’t know much about my chosen industry. On his suggestion, I did, however, start looking into trade associations to find operators myself. Thus far, I’ve found three huge lists, and have probably visited the Web sites of 250--with several hundred more to go. Of these 250, I only found one (open-ended) ad. Moreover, the tour operators themselves typically only provide contact information for people buying tours, not people looking to lead them. I suppose begging contact numbers from the odd customer service representative may be my best route in, but I wonder if there isn’t some slightly more direct way. Does anybody have any ideas!?
posted by Violet Blue to Work & Money (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have a friend who did this. She worked at a travel agency which organised tours to various places and she went as the group leader. Once abroad, she'd turn the actual tour over to a local tour guide but she was responsible for the hotel/food arrangements and resolving the inevitable complaints.

When she wasn't travelling, ie most of the time, she'd be booking hotels and flights along with the rest of the agents. She was lucky in that she didn't have specialized training but she knew the owner of the agency so she was able to learn on the job.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:36 PM on September 22, 2010

Have you spoken to anyone currently "living the dream" about how they got there? Formal informational interviews might not be possible if you're currently in the US and wish to be abroad, but if you could contact these businesses, even as a customer, they might be able to put you in contact with someone(s) who do(es) what you want to be doing.
posted by quadrilaterals at 4:36 PM on September 22, 2010

I work in the adventure travel field as a tour operator and have also led trips in the past. The reason you don't see the kind of job you are looking for advertised in the open is probably for a number of reasons:

1) Many of the guides hired by tour operators already live in the country where they lead trips. It's not economically feasible for some companies to pay international airfare for each guide every time they have to lead a trip. That would add to the overhead of trip costs. Tremendously.

2) This is not a job that is usually a full-time position. Many of the people I know who guide trips only do it a few times of the year. The rest of the time they are travel writers, ski patrollers, rafting guides, teachers, etc.

3) Those of us who do hire guides will NOT hire an inexperienced guide. My clients pay us thousands of dollars to go on the kind of trips we design for them. I can't risk their disappointment if their guide does not live up to the high standards that we set up.

Do you speak the local dialects in the remote areas that we send clients to? Do you know enough of the local language to bail someone out of jail? Translate emergency medical needs? Convey a client's food allergies to a local cook?

If a client falls down and is severely injured, what do you do? Do you send them to a local medicine man or track down a horse to carry the client to the top of a cleared mountain where you've called in a helicopter to medevac them out?

If someone asks you to hit the black markets to change currency for a better rate, do you mind the risk of going to jail if you get caught?

What do you do when you have a tour group of 17 people and there's that one lone man who no one else can stand to spend a second with? Guess what, you've found yourself a dinner partner for the next two weeks.

Your client was promised a four star hotel. It's a four star hotel all right - in the most remote region of Nepal. A local's four star version of a hotel is an American's version of a one star hotel. What do you do when she starts screaming at you about the lack of hot water, hygiene, and familiar foods?

Your client wants The Most Authentic Experience Evah. That means taking ayuhuasca in the middle of the Ecuadorian rain forest with a shaman. Your company forbids you to recommend this to anyone. Client takes ayuhuasca anyway. Client convulses and dies in the middle of the jungle at 3 am. What are you going to do?

There are probably a couple of resources you can check into, like the Adventure Travel Trade Association, different tour operator professional groups that specialize in different regions (Antarctica, Galapagos, Africa), the International Ecotourism Society, etc. Maybe attend some of their conferences and meetings and begin networking, because really, this is one of the professions that you won't get your foot in the door unless you really know someone who knows someone...

But the best thing you can do right now is maybe do a couple of cold calls to some of the tour companies out there and see if anyone is just willing to give you a few minutes of their time to give you advice.

Or you can MeMail me (but do it fast, I'm leaving next week for a round-the-world trip...)
posted by HeyAllie at 5:03 PM on September 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to all who have answered so far. I'm very impressed with the helpfulness and rapidity of the Mefi community!

To specifically address a couple of points made by HeyAllie (who I will also memail with other questions; thanks for offering!), in case it's helpful to others who may weigh in:

* I'm aware of adventure travel as an important category of travel; I also know that some tours cater to very high-end luxury customers. My interests are both tamer and simpler: More culture-oriented travel which, I think, tends to attract more middle income customers. So although, no, I don't feel the least bit equipped to lead a (perhaps demanding) group into the Himalayas or the Amazon jungle, I would be quite good at leading a (perhaps demanding) group into some of the cities, towns, and ruins of Mexico, say, or Italy. In both instances, I do speak the language, and could, for example, troubleshoot with hotel and food service providers to make sure that the guests came away happy and, at the end of the day, the tour operator did, too.

* I also wouldn't consider setting foot in a country with a group of people without having a plan for emergencies, probably some CPR, a cell phone, interesting commentary on places in our itinerary, and so on. As a former teacher, I *do* know how to manage difficult adults in a larger group setting.

* Finally, I've heard that some tour operators train their group leaders, usually by having them accompany a more experienced tour leader. Where can I get more information on that? How typical is this?
posted by Violet Blue at 6:11 PM on September 22, 2010

Actually, I worked in the field as well, and while I'm sure HeyAllie has it right for his company, lots of companies do hire inexperienced leaders who aren't from the part of the world their working in. You do have to be willing to live in the country you lead tours in but it sounds like you're up for that.

I was a tour leader for 2.5 years, and worked with other english tour leaders from all over the world, both with our company and with other companies we paralleled with. We all worked full time, but that was because we were in a part of the world that was suitable for year-round tours. Those in European countries tended to work more seasonably. We were all hired without experience in leading tours although, like you, we all had experience working with people and groups of people in other circumstances. Basically they hired for intelligence and personality and trained for everything else.

They rarely hired students fresh out of school, wanting people who had enough life experience to deal with all the crazy (and sometimes horrible) things that happen, but otherwise there are quite a lot of companies willing to take a risk, and because you are working in various countries, there is no need to limit yourself to companies in your country - for example I did not need a British visa to work for a British company because I was not working in England.

As for language, it depends on where you are. In countries where English is widely spoken or where systems are set up to make life easier for foreigners, you don't have to speak the language. I didn't speak Arabic when I started, and I'm still not fluent. We had resources we could draw on when we needed language help but most of the time it didn't matter.

I'm not suggesting that it is an easy job, and you need to be realistic about whether you can handle dealing with people you may or may not like 24 hours a day, 7 days a week or being the one who figures out what has to happen when someone gets lost or has a medical emergency in the middle of nowhere. It's demanding and exhausting and not for everyone.

But don't let HeyAllie scare you away from pursuing this. I got a job without knowing the language, having experience as a tour leader,or knowing someone on the inside. I got it based on my attitude, enthusiasm, and proven ability to think on my feet and deal with a crises. An I could name at least 20 other tour leaders off the top of my head who got their jobs the same way. The companies that take this approach tend to be the more adventurous/lower budget companies like dragoman, toucan, komoka, and oasis. And they don't post their positions because they don't have to but if you visit their websites you can usually find hiring information or the name of the recruiter buried deep within.

Good luck with this! For people well suited to it, it can be an amazing job.
posted by scrute at 6:13 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who does this through Rick Steves. I think you should start by finding tour operators that offer the type of tours you're interested in, then inquiring about their hiring practices and what they look for when recruiting a new tour guide.

FWIW, my friend does not make a full-time income from this despite having done it for many years, and thus he has to supplement his income through various writing gigs as well.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:06 PM on September 22, 2010

I was a tour leader for 9 years, in Europe, Central America and North America. I went to a " school" prior to being hired. I suspect it was the one you mentioned in your question. I was hired very soon after finishing the program and had a really wonderful decade in the industry. The money was great, the travel itself was memorable, and I met some really facinating people along the way.
The downturn in the economy has changed the hiring climate a fair amount, but I still think you might find exactly what you are looking for with perserverance and a little luck. You can memail if you'd like more information about the school you were considering, or any other info about breaking into the industry.
posted by Rapunzel1111 at 10:27 PM on September 22, 2010

Another perspective FWIW:
As a travel blogger who has been living overseas for 2 1/2 years, I'd LOVE to find a tour guide job. Like yourself, I speak some of the local language, have plenty of knowledge of the local area, etc. etc. There's plenty more supply than demand, however - and the list of requirements HeyAllie mentioned are some sobering thoughts.

Why not start something small, on your own, and publicize the crap out of it? Your skills - and your testimonials - will add up to a point where you might find it more profitable to go your own way. If that dream travel opportunity does come your way, it's easy to work that at the main job, and keep on doing your own thing on the side.
posted by chrisinseoul at 7:01 AM on September 23, 2010

In addition to all the great recommendations above (though be careful with starting your own, there may be liability and travel-industry-inexperience roadblocks), I worked for Untours for a few years out of college. Not doing exactly what you're looking for, since the way it's structured is that the company took care of logistics and had a local person at the destination for orientation and emergencies -- no "tour guide" per se. I did get to travel with them a bit, but mainly to familiarize myself with the locations and accomodations for sales and to get to know our local staff people.

That said, if you're looking for the companies that target more middle-class, culture-oriented, I'd suggest you just take a look at how the trips organized by Grand Circle, General Tours, Road Scholar (formerly Elder Hostel, but I guess they wanted to go more upscale and younger), Globus, and Overseas Adventure Travel. At least, from what I can recall, these were the companies that were mentioned most often by other clients.

Read through their promotional materials, especially the ones that describe how the travelers being supported, what they can expect from their tour guides, etc. Can you imagine doing this? They may have job listings on their sites, or the name of someone who is not strictly sales that you could cold-call to see what type of people they hire (if they hire non-locals at all).

I'd also Google the company names and look for job postings -- maybe there's a hybrid position that combines travel with some other work, because as someone mentioned above, it's really hard to employ someone year-round in the most popular non-adventure travel destinations.

Check on LinkedIn for people you know (or 2nd degree contacts) work at these companies, perhaps you can finagle an intro to do an informational interview.

It's exciting work, but it definitely is not the most stable, given that travel is subject to lots of economic fluctuations -- exchange rates, when the economy goes south, travel's often the first budget item to be cut.
posted by polexa at 10:30 AM on September 23, 2010

Oh, the other thing I wanted to mention is that you could look into adjacent industries, like being the onsite director for college study abroad programs, language schools, international volunteer programs, anything along those lines.

Depending on your exact background, this might be easier to break into.

There's a mailing list SECUSS-L for Education Abroad professionals. Once in a while a job posting comes through that's for an overseas position.
posted by polexa at 10:35 AM on September 23, 2010

The first school, however, does seem legitimate. Not only do they spend a few weeks teaching you various industry-specific tricks and techniques, but they also promise job placement for life, and hold an annual job fair with prospective employers (tour operators).

I'm pretty confident I know what school you're referring to, and if so, I actually went to it, graduated, got the certificate, etc. In fact, I just got the newsletter to register for their upcoming symposium (which I won't be going to, because I decided pretty early on that I'd rather spend my free time traveling on my own than herding cats on a tour company's schedule). Feel free to MeMail me if you want more info about the school.

However, it is, as far as I'm aware, pretty difficult to break-in to the tour directing business from the outside (although, as pointed out above, it is certainly possible). And unless you're willing to take all sorts of not-as-cool jobs (i.e. local tours/driving across the US tours/etc), you might not be able to make a living strictly off tours. You'll probably need another job, one that will allow you take time off at the drop of the hat (last minute fill-in is an excellent way to get a foot in the door).

Perserverance, mainly, is the key.

But keep in mind -- while your life experiences are definitely a boon, most tour companies want someone who will show up, put the customer first, keep them safe, and not lose any customers or luggage.

Oh, and I was reminded by someone upthread -- most overseas travel is contracted with a local company. You'd be there mainly for more administrative purposes ("count the people, count the luggage; count the people, count the luggage") and to make sure everyone is safe/having fun/doesn't get lost. (Again, not necessarily the case in ALL situations, but the majority).

Good luck!
posted by paisley sheep at 12:35 PM on September 23, 2010

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