Showing Off My Hood
February 16, 2018 8:36 AM   Subscribe

I am contemplating studying to get the NYC Tour Guide's license and doing occasional guided tours as a side thing. Help me pick holes in this idea, or figure out how to hack it.

This would not be something to live on. This would be firmly in the realm of "side hustle"; or not even that, more like "hell, I like poking around the city, I also like showing friends around the city, maybe the next step is to show visitors around and earn pocket change now and then for it if I can." Because I do like poking around the city and discovering weird stuff, and I also have been finding myself browsing travel forums and leaving "advice from a local" for other tourists a lot. Clearly this is something I like doing.

I've looked into the procedure for getting a license, and have checked out their study guide (and have ordered a few of the books they recommend). I'm also going to take a few tours myself, to get familiar with what other guides are doing. I think I've got the "research and how-to" angle covered.

Possible cons - I'm a tiny bit shy as a public speaker, although I can be a perky, happy and personable speaker as long as I have a fairly consistent script to follow. The wild-card questions may make me wobble a little bit, though. So - maybe start with one-on-one volunteer things for practice? Something to consider?

Help me think of other cons, point out things I may not have considered. Again - this would NOT be a transition to a wholly new job as far as I'm concerned (not for very many years, anyway). This would be very strictly a pocket-money-side-hustle.
posted by EmpressCallipygos to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The only thing that concerns me is the "fairly consistent script to follow" bit. As a person who takes tours, some of the worst ones are the ones where you can tell the tour guide says the exact same thing over and over all day long and it has become sing-song rote. The absolute worst one was when the guide kept getting distracted by people chatting on the bus. He kept saying "Please stop talking" and then he kept repeating huge paragraphs of his rote speech because he couldn't figure out how to continue.

The best ones are people who just TALK to the group. If someone in the group mentioned that they are a musician and later the guide points out a Mozart statue and relates it back to that person specifically, that kind of stuff is the best. You can have a script, but it should feel like natural speaking to you.

I really don't see any downsides FOR YOU for following this plan. If you study and get the license and you do a few tours and you love it - that's a plus. If you do a few tours and you don't love it or you are a terrible guide, then don't do any more. It was still fun to learn the study material
posted by CathyG at 8:50 AM on February 16, 2018

A lot of cities/neighborhoods have tours led by local volunteers, which sounds your speed. If this is a thing in your area, this may be a good way to get a hang of the tour guiding thing. You'd get something approaching a script, someone else would do the promotion, etc. Then once you know the ropes a bit, you could branch out to do your own tours.
posted by lunasol at 8:53 AM on February 16, 2018

This sounds like a good idea! The only hole I can pick is this: for any kind of self-activated gig, there's always a totally different skill set one tends to underestimate, apart from the skills you have/stuff you like. That is: You like and are good at poking around and showing people things in NYC. Giving guided tours entails other skills and obligations: How will you advertise and promote yourself, get people to sign up, collect money, stay organized, get group passes, whatever. Will you enjoy setting all that up?
Maybe you're talking about applying to an organization that hires tour guides though. If so, just go for it. I never mind if the guide is a little shy or stumbles on a fact. It's nice knowing you're with a human, not just listening to a pre-recorded script on headphones.
posted by velveeta underground at 8:54 AM on February 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

The best tour guides, imo, are the ones who are clearly deeply passionate about their subject and can add tons of off-script color or group-relevant anecdotes. I have been reading your NYC-related answers in AskMe for years and I think you would be AMAZING at this, and as CathyG says I don't see any huge downside in this plan. Go for it!
posted by lalex at 8:58 AM on February 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

Don’t worry about being a bit shy off-script. It’s something that will come with time. Once you’ve done it enough, your ability to bring more and more color and depth will grow.

I think this is a great idea.
posted by Vaike at 9:03 AM on February 16, 2018

Have you taken any tours from the Municipal Arts Society? Loooooove them, and just wanted to put in a plug as you research what this could look like for you. They get a lot of curious question-askers, so observing what people are asking about and how guides respond when they do or don't have more information could be a good exercise, too. And good luck! This sounds like an awesome venture.
posted by dapati at 9:25 AM on February 16, 2018

I'm shy and have given quite a few tours, and I agree with everyone encouraging you not to go for a script.

I found it really helpful to bring very brief notes so that if I got panicked, I could glance down. I mean about three words/names/dates per stop, really really brief notes - just enough to kick me back on track if my mind wasn't playing along. For tours I gave repeatedly, I needed the notes way less each time and could talk naturally as well as tailoring slightly to the groups. I also got much better at knowing when a tour was slightly difficult because someone was being a jerk (oh, the Actually Men...!, and when it was because of something I was doing, which is I guess part of building confidence.

The only downside I found is that acting non-shy was fucking exhausting for me. I love the research and preparation stages so much, but I only do tours for visiting friends or friends-of-friends now because it's too draining. But, if this happens to you, you'll know it.
posted by carbide at 9:30 AM on February 16, 2018

Possible cons - I'm a tiny bit shy as a public speaker, although I can be a perky, happy and personable speaker as long as I have a fairly consistent script to follow. The wild-card questions may make me wobble a little bit, though. So - maybe start with one-on-one volunteer things for practice? Something to consider?

Based on my small experience as a docent (and tons of experience doing customer service), you don't want a word-for-word script, which will be canned and boring, but you DO want an outline so that you know where you want to stop, what you want to point out, what stories you want to tell, and how much time you want to take at each stage of the tour and for the tour in general. Think of it like having index cards for a speech -- you know the topics you want to talk about and for how long and why, but you do the actual talking extemporaneously. Also work into your route some specific rest-stops for guests to refresh themselves (ie, bathrooms and water). The shyness and feeling tongue-tied will go away with practice, I wouldn't worry about it.

If I were you, I would try working someplace as a tour guide before striking out on your own, mostly so that you get to know the back-end of the business better. (And I specifically say working rather than volunteering, because the information you need is about stuff like licensing, booking, bookkeeping, etc, that volunteers probably won't be much exposed to). Ideally, you'd be a tour guide for a small company just like the kind of one you're planning to run.

In any case, I think you'll love it and it's a really great idea.
posted by rue72 at 9:39 AM on February 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Sounds like a relatively capital-light business, which is good for a side hustle. The big issue will be attracting business in a very crowded field, so I would really try to come up with distinctive themes rather than offering more generic "here's the neighborhood"-type tours. (If I had a job where it would be more appropriate, I've often thought a tour covering the various bombings and assassination attempts on Wall Street would be interesting...)
posted by praemunire at 9:47 AM on February 16, 2018

An opportunity that's coming up is the Jane's Walks, which is a community-based effort for volunteer-led walks celebrating cities (in any aspect) - the walks are the first weekend in May. If you sign up to develop and lead one of these walks, it'd be a good chance to try a lot of the aspects of tour-guiding, but with someone else helping publicize the event and draw a friendly, forgiving crowd of strangers. (I've heard of walks given by grade school children about their neighbourhoods - nobody's expecting a seasoned pro.)

But you should absolutely do it - you're so knowledgeable!
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:13 AM on February 16, 2018

I was and still am a shy nervous public speaker. I spent 2 years working nights as a tour guide at a small penguin colony in Australia & had an absolute ball, best job of my life 10/10 would do again in a heartbeat & I normally find people & socializing energy draining, but was always energized after my shift.

Wildcard questions were easily handled with, Sorry I don't know that off the top of my head, hang around after the tour & I'll check our reference material/other guides see if I can find out (This was before the era of smart phones) now a days you can check it out in seconds at the tours end & supply an answer, looking things up during a tour only slows things down. The only time I didn't know what to do was with a group of 8 year olds when I heard a seal in the bay nearby & shone a torch on it just in time to catch it ripping the head of a cute tiny penguin and flinging the body around, this will most likely not happen to you.

I did tours I thought were absolute failures with maybe seeing 5 penguins at a time of year there were normally 50 or so in the area & had the people afterwards tell me they did the tour every year & this was the best one so far. So learn from your mistakes & move on and don't be too hard on yourself, chances are no one on the tour will realize you even made one. Have story to tell not just shove factoids at people. ie this building was built by such & such fun anecdote about him or why he build it. People won't remember the date a building was built or how it was built but will remember there once was a speakeasy in the basement.

Oh and learn to project your voice.

OK this may not be the sort of advice you wanted no I've reread your question but I'll leave it as hopefully it will reassure you, if I can be a tour guide, anyone can.
posted by wwax at 10:55 AM on February 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

From demonstrating at historical events I learned that the activity provided all the reminders I needed to give a coherent talk. I imagine the landmarks would do the same.
posted by Botanizer at 11:14 AM on February 16, 2018

If you want to practice I would love to take a little tour with you and give feedback!
posted by catrae at 3:24 PM on February 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Ooh, me too! We could make it a meetup.
posted by Liesl at 4:31 PM on February 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was a tour guide on buses as an extra job, and I loved it (in the Falkland Islands - another penguin-related location, wwax!). The thing I wasn’t prepared for, that was great, was that everybody who got on my bus was in such a good mood! They were on holiday! Having an adventure! It was so uplifting.

When people asked questions I didn’t know the answer to, I would always say “Actually, I’m sorry, I don’t know the answer to that, but catch me after and I’ll find out,” - and I never once had anyone come back to me in pursuit of a promised answer (this was pre-smartphones when they certainly weren’t going away to look the answer up themselves, they were just idly curious, and never enough to pursue it).

Do it!
posted by penguin pie at 4:54 PM on February 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

...Dang, y'all -

So, doing some "practice tours" is something I considered, but it may not be for a while yet; I want to read up some of the books and take some other people's tours myself. And get over the stage fright. So any "practice meetups" won't be for several months.

But that's a good idea...
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:03 AM on February 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was a tour guide for about a year and I absolutely had a word-for-word memorized script, because I'm a nervous public speaker but had acted in plays for years and it worked better for me to treat it like a part in a play (or a one-woman show, really). Having a script down doesn't automatically mean you'll sound robotic. So do what's likely to work best for you!

And I agree that being willing to say, "That's a great question and I don't have an answer!" is a huge asset. I would generally go home and look things up after, so that if someone asked me the same question in the future I would have the answer. People were also often happy with responses like, "You know, based on what I've read about X, my guess would be Y, but that's absolutely a guess." I think people are more likely to trust you if you admit not knowing things, because then they'll know you're not just making things up.
posted by lazuli at 1:48 PM on February 17, 2018

I'm kind of leaning towards a couple of "niche" ideas - movie locations, food, some specific neighborhoods I know kinda well, news of the weird. And by "script" I'm thinking more like the kind of routine patter I did for 2 years as the "M.C." of the new-hire orientations when I was working at the IRC - it wasn't a set exact-word-for-word script, but there were some jokes I would always hit, some points I would always make, to the point that a couple of my co-workers teased me now and then by quoting me back to myself around the office. But those same co-workers, and everyone who went to orientation, said that my vibe was welcoming and friendly, and leaning on a "hit these marks" thing helped me do that.

So I think getting a routine down will help, and it's going to be study and planning that will help me develop that. So I'm giving myself a few months of study before I try volunteering.

Watch this space.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:00 PM on February 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

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