How to become a Tour Leader
Usually the best place to start is online, right on the company’s website. The will usually have an employment section, About Us, Our people etc. Usually the company will tell you if they are recruiting for tour leaders, what they are looking for and what the application process is for this particular company.
Many operators will not require you to have any experience tour leading, only that you have travelled in the destination they service. The best thing you can do it send in a document detailing your travel history along with your CV and cover letter when applying for the position.
You need to be a good problem solver and you need to know how not to panic and maintain a calm exterior. The clients are never to know there is a problem, even a major one, they are on holiday after all. It is your job to deal with whatever the destination throws at you. If you would like to see an example of what can happen and how to handle it have a look at this entry from Russia.
You will be responsible for the tour accounts, sometimes the company will have their own system and won’t expect you to have any experience with this, however most companies still work on Excel, so if you know how to use this you’ll get more brownie points.
The company will usually ask you to fill out an application form, sometimes these are quite length and will ask some scenario based questions, geographical knowledge of the region they travel and your confidence level in certain areas.
Along with the application you should also of course send your CV. Make sure you target the CV to the position you are applying for. If you have taken any long overseas trips, make sure you put them on the CV. This isn’t accounting – any travel you have undertaken will be looked upon favourably by any decent tour company.
The other document you should send is a document detailing your travel history. Usually the application will have an area for this, however its never big enough. Be as detailed as possible, where did you go, how did you get there, what sort of accommodation did you stay in, what sort of activities did you participate in? Again, think about the company you are applying to, do some research on their product and highlight examples which fit with their style.
This is likely to be long and tiring. Generally speaking, this can take anywhere from a few weeks to 6 months. My current position didn’t call me until 5 months after I had applied, so don’t write opportunities off if you haven’t heard from the company for a while. The interview itself is likely to involve a few scenario based questions, followed by a mock pre departure meeting for which the company will ask you to prepare. For the scenario based questions, remember the golden rule of tour leading is you stay with the group, no matter what happens. Answer all questions with that in mind and you will do just fine. The pre departure meeting, is the meeting you would give at the beginning of the tour to welcome the guests and let the know generally what the tour is about. The most important thing to do in this meeting is to be honest and set their expectations, this can make or break a tour. Other things to consider are health and safety, cultural sensitivity, type of accommodation and transport and an itinerary run down for the next few days. (No one will remember a complete run down, so stick to 3 days at most). Very importantly ask lots of questions, pay attention and read between the lines, this will give you an idea of how the company operates and what you can expect when you start working for them. See below for a list of questions you should be asking:
- Can you tell me about the training?
- How will I get to the starting destination for the season, will the company pay for the flight?
- What allowances are available, and what do I need to pay for while working?
- What is your policy for cancelled tour and how often does this tend to occur?
- Will I ever be sharing a room with a customer? (You need to decide if you can deal with this)
Make sure everything is crystal clear before you accept or sign anything. The pay. The Training. The expectations.
A word of caution. Be very wary of the operator who wants you on a plane next week – I know it may seem exciting, but this is tell-tale sign that someone has snapped mid season and flown the coupe, which happens more than you think! This of course means the employer has given them a reason to fly the coupe.
Lastly, if you’re interested in becoming a tour leader I’ve provided a few companies below with notes on some of them, there is also a “Black list” at the bottom for some I’d recommend you not deal with for various reasons.
Topdeck/Contiki: This is likely going to be a good start for your first gig, and will usually be in Europe which is a little bit easier. The training is intense, they charge a bond for the training and if you fail you don’t get the job. It is a good entry level position, however be prepared to party hard. (I know that sounds awesome, but doing it every night is a killer!)
Tucan Travel: Worldwide operator, often provides self training. This means they send you off to complete the itinerary on your own as most of their product is adventure touring on public transport. Doing it yourself with no clients is a great way to make things sink in. They make you pay for your own flight to get to your starting destination, some of which you will get back at the end of the season. My red flag with these guys is cancelled tours, if you are unlucky enough that one of your tours gets cancelled, you won’t get paid or won’t have any where to go until your next tour starts, this can be really problematic especially if the cancelled tour is 5 weeks and you’re stuck in Europe! This is also a good question to ask in the interview for any operator. What is your policy for tour leaders if a tour gets cancelled? Is there any support available?
Expat Explore: This is another one with a hectic training trip, the money is much better, however it is a really cheap product and attracts people from all over the world. Much of the time you will have many clients who can’t speak English and this can be a real problem – even if they don’t care that they don’t understand the information you are giving out, I have a real problem when someone can’t understand “mind that bus!” The tours themselves are really hectic and you only get one day in London between tours (they will pay for a hostel in London, hostels in London are foul and you will get no rest), to try and do your laundry and get some rest and then its back on the road.
Sundowners Overland: This is my current employer and by far the best company I have ever worked with. This is a company that actually takes care of its tour leaders, both on and off tour. Their operations department is also based in Russia so if you ever need help, you’re usually in the right timezone and can reach out to someone. The pay is also fair and on time, which believe me is harder to find than you might think. The bad news, unless you have travelled extensively in Central Asia and Russia they are unlikely to consider you without tour leading experience.
Others you can try which I have not experienced are BusAbout – Acacia Africa – Dragoman Overland (amazing company which I have travelled with personally, however you need a truck licence) – Trek America (US Citizens only) – Oasis Overland – G Adventures (do seem to reach out to you on Facebook and then never contact you)
The Black List
Absolute Africa – Med Experience – Sail Croatia
(For any details feel free to reach out to me on Facebook)