As the feet, ears and eyes on-the-ground of any Incentive Programme, everyone in this industry knows a good guide is worth their weight in gold. Nonetheless, in this current crisis not much has been heard from their perspective. They may be the backbone of the industry, but in many ways, they remain unheard. We hear lots about accommodation, visitor attractions and food and beverage providers… but what about the guides?
SITE wanted to check in and see how Covid-19 has affected this “invisible backbone” of our industry.
Today we hear from Máirín Ahern, Honorary President of ATGI. ATGI stands for the Approved Tourist Guides of Ireland. Founded in 1977, and now with almost 500 members, ATGI offers services in 21 languages. It is the professional body representing the guiding industry, with members all over the island of Ireland.
Máirín, guides have been described by some as the “glue which holds a programme together”. Would you agree with this? Why?
Guides are the people who deliver what has been sold to the clients and make it work on the ground. The guide is the only person who is with them from start to finish. An itinerary is only a document; the practicalities of bringing all its elements together to meet the expectations of the clients rest with the guide. The itinerary does not take the human factor (such as poor timekeepers, toilet emergencies, injuries, illness, different personalities & multiple cultural backgrounds) into consideration. Rarely does it allow for practical challenges (overcrowding, double bookings, road works, site closures, weather, public events, parades…) all of which form part of the realities of what can happen on the road. The guide can create a memorable experience by adding an extra photo stop or an ice-cream stop on a beautiful day. Equally, on a rotten day when there is no visibility in one of Ireland’s most scenic areas, the guide has to find a way to lift the spirits of the guests and make them feel they have had a terrific outing. We are entertainers, informers, problem solvers, good listeners and carers. Guiding is a vocation as well as a profession.
If you had to describe the ideal Incentive Tour Guide in 3 words, what would they be?
This is a tricky one to answer! I have attempted to condense a longer list of words into the following three:-
This includes dress code, knowing when to talk and when to remain silent. Being cognisant of the relationship between client, operator and guide. Works well as part of a team. Being completely familiar with all the planned details and arrangements and respecting them. Able to adapt to last-minute changes of plan.
Finding quick solutions to any problems experienced by the individual participants, whether technical or personal.
Being flexible enough to work long hours with no guarantee of a break or being fed! Early starts/ late finishes, particularly on arrival & departure days where people and luggage have to be transferred seamlessly. We may be tired after, but never during, an Incentive Tour!
We are now 8 months into this Pandemic and things don’t seem to have improved much. With 98% of your business coming from overseas, and the majority of guides being self-employed, I imagine navigating the financial ramifications of this pandemic has been challenging? Are guides in a better place now than they were back in March/April?
No, I would say that guides are in a worse place now. When our work started cancelling in March/April, even May, the catch-phrase was “don’t cancel, re-book!” There was still hope that our bookings for late summer and up to the end of the year would be honoured. Now, we have no idea as to whether even the work we have scheduled for next season will actually materialise. Our workflow is irregular throughout the year. Generally we tend to work a lot more, even without a break, from March to October. Then, have a quieter period from November to February. Some guides have little or no work in the winter months, but are accustomed to stretching their earnings over 12 months. If you consider that some guides have worked since October 2019 and have little expectation of working before summer 2021, this represents about 18 months of no earnings which was not foreseen. This is not sustainable for anyone.
Aside from financial, what have been the main challenges during this time for the guiding sector?
There are a number of factors which cause such a level of anxiety that it can lead to serious health problems. For example:
- The continuous cancellation of scheduled work as the year advances leading to fear and uncertainty.
- The difficulty of planning tours without knowing what restrictions will apply to them.
- Defining operational standards for guides to ensure they protect themselves and their clients in accordance with public health guidelines.
- The expense involved in gearing up for the new way of working, including a need for mobile apps, modems, PPE, sanitiser. And this all without having recourse to any form of funding because we are mostly self-employed rather than owners of business premises.
- Guides who have PSV licences have had significant outlay in financing vehicles for chauffeuring private groups which is a huge financial burden.
- Last but not least, the frustration of sitting at home when we should be out on the road doing what we excel at.
Tour guides are not generally contracted by the domestic market. So, while increases in “staycations” may have helped in other sectors, I imagine guides struggle more here. Have there been any conduits to breaking into the domestic market?
This has proved to be a huge challenge but also stimulated some creative approaches. It is a new idea for people living here to engage with and pay for a human guide rather than a “recorded voice” or some general printed information. Yet, there is plenty of interest in discovering more about the heritage in one’s own area. We have never had to promote our services to the domestic market before, but cannot depend on a sufficient number of visitors from overseas in the near future. Thus some of our members have come up with some new ideas to address this. A good example would be the “Guidefest” initiative. This was a plan to promote ourselves by offering interesting and unusual tours, in different languages, to the public over the October Bank Holiday weekend. There was a great response and many of the tours were booked out. Sadly, the event had to be postponed because of public health guidelines, but we plan to reschedule it when circumstances permit.
Guides are generally extroverted, chatty people… the inability to go out, tour and be with people must be hard from a mental health perspective. Being largely self-employed there are also fewer social avenues. Do you think many guides are struggling with this? Have there been any initiatives to support guides in this aspect?
You have just described the most serious challenge facing guides at this time. We are identified and energised by our work, therefore our sense of self-worth has been eroded. We miss the normal interaction with our visitors and the other people we meet on tour. Even a chat with other guides and drivers when our tour itineraries coincide is very invigorating. ATGI has facilitated regular opportunities for its members to get together on Zoom. Sometimes this is informally, sometimes for specific events, and has proved to be a lifeline for some. During the summer quite a few members volunteered to take others out on informative tours and walkabouts. We have been able to facilitate online CPD, lectures on all sorts of topics including health and wellbeing, as well as updates on new developments, such as audio apps. ATGI also provided the forum for its own members to “exchange ideas” and this was how the idea of “Guidefest” was born.
In a normal season, good guides are in massive demand. Now, many might be turning to other sectors for work. Do you think there will be a deficit in guides when things pick up again?
It’s true that Guides have to find other ways to survive if they have no work coming in. Not only do I believe that many guides with valuable experience will be lost to the industry, but that this will continue to intensify the longer the lack of business deepens. Not alone that, but it will be very difficult to replace this level of professionalism, especially combined with fluency in a wide range of languages, when the need for experienced guides returns.
For the Incentive Travel Professionals reading this, do you have any words on how we might support our local guides during this time?
We absolutely understand that Incentive Travel Professionals have their own challenges to face as we all experience different facets of the same crisis. Perhaps it would be of mutual benefit to establish some method of keeping in touch occasionally. To let us know how business trends are developing and what realistic expectations are in the short to medium term. Certainly it would be beneficial to us to know what 3 words your readers would have used to describe the ideal guide! (see question 2)
Finally, guiding is very much a labour of love. Why did you choose this career path? What is it you love most about being a tour guide?
Tourism has always been part of my life but I never really saw myself as a guide. The opportunity to qualify as a guide presented itself while I was on a career break 20 years ago. What I had envisaged as a hobby began to take more and more of my time as offers of guiding work came in and a glance at the itinerary would be enough to motivate me to accept them! I love waking up each day and saying “where will I be going today?” rather than facing in to the same routine. It’s a privilege to go to beautiful places in Ireland with people who have paid a lot of money to experience them just once in their lifetime. What’s more, these people are usually great company because they are happy to be here. I have learned so much about so many things from my own research and from listening to people from other countries. But if I were to reduce it to just 1 thing I love about guiding, it would be the people I meet, including others working in this industry.
Interview with Máirín Ahern, Honorary President, ATGI
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