So... You Want To Be A Tour Leader

Written by  August 7, 2009

A love for travel isn't all it takes to be a tour leader. Four professional guides offer you their expert advice on the ups and downs of the business, and how you can break into it.

Have you ever dreamed about spending your days outdoors, hiking and mountain climbing, travelling across continents and seeing new parts of the world… and getting paid to do it?  Then maybe tour leading is for you.  It’s a job that keeps you in the open air, active and social—and, most importantly, on the road. 

But it’s not all fun and games.  The biggest misconception that people have about tour leading is that you’re on holiday all the time.  In fact, it requires a high level of energy and an ability to handle crisis situations on the road—both big and small.  It also requires top-notch social skills and an ability to manage all kinds of people and personalities.  But despite the high level of responsibility, one tour leader told us it was still the best thing he’d ever done—AND the hardest.

For an insider’s perspective on what’s really involved in being a tour leader, read on.  Four seasoned tour leaders—each hailing from a different tour company and area of expertise—are here to give you their frank advice from the field on how you too can break into the industry.


Greg Coe: jungle tour leader and country manager (Belize) for Trekforce Worldwide

Thirty-five-year-old Greg Coe can’t even tell you where he’s from. His father flew helicopters for the Royal Air Force (British Armed Forces), so the family moved around a great deal. And maybe that’s how he caught the travel bug that has stayed with him to this day.

Before getting on board full-time with Trekforce, Coe worked as a freelance trip leader, guiding youth development trips in South America, high altitude climbing trips in the Andes and the Himalayas, and leading conservation expeditions in Borneo and Central America. He led his first commercial trip in 1997, and has been doing it full-time since 2002. He has worked full-time with Trekforce as a jungle tour leader since the fall of 2007.

How did you get into tour leading?

I worked as a chef and raft-guide in the Bavarian Alps for a couple of years.  On my days off, I went climbing and skiing and acquired some basic mountaineering qualifications, then got a job instructing at an outdoor pursuits centre in Wales. After a couple of years there, and some overseas climbing trips with buddies, I started leading trekking tours with teams of young people, then more high altitude climbing trips as I gained experience.

What is the best part of your job?

Hiking out to civilization after six weeks in the jungle, with all the team happy and safe. Our projects are ambitious—really demanding physically and mentally—so the volunteers amaze themselves with what they achieve. Walking out behind a team like that, and knowing you’ve made a small contribution to rainforest conservation is a pretty special feeling.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

The fact that you can never switch off.

What skills/traits does a person need to have to work as a tour leader generally?

Patience, flexibility, a sense of humour—and being able to roll cigarettes in the rain. Spending prolonged periods in the forest is a real privilege, but it’s tough on the disorganized, so personal discipline and being a bit of a neat freak with your kit helps a lot.

Tell us about the most difficult tour or group you've led in the jungle?

We were building an accommodation block for research scientists deep in some primary forest in Borneo, and it rained pretty heavily day and night for five weeks out of the six.  The mud at the construction site and in base-camp was knee-deep, and even though the medics were working really hard (foot clinics three times a day), most of the team got trench-foot, and had to spend a few days in their hammocks to recover. We got the project finished, but it was a tough trip. We fed a lot of leeches.

What do you love about Belize and that part of the world?

There’s so much stuff still to discover. One of our teams found a huge cave system full of Mayan pots and artefacts this year, and the occasional wildlife sighting is breathtaking.

What's the funniest/strangest question you've been asked while leading a group there?

“Does this river go uphill?”

The word that best describes your job is:

Fulfilling.

What would you advise to people who are looking to become jungle tour guides?

Be prepared to work hard for nothing when you're getting started, for example as an assistant leader, until you’ve built up some experience. There’s no substitute for going out with friends, getting lost and making mistakes. And leave your ego at home.


Carrie Pretorius: tour leader in Southern Africa with G.A.P. Adventures

A native of Southern Africa, 27-year-old Carrie Pretorius is already a veteran of the industry. Prior to becoming a tour leader with G.A.P. Adventures in 2006, she worked as a freelance river guide on the Orange River that borders South Africa and Namibia. With G.A.P. Adventures, she’s led overland truck tours from Cape Town to Victoria Falls via Namibia and Botswana, as well as from Johannesburg to Cape Town via Kruger National Park, Swaziland and the East and South coasts of South Africa.

How did you get into tour leading?

I met a number of overland trucks and tours that would stop at the river base camp where I lived. The nomadic life appealed to me so I enquired through tour leaders of various companies and decided to apply.

What is the best part of your job?

There is never a dull moment! You are constantly moving from place to place, meeting new, and interesting people both on tour and along the way. You acquire greater insight into the many beautiful faces and places that this world has to offer.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

The most challenging aspect is to try to gauge what each individual's expectations will be of their experience, and to try to meet and exceed these expectations. It can be a challenge and a tour leader must have a good understanding of people and their needs.

What skills/traits does a person need to have to work as a tour leader generally?

A positive attitude, good organizational and people skills.  You also need to be calm and never forget your sense of humour!

Tell us about the most difficult tour or group you've led?

None have been particularly difficult, although on desert safaris the tour leader must constantly be aware of the passengers, ensuring they are constantly re-hydrating and applying self care like hats, suntan lotion etc.

What do you love about the part of the world where you work?

Africa stirs in me immense feelings of peace and clarity. Although it can be chaotic and over-stimulating, especially if you finds yourself in a busy crowded street out of your comfort zone, ultimately you feel that beneath it all is just the regular flow of life. There is a great acceptance of just being and existing. Of course, add that to the absolute variety and contrast of flora and fauna, and the rainbow of cultures that this magical continent has to offer.

What's the funniest/strangest question you've been asked while leading a group there?

It was on safari in the Masaai Mara, Kenya, and our group had just finished a lovely meal of hot stew. The chef came to collect plates from the table, and we all thanked him for the meal and so he replied, "Karibu," which means, "You're welcome" in Swahili. One of my passengers exclaimed, "Oh, was this caribou stew!  I thought you only get caribou in America?" I then proceeded to have a good giggle and to clear up the misunderstanding.

The word that best describes your job is:

Dynamic.

What would you advise to people who are looking to become safari/desert tour guides?

I would advise that they pursue it with an open mind and open heart, and that they always strive to be a step ahead with regards to general knowledge, local information and foresight.


Don Forster: former tour leader, now a manager for Adventures Incorporated, a division of Goway

Hailing from Sydney, Australia, Don Forster, 43, led overland expeditions for five and a half years, mostly through South and Central America.  He would take tourists on the road in customized expedition vehicles that hold up to 24 passengers—taking them to visit all the insider’s hangouts that most travellers miss out on.  Though he’s largely on the marketing and sales side of things now, he still dabbles in tour leading.

How did you get into tour leading?

I travelled as a passenger with an overland company twice.  After the first trip I thought it would be a cool way to make a living, so I took a second trip to look at it in a serious light.  I decided the time was right, I had no personal, financial or emotional ties to home.  So two weeks after getting back from the trip I bought a one-way ticket to the UK where the company is based.

What is the best part of being a tour leader?

Being paid to travel, meeting people from walks of life who you would never rub shoulders with in a “normal” career.  All types of people like to travel—particularly adventure travel.

What is the most challenging part of being a tour leader?

Dealing with personalities—all different types.  You are on call 24/7 and you are expected to be positive and happy all the time.  As the leader you take on the role of friend, boss, psychologist, counsellor, drinking partner, tour guide, mechanic—sometimes all at the same time.

"As the leader you take on the role of friend, boss, psychologist, counsellor, drinking partner, tour guide, mechanic—sometimes all at the same time."

What skills/traits does a person need to have to work as a tour leader generally?

Specific skills such as mechanics, languages, bookkeeping and knowledge about the destination can be taught, but being sociable is the key to being a good guide.  Like any job it can become routine for you, but for your client this will be the first and probably only time they visit any given spot on your tour.  You need to act and feel as though it is new EVERY time you go.

Tell us about the most difficult overland tour you've led?

Our vehicle engine seized while we were in the middle of Chiapas—a hot spot for terrorist activity in Mexico.  Not only did we need to get our group out of potential harm’s way, we needed to get our truck to the next town, rebuild the engine and stay on schedule.  This we did.  In these instances, this is where the love of a challenge comes into play.

If there is a part of the world that you specialized in, or particularly enjoyed, why?

Latin America—I don’t really know why.  The language, the history, the culture, the friendships, the attitudes, the ancient beliefs.  I don’t think you can really pin a love of an area or country on specifics.  It just is!

What's the funniest/strangest question you've been asked while leading a group?

I was always asked “is it going to rain tomorrow?”  My highlight of this was being asked that question in a region known as the Altiplano in Peru where it rarely rained.  So my response to the question was no.  Next morning we awoke with our sleeping bags and tents covered in snow!  Technically I was right—it didn’t rain—IT SNOWED!

The word that best describes your job is:

Professionally and personally ALWAYS challenging.

What would you advise to people who are looking to become overland tour guides?

Get some travel experience under your belt.  Of course, a second useable language—like French (Europe and Africa) Spanish (Europe and Latin America), and Japanese or Mandarin (Asia)—is great.  Other languages such as Hindi, Farsi, Arabic, Hebrew are perfect if you want to focus on those regions, or tap into ex-pat travellers retuning to specific countries.

What is your position now, and how did leading tours help you get there?

I am now a product marketing and sales manager selling adventure travel and Latin America.  My first word of advice about succeeding in the travel industry is gaining real travel experience.  The on-the-road experience, skills, crisis management, people management and product awareness CANNOT be taught in a classroom.


Hayley Shephard: expedition leader, Antarctic region, Peregrine Adventures

Born and raised in New Zealand, Hayley Shephard, 38, leads tours in both Polar Regions.  For the past eight years, she’s led tours to the Canadian High Arctic (including Greenland), and Antarctica (including the Sub-Antarctic Islands such as the South Shetlands and South Georgia Island).  The tours are ship-based, with daily excursions on land.  They go from ship to shore by zodiac, and the tours also have a zodiac cruising, kayaking and camping component.

How did you get into tour leading?

I started sea-kayak guiding in British Columbia, and eventually got a job on a recreational dive charter boat, followed by seasonal work at a floating lodge where we took people to see wildlife.  This eventually led to working on ships in the Antarctic as a presenter, zodiac driver and kayak guide, and just recently I got promoted to expedition leader.

What is the best part of being a tour leader?

My office is the wild and wonderful natural world.  My job is to take people to wild places, introduce them to the animals that live in their natural habitat and teach them about the complexities of nature—encouraging the need to appreciate, care and protect all that is natural and wild.

What is the most challenging part of being a tour leader?

Being responsible for people in the most remote, inhospitable and unpredictable regions of the world.  You have individuals with different needs, expectations and dreams.  Some have been saving for a lifetime to come on this vacation.  It is important that I try to meet individual needs and do so safely and responsibly.

What skills/traits does a person need to have to work as a tour leader generally?  In the Polar Regions specifically?

You are constantly kept on your toes.  You need to be able to communicate well with staff, ship captain and crew as well as all passengers onboard.  You need to relate to people from different cultures, backgrounds, ages and create a programme that suits all.

The Antarctic and Arctic in particular have constant changes in weather, wind and ice conditions.  I need to be able to make sound decisions when planning excursions and react quickly if conditions worsen to avoid mishap.

Tell us about the most difficult tour you've led in Antarctica?

On a voyage in 2007, we’d had a fabulous trip until one of the engine’s exhaust pipes blew during the night when returning to Ushuaia, Argentina.  This could not be re-welded at sea, so we limped back to Ushuaia on a single engine.  Instead of taking two days, we took four and all the passengers missed their flights.  We were grateful to those people who looked on the bright side of the situation, but some passengers were angry, aggressive, rude and at times very unreasonable.

What do you love about Antarctica and that part of the world?

Antarctica is not owned by anyone, it is not governed by any country, it is simply cared for by the representatives of the world.  The wildlife does not fear humans, which allows you to see them up close and personal.  Icebergs of all shapes and sizes drift endlessly through passages and channels, and whales, seals, penguins and other seabirds rely on the endless supply of krill that the long summer days provide.  It is a place of purity, rarely seen or touched by mankind—and I am completely addicted to the place.

What's the funniest/strangest question you've been asked while leading a group there?

While sitting on the ocean in a zodiac, floating on the glassy calm Antarctic waters, I was asked this question:  “How far above sea level are we?”

On another occasion, we were onboard, with 42 crew members operating the ship.  One passenger came up to me and asked, while in the middle of open water, crossing the Drake Passage, “Do the crew sleep on board?”

The word that best describes your job is:

Incredible!  Incredibly challenging, incredibly beautiful, incredibly tiring, incredibly fulfilling, incredibly inspiring.

What would you advise to people who are looking to become tour guides in Antarctica?

Before signing up for any courses, volunteer on a few trips first and give it a go before you sign up for real.  You need to know whether you can handle being constantly away from your home, friends and family and having to constantly cater for other people’s needs 24/7.

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Published in Work Abroad
Andrea Gourgy

Originally from Montreal, Andrea has a hard time staying in one place. After gaining a BA from Western and a Masters in Journalism from the University of Southern California, Andrea hit the road and never looked back. She has worked professionally as a journalist in six different countries, and earned several travel writing awards in the process. Andrea joined the Verge team in 2006.

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