Successful tour guides create experiences that have lasting meaning. “The people who are with me for two hours might learn something that has an impact on their life,” said Donna Hill, a tour guide with Discovery Tours and Training in Nanaimo, BC. “Most people who travel are looking for a new angle on life.”
Donna gives themed walking tours, operates as a “step on” guide for bus tours, and gives city orientations and local area overviews for groups visiting from out of town. “I will meet the groups right at the hotel and talk about activities and features of the local area. It’s like a ‘meet and greet’ without the luggage.” Depending on the request, she might do a formal slideshow or show the group interesting historical artifacts.
But her bread-and-butter are the guided walking tours. These range from brewery tours to educational tours. “People want someone to explain in simple common language the significant features of the area, and to do so in an entertaining way,” said Donna.
She started in the tourism industry in 1987 as a park interpreter in the Lower Mainland. Two weeks later she knew this was the career for her. “It combined my love of nature with teaching,” she said. “Most of my jobs [as a tour guide or heritage worker] were seasonal and I wanted to do this full-time.” In 1991 she started her own tour business servicing greater Vancouver and, ten years later, relocated to Nanaimo.
For her the toughest part of being a tour guide is overcoming people’s assumptions. “A lot of people won’t take a tour because the last time they did, they were one of 50 people, and the tour guide was talking at them.” For this reason she keeps her groups small — from 12 to 15 people. She makes the tours personal and lets people ask questions and tell her their interests.
Donna has two university degrees from UBC — a bachelor of science in zoology and a bachelor of education. She also has emerit certification, a professional designation created by Tourism HR Canada. As for tour-specific knowledge, tour guides can access dozens of resources to learn more about their city, including local museums, tourist associations, community archives, city information booths, public libraries and books published by local authors.
She remembers a tour where, after introducing herself and explaining her qualifications, a man made a snide comment about her being “overqualified” to be a tour guide. Her knowledge and skill must have changed his mind. After the tour he apologized in front of the group for calling her overqualified. “I’m always working on changing people’s perceptions about what a tour guide is and isn’t,” said Donna.
She advises soul searching for young people considering a career as a tour guide. “I do this job because I love the positive feedback,” she said. “I work with a local college and some students think you can immediately make big bucks in this industry.” Probably not so, according to Donna. “The reality is unless you have the experience and education, you’re not going to make a lot of money right away. You’re going to be in this business for the long haul.”
This isn’t a problem for Donna, who thrives on the daily challenge of communicating with people who want to learn more about the area they are visiting. “I love seeing my city from their point of view.”