“Sorry for the wait, we’re short-staffed.” It’s a common refrain in these post-Covid times. With the widespread, persistent labor shortage in tourism, finding and keeping quality guides is an ongoing challenge for operators worldwide.
The problem isn’t going away anytime soon, either: tour operators in Southern Europe — along with hotels and restaurants — faced more than 400,000 vacancies in 2022 as travelers returned to the region in droves, and tourism spending is projected to outpace employment levels for several years to come, as the Financial Times reports.
In this climate, it’s a job seeker’s market. “They don’t need us as much as we need them,” explains Despina Savvidou, who heads up guide recruitment, hiring, training and retention as Co-founder of Athens Walking Tours.
Many former guides may also never return. “Covid wiped away a lot of guides that went to other industries,” explains Yorick Viche, CEO and Co-founder of Your Tours in Portugal.
So how do operators find — and keep — good quality guides in this “new normal”?
Your Tours and Athens Walking Tours have both managed to stand out above their competitors by attracting and retaining guides: Savvidou shares that she has already booked 95% of the guides she’ll need for the coming peak season. Here are some of their top strategies to stay a step ahead of the labor shortage.
1. Offer Year-Round Work to Guides
For guides the seasonal nature of the work tends to be a challenge. One way tour companies can differentiate themselves from their competitors is by offering guides the option of year-round work.
Your Tours recognizes the importance of stability for their guides and offers full year contracts. Off-season work has been built into the structure of the company from the beginning: for example, instead of having other staff do projects like generating story content and updating manuals for tours, this work is given to guides in the low seasons. During the pandemic, they had guides developing virtual tours. “Our goal was to be able to create a structure that could keep the guides all year round,” says Viche.
However, it may not be possible for all tour companies to employ all of their guides year-round. Savvidou’s approach with Athens Walking Tours — which does run year-round tours but needs a lot more guides in the summer months — is to offer work in the low season as an incentive for guides who commit to a certain number of days in the high season.
2. Offer Competitive Pay Rates and Other Financial Incentives
“It’s very important to know your market,” says Viche. “So what the others are paying, what are the conditions that the other companies are offering to these freelance guides? You need to be at least the same or higher because… of course they have a choice.”
Savvidou agrees. “They get paid quite well,” she says of her guides.
Pay rates are not the only way to ensure your guides are well compensated. Other financial incentives include tips and bonuses. Both Viche and Savvidou encourage their clients to tip the guides. “We are known for clients giving good tips,” says Viche.
Athens Walking Tours guides also get a bonus for receiving good reviews, and for staying on longer term. “If they get more than 90 days with us we give them a present, a check for Christmas,” says Savvidou. “At Easter we eat lamb.”
3. Invest in Training to Set Guides Up for Success
Training itself can be an incentive for many guides. Training sets guides up for success and also things like familiarization tours where guides get to learn on the road can be a fun highlight in the learning process.
“Many other agencies just send new guides on a tour, no training,” says Savvidou. Guides come to them because they know they get training. Savvidou trains guides on everything from knowledge to how to interact with and entertain the guests to how to customize their tours to guests of different cultures and ages. She offers one of her key pieces of advice for guides: “You’re not going to make historians, you’re not going to make them archeologists. Try to make them happy.”
Your Tours guides are driver guides so safe driving skills is a key component of the training, which also involves 1-2 weeks of theory and 1-2 weeks of on the road training. Guides also get to travel to other parts of the country they wouldn’t normally lead tours in, in order to get familiar with other things they can recommend to their guests.
“Sometimes they take the training and leave, Savvidou laments, which is of course not ideal for tour operators, but there are ways around it.
In Portugal, where Your Tours is training driver guides, Viche explains the best way to protect against this is by requiring them to pay back the training investment if they leave within a certain amount of time. “There’s a line in the contract,” he says, however he also recognizes that the best way to keep guides is not with legalities but through a variety of other things that make them want to stay.
4. Offer More Desirable Working Conditions
In Portugal where Your Tours operators, a lot of companies have multiple pickup and dropoff points and require guides to offer tours in multiple languages, explains Viche. “We have one pick up, one drop off, one language — so it’s better for the guides than long times in traffic to do multiple pickups and work in multiple languages at the same time.”
Savvidou herself worked as a guide for over 20 years and explains one of her ideal conditions is working with smaller groups. “A deep wish of mine was not to work with very big groups and not to work on a bus… to walk with them.” When she co-founded Athens Walking Tours with her husband Yiannis, they ensured the group size was maxed out at 18 to keep the groups small, and more manageable for the guides.
For walking tour guides, coming in to work to lead only one tour can also be a downside. “We give them double tours,” says Savvidou, “two to three time slots on a busy day so they get lots of work in one day.”
5. Focus on Guides’ Needs & Future Potential
Having a flexible schedule is a major pro for guides who are choosing this career over the 9-5 life. So for tour companies, flexibility in adapting to the guides’ schedules and needs is an important incentive.
“We try to adapt to everybody,” says Viche, and although it can make things more difficult for the company logistically, he believes encouraging the guides to be open about what is important to them and working around their needs for holidays is important and makes them feel more of an important part of the company. “For their birthday they are always off,” he says.
For Savvidou as well, negotiating the schedule in a friendly way is an important part of the relationship. “When they have a problem they come to me,” she says, and makes sure they know they are always supported.
Having the ability to grow within a company is another important incentive. “If you want someone to stay two years, give them the opportunity to become knowledgeable about more than what they started with,” says Viche. Challenge them, give them projects that help them grow, allow them to try other functions, and be attentive to their needs, and recognize that what matters to them can also change, he advises. “Do not stop doing things for the guides and caring for them.”
Hiring, Training and Retaining Guides at Arival 360 | Berlin
Both Savvidou and Viche will be at Arival 360 | Berlin in March. Viche will be co-leading a breakout session on hiring, training and retaining guides alongside Luca Perfetto from Towns of Italy, moderated by Mitch Bach from TripSchool. The session will be a roundtable discussion sharing ideas about how to lock in and train a solid and committed team.
Insider Pro Access Members can also benefit from the upcoming March 2, 2023 Insider Pro Meetup, where Alan Armijo, TripSchool and Joan Keddell, International Tour Management Institute will be moderating a discussion on how to find, train and retain tour guides…and fast. RSVP required, register here!
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