What Makes a Great Guide?

Posted By

I am generally not a fan of tours. All I can picture is fifty people “mooing,” and being herded around like cattle behind a guide with an umbrella or flag on a stick. It is not my idea of a good time. Constantly hurrying up to wait for slow participants is a drag. Spending only designated amounts of time on any one exhibit, historical piece or any other option and being chaperoned by a babysitting guide stinks.
I am more of a free spirit when it comes to travel. I am not a tourist, but a traveler. I love to meet the people, experience the culture, eat the local specialties, and go at my own pace. However, there is the occasional time when a tour is really the best route to take. I try to pick tours that take no more than 12 people at a time. This technique insures that I am not elbowed out of the way and unable to hear the information from the guide, that is the main reason I choose to endure a tour in the first place.
When it comes to art, architecture, history and local cuisine, I am not an expert. If I want to delve further into the, “behind the scenes” information I have to pay for a tour with a knowledgeable guide. So what makes a guide great? A guide needs to be:

  • Responsible so they don’t lose anyone.
  • Knowledgeable about their subject.
  • Personable
  • Attentive to their audience
  • Passionate about the subject matter
  • Fun with an excellent repertoire of good stories and facts
  • During our time in Rome, I uncharacteristically booked three tours from three independent companies.
  • Francesca managed the local food tour
  • Allesandra led the city center bicycle tour
  • Christina piloted the Vatican/Basilica tour
  • All three women were very knowledgeable about their tour. They studied well, knew the information and were passionate about the subject they presented. So what made Brittney and I rate two of the tours so much better than the third.

    Food tasting

    Francesca and the food tour ranked a 9. Francesca was:

    • a true foodie in her own right and that passion showed through
    • knowledgeable about the food tastings that were selected
    • an insider that gave out secrets to the best places to eat and why
    • confident and explained how to select and find the best gelato by looking at the: color, how it was mounded in the dish, and whether the fruit used was in season
    • polite and spoke to each participant and answered questions
    • had only six participants in the tour
    • educated about the cultural history behind the food and the markets
    • experienced in how real Romans eat
    • sensitive to her patrons and kept a pace that kept everyone happy
    • engaging and funny
    • very opinionated
    • Roman Colosseum

      Allesandra and the bike tour ranked a 5.
      Now this may not be completely her fault. We began with basically a private tour, just Brittney and me. The third lady would eventually meet us halfway through the tour. After chatting for a bit, Allesandra offered to take us on a different tour she thought we would enjoy more, but since I had never seen Trevi Fountain or the Spanish Steps, we opted for the traditional route. We had no idea this tour would a nightmare pop quiz of Roman history 101. So what went right? Allesandra was:

      • very personable
      • knowledgeable regarding her subject
      • equipped with excellent gear
      • open to offering something different that we might like better even though we declined it
      • sensitive to riding at an appropriate speed

      Art Gallery Row-seen on bike tour

      What went wrong?

      • It was unbearably hot and humid and we stopped too often and too long to listen to her history lesson.
      • She assumed we knew more history than we did and gave long pop quizzes that we repeatedly failed.
      • She did not read her audience and droned on when it was obvious we were not interested
      • She talked more than we rode.
      • We were caught in a terrible storm (out of her control), but there was no option to quit under the circumstance.
      • There were no funny or interesting stories.
      • There were no stories relating past history to today’s world that we could identify with.
      • There were really no stories at all, just facts and history.
      • We wanted to take 10 minutes in the marketplace and that was unacceptable.
      • It was advertised as a flat tour, but we began with a hill and climbed a few others over the next 30 min. (These were well within our ability)

      Brittney and I inside the Basilica

      Christina and the Vatican/Basilica tour ranked a 9.
      I thought Christina was doomed from the start. There were 20 people in our group, the place was packed, it was hot and after all the history from Allesandra, I started off bored. Despite this, Christina ranked an 8 with and extra point bringing her to a 9 for the great effort she took to make this, too big of a group tour for me, a pleasant surprise.

      Vatican Ceiling

      We learned a great deal of information about the Catholic Church history, former popes, power of the Vatican, Michelangelo, Rafael, and the Basilica. Even with all this history, too many people, too much heat, and lots of history, what made Christina a great guide? Christina was:

      • very engaging
      • knowledgeable about historical information and it was sprinkled with personal stories about the people of the time
      • open to sharing lots of secrets
      • clued into the “real” story
      • sensitive to keep a good pace
      • aware of her audience and she didn’t linger too long or too short on any one section
      • helpful and answered all the questions asked and was very animated
      • quick to help us relate to the people during the time period of each section
      • engaging and aided us in relating to the people of Rome with all of their fears, frustrations, and glories
      • smart, giving pertinent background to the subjects she explained
      • interesting
      • perceptive and gave enough information but not too much

      Outside the Basilica

      In the end I walked away learning a great deal. Not just about the history and subjects the tours covered, but about future questions I may want to ask a tour company before joining their tour. I would like to reiterate, I prefer doing things on my own. I don’t enjoy being herded around like cattle, but when I do want a little more information than I want to research myself, I will look for a guide like Francesca and Christina to enlighten my way!