Business

How to make it as a tour guide

Tips to making it as a tour guide

BY ALEXIS MONTEITH
Observer writer

Sunday, August 11, 2019

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Prudence Gentles is a 28-year-old freelance tour guide on the north coast of Jamaica with 11 years' experience on the job. She recently gave birth to a son with special needs who is now a year old. Gentles explained how even though she is a freelancer in the tour business, she is able to pay her bills and look after her child.

She started her career as a full-time tour guide but revealed that she quickly learned it was better from an economic standpoint to operate as a freelancer. According to Gentles, she can be paid up to $1500 per trip and trips can last anywhere from a few hours to a whole day.

This is not a lot of money but the real financial reward comes from tips.

“You can go out there seven days a week and you can make US$50, US$70, US$80 and even up to US$200 per trip,” she said. “It depends on the group. Europeans don't tip very much but Americans do.”

According to Gentles, if there were no tips tour guides would be unable to survive. The disadvantage of working full-time is that when the company has no excursions a tour guide has to sit at home when, potentially, they could be doing another tour somewhere else. For this reason, many opt to be freelancers so that they can get as much work as possible.

Gentles also claims that full-time arrangements with a lot of tour companies usually don't work out in the tour guide's best interest.

“Some companies pay you on time and some don't,” she lamented about full-time arrangements. “They say you are full-time, but they also say you are contract workers. But when they say you are a contract worker you don't have a signed contract. We don't get health coverage; if we get sick tomorrow morning without health coverage there is nothing.

“Many companies do not have enough jobs to keep you employed through the year,” she added.

Gentles loves her work and feels it has given her a greater appreciation of her country.

“You get to go all over and experience what Jamaica is really like and personally, I think we Jamaicans take our country for granted,” she said. “When we get to go out and see through other people's eyes and see someone say 'oh I have never experienced this', something as simple as a papaya tree that we would look at and say 'that's just another tree', I get to appreciate what I have here.

“I'm the kind of person that likes to move about,” she continued, pointing out how the job fits her personality.

But the reality is that as much as she loves it, it can be financially challenging if one does not understand how to make the most of it economically.

It is important, she explained, to save your earnings in the busy winter season because the low season can be a struggle to make decent money. The busy season can be quite lucrative.

“Save money in the high season,” she insisted. “Some tour guides enjoy the high season and tend to go to parties and spree and buy expensive clothes and shoes, but when it is low season they have nothing.”

Gentles also said that many tour guides do other jobs at the same time to increase their income.

“They do tours in the day and if they leave work early they do a 'night work' to make ends meet,” she indicated. “A lot of us do that.”

Others wisely use some of their earnings to improve their education and increase their skills.

“I would say 60 per cent of us send ourselves back to school,” Gentles stated. “Some of us eventually come out and go into jobs like nursing or telemarketing in the call centres. Some of us move on to be tour reps who sell tours inside the hotels. It is better for you to move on to being a rep because you have first-hand knowledge of many of the tours, and this helps you sell the tours better.”

Not all the challenges are financial, however. The most common example, according to Gentles, is when there are incidents involving guests during a tour.

“I had a case where we took out this gentleman on one of our tours and what he wanted to do was not what we offer and do on the tour,” she recalled. “It didn't matter how much I tried to explain this to him. He moved on to spit on me and I couldn't do anything about it except continue to be nice to him”.

Gentles claimed the guest then lodged a complaint that she spat at him but fortunately for her, a company official had witnessed the incident and could verify that she was not guilty of the alleged offence.

“If my manager was not there I probably would have been fired,” she said. “To be honest with you, a lot of tour guides are fired for things they did not do.”

Working without a contract, whether a guide is a freelancer or full-time, makes them particularly vulnerable in these situations. Gentles feels that too often guests are fully refunded when they make false complaints and the guides have to suffer through it or even lose their jobs.

“Some of us are out here and the companies treat us like nothing because we are replaceable to them,” she complained. “A lot of them don't know the struggle we face out there. The idea that the guest is always right needs to be changed.”

Nevertheless, Gentles is still positive about the work she does and the importance of tour guides in providing visitors with a positive experience they can take back to their region of the world.

“We may not be the only face of the island but when you bring in the guests, we are the faces they see,” she said with pride.

Gentles had advice for other young people who want to enter her line of work on how to navigate its challenges.

“Know that it is a good job but not promised every day of your life,” she counselled, referring to its seasonality. “Save money in the high season; work towards what you want later in life because the money in this job is not always running. Have a set plan.”

Most guides, she claimed, tend to be younger people although there are older guides who have stuck with it for a long time and enjoy their work.

The 28-year-old said she would like to continue as a tour guide until the age of 35. After that she plans to move on to another line of work, but remain within the tourism industry.


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