My Life As A Tour Guide

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At one point in my television producing and directing life, I had become tired of the hectic schedules and demands of that business. I decided to take a break and enter the travel business. I did not want to be a travel agent because I didn’t really have the experience to become one. A friend suggested I contact tour operators and see what they had to offer.

One company told me that although I had an impressive television production background that experience did not, in any way, prepare me for tour operation. Another said they would give me a chance as a tour manager. I inquired, “What were the duties of a tour manger?” They told me that a tour manager was the individual who was in charge of a tour group and that they were to make sure all phases of a tour were accomplished. That meant at times paying the bills in each country visited, making sure the local guides performed well, keeping passports in a brief case, making sure that all air flights were satisfactory, giving a party for the group in each country and to be an overall public relations person during all phases of the tour. The tour manager must listen to the problems and complaints and try and settle those difficulties during the progress of each tour. Did I want the job? I finally said I would give it a try.

The tour company was well known at the time for being one of the best and most luxurious of its kind in the business. They offered accommodations in the best hotels available in each city or location and included all meals a la carte. The tour guest could dine anywhere in the hotel they were staying in and could eat any amount of food they chose. There were no set meal menus, only the regular menu offered by the hotels dining venues. If a person wanted three steaks for dinner, that was OK. You don’t find this in many tour programs today! The best local tour guides were provided, as were the coaches and various restaurants chosen to dine away from the hotels.

The maximum number of tour participants for each departure was 28. This allowed for extra room in the tour coaches during sightseeing in the various countries. The tours were luxurious.

The company operated tours in the Orient, South America, Africa, South Pacific, Micronesia and India. A sister company operated tours through Europe.

The company told me that I would be assigned a tour soon. Within a few days I received a phone call telling me I had been assigned a three-and-a-half week tour through the Orient that would visit Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand. This sounded wonderful to me! Soon, I was briefed by two other tour mangers that knew that part of the world well from the standpoint of tour managing. They gave me the good points, what to watch out for and possible difficulties I might encounter along the way. I made many notes to carry with me later.

Two days before tour departure I spent time with the operations department of the company and received vouchers for hotels, local tour companies, special restaurants outside of hotels, railroad tickets, and signed many Travelers Checks for use in areas needed to be paid on the spot. I had studied the countries to be visited, so I wouldn’t appear totally ignorant and did my best to be prepared for the many questions to be asked of me during the tour.

Finally, the big day of departure arrived and I left my home in Los Angeles for the airport and was ready at the Japan Airlines check-in counter to receive my tour guests. We had been given a separate check-in area for this purpose. Slowly, the tour participants arrived for luggage check-in and seat assignments. I presented each with my tour manager’s card and told them I would see them on the aircraft.

All 24 of them seemed nice enough and I breathed a little easier as I boarded the plane for the 13-hour flight to Tokyo. During the time in the air, I collected their passports, said a few words and they asked a few questions and we all settled in for the long flight.

The tour went very well and I enjoyed every part of it: the people, the itinerary – which was quite complete in each country – and found it to be an interesting assignment. Later, I was to discover, the Orient was the easiest part of the world in which to manage a tour.

Upon return to the home base in Los Angeles, the tour company told me that I would not be assigned another tour until all the comment cards were received. If I were given good tour manager marks by my passengers, I would receive another assignment.

Two weeks later the tour company asked me if I would like to escort a tour through South America. Of course I would – I had never been there before and the tour they had asked me to take was scheduled to visit all countries on this continent except Bolivia. Wow, what an opportunity! It was to last 54 days.

I met the tour group of only 12 in Miami at the airline check-in counter and did my greetings. I soon found out why I had been assigned this long tour. None of the other experienced tour managers wanted to deal with the difficulties associated with running a group through South America. Late flights, late tour busses, poor hotel management in some locations and general difficulties. Of the only 12 guests on the tour, two elderly sisters discovered I enjoyed Chinese food and in each city we stopped in they would call my room and say they expected me to escort them to a local Chinese restaurant. This, for 54 days! I had another gentleman on the same tour that wanted to make sure he was being assigned the best room in the hotel. He would knock on the doors of the other tour members to say hello, but was in fact inspecting their rooms from his position in the hall. If his room was not the best, he would call me to inform me of that fact. I told him there was little I could do since the hotel had assigned the rooms before our arrival. His problem was he wanted the best views from his room that the hotel could provide. I finally told him that if he would stop this complaint, I would make sure he and his wife were assigned the best views at the hotel in Rio de Janeiro. He agreed.

On one of the East Africa safari tours two busses rolled over due to mud on the poor road and several passengers were injured. The only hospital, which really was not close, was a teaching hospital in Uganda. Upon arrival, we waited and waited for medical treatment. I finally walked over to the school and entered a classroom and told my story to the professor. He told me to come with him and we walked back to the hospital where he made sure my injured people were properly treated. Properly treated in Uganda is not what it would have been in the United States. It was determined that three of my guests should return to Europe for better treatment as soon as possible. I phoned various airlines that operated out of Uganda and discovered that late that night a SAS flight would depart for Athens. I booked our entire group on this flight since the major part of the safari had been accomplished and required the airline to rig beds in the first class section for two patients. This they did and we flew to Athens, which was the last city on the tour anyway. I made sure my injured were placed in a good Greek hospital and left them in the care of our local tour operator in Athens.

My company asked me if I would take a group of 28 travel agents to Guam and then escort them through some of the remote islands of the region. Most of the flights operated only once or twice per week using 727 equipment specially equipped for rough runway operation. The aircraft were configured to operate as half passenger, half cargo. The hotels on these islands were, for the most part, basic and a few had no hot water. Of course, the weather was tropical so it really didn’t matter. The restaurants were also basic, but the travel agents were aware of these conditions before departing the States. What was being promoted was the remoteness of the islands, the tropical scenery, great beaches, snorkeling and the idea of just getting away from the usual vacation areas.

One island had a new hotel, which had just been completed by Continental Airlines, and upon arrival of my group it was discovered that we were one room short. I decided that I would stay in the hotel lobby and sleep on a couch and use the public restroom. I did this for three nights! Actually, a lot of operational things went wrong, but my group drank a lot and spent hours under palms on the beach.

I was a tour manager for a total of two years with this company. It was in the 1960’s and the Vietnam War was in full swing. One Orient tour I managed enjoyed an itinerary that took us to Cambodia. We flew into Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat. This is one of the most amazing ruins of the past I have yet to encounter. This vast religious “palace” is situated in the middle of a dense jungle in Northern Cambodia and to see it, one must walk a great distance. It takes a good part of a day to stroll through the ruins and the weather is hot and humid. We stayed two nights in the small town of Siem Reap, then, took a small plane back to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Here, we were to change planes for a flight to Bangkok.

While waiting in the not very large airport lounge, I looked outside and saw that the airline people were removing seats from our aircraft and loading cargo. Soon, I heard bombing nearby. I looked toward the city of Phnom Penh and saw smoke rising from the buildings. The airport manager ran up to me and told me to board my tour group right away. This I did and as we were climbing the air stairs they were turning on the engines for a quick getaway. Even before everyone had sat down in their seats we were quickly taxing for the runway and began to take off. I looked out the window and Phnom Penh was still being bombed. Wow! What an experience.

I held a party for my group that night in our Bangkok hotel! They were still excited and were glad everyone was safe. I toasted them all!

After tour managing all our areas of operation I was assigned the Round the World tours. Most were of only three weeks in length and covered the major cities heading west to Tokyo and on to India, then dropping down to East Africa, into Europe and home. We called it the “airport tour” since so many hours was spent waiting at airports. I became tired of so much travel, so much flying and quit. I spent a couple months resting at home, and then returned to television production. Tour managing was an exciting time, however, and my first experience in the travel industry.

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