Guiding ways

As experiential tours cement their standing in travel, the need for tour guides with niche knowledge, greater accountability and authenticity is swelling.

On a crowded bus heading towards Singapore’s famous Merlion Park, a tour guide rattles off a template tale of the fabled structure to rows of tourists. He caps off his monologue by whipping out a collection of souvenirs – keychains, magnets and other generic trinkets – and makes his way down the aisle, hawking the wares to the visitors. They had come to learn about the Singapore story, but a tour guide is now selling them a quick fix – and they are in love with it.

Many grab the goods by the fistfuls, grateful for the chance to squeeze some shopping into their short and hectic schedule. Cash from these purchases goes to the bus driver, who relies on the guide’s pitch to help supplement their income, explained Veronica Yu, a freelance guide.

“Some markets, such as those that are new to travel, want or even expect to be sold such (shopping) options and souvenirs,” she shared.

These guides tread a delicate balance between telling a tale and making a sale. As travellers become more informed and their standards rise, many have also come to demand personalised service, expert knowledge and authenticity as the minimum standard. In contrast, some guides have fallen behind in their approach to guest service.

“I’ve been on tours where, the moment the tour guide gets on the bus, it’s not about giving a commentary of Singapore – it’s about selling key chains and demanding tips – and he doesn’t even get off the bus (with the group at the attractions),” described Stanley Foo, founder and managing director, Oriental Travel and Tours.

Such practices, can “damage the quality of the experience both for the guides and the guests, and by extension, the industry”, explained DMC Xperience Singapore’s director, Jane Goh.

Guides versus ambassadors
The issue is compounded with the swelling popularity of niche tours centred on themes like architecture, gastronomy, local businesses and fading industries. Pioneered by boutique agencies, similar itineraries have been adopted in tours marketed towards large groups.

However, not all of such tours in the mass market are led by well-trained and expert guides. Part of the reason is that such new tour concepts are not addressed in the Singapore Tourism Board’s (STB) guiding examination, which is mandatory for certification. The curriculum, which was last revised in 2015, covers skillsets such as “create customer experience”, “apply tourism knowledge” and “promote Singapore as a tourist destination”, said Kenneth Lim, director, travel agents and tourist guides, STB.

As a result, many fresh guides enter the market with little to no training on niche topics of interest. TY Suen, founder & CEO of Woopa Travels, expressed: “I think the (tourism) school can be updated much more because a lot of the material is outdated. It only teaches guides about the standard attractions, history and culture.”

Other avenues exist to help guides pick up courses on specialty tours, such as STB’s 60 Professional Redevelopment Courses, of which guides must clock 21 hours every three years to renew their license. However, these classes alone are not enough to make a guide an expert in the chosen topic, said Ryan Lim, a freelance guide. Instead, the onus of training and research falls on tour companies or the guides themselves.

“Travellers are now so savvy with information. They want guides who can provide local expertise and personal communication with locals. Guides need a flexible mindset and do their own research,” commented Desmond Wee, a freelance guide.

Yet not all guides are open to adapting and making full use of these courses to stay updated and relevant, observed Foo. In this, they are doing a disservice to the hardworking guides and operators who attend or craft their own training programmes in order to create memorable experiences for travellers.

For instance, each guide taken in by Oriental Travel and Tours must undergo at least two training sessions per itinerary, including observation and trial runs. Food tour company Wok ‘n’ Stroll trains its guides – some freelancers – to be “food explorers”, and has written up a special curriculum for its new farm-to-table tour.

Many guides in the market even take the initiative to sign up for enrichment and training courses on their own volition, shared Karni Tomer, founder & CEO of Wok ‘n’ Stroll. She said: “There is a wonderful generation of guides who want to learn as much as they can, so that clients know they are given the best value. They are not just tourist guides, but ambassadors of Singapore.”

With specialty content on the rise – even among mass market tours – passionate and skilled guides are increasingly coveted by the country’s growing number of tour providers, and the pressure is on for the remaining to shape up into effective representatives of Singapore.

Greater emphasis on service
As industry players race to develop unique experiences and take on passionate recruits, tour operators and guides have commented that they willingly bear the responsibility of training. In Suen’s words, it helps the company “stand out as an employer”, and it gives guides the opportunity to take on more interesting assignments.

Instead, what is sorely needed is a curriculum that recognises Singapore’s changing tourism landscape, evolving tourist expectations and current tour formats, as well as a sharper focus on personal service and accountability.

Suen said: “I think the school should place more emphasis on character building and conduct, not just on content and knowledge, which they can come out and learn. How a guide behaves and welcomes (unique tours) is very important.”

Xperience Singapore’s Goh concurred. She remarked: “To improve the image of guiding, not only should there be an emphasis on the quality of the guides, but the programmes that the travel agencies are producing.”

Looking for change, the trade has banded together to push growth in this field. Freelancers like independent guide Lionel Chee and operators like Wok ‘n’ Stroll are cooking up programmes to train the trade for specialty tours. The National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS) is developing a series of travel-specific service quality courses with the Singapore Management University’s technology college.

Charles Tan, secretary-general, NATAS, told TTG Asia: “It’s not about changing the role of the tour guide to something else. It’s about redesigning the job to see how we can bring more value to the customers. The standards and quality of guiding service is something we’re always looking at.”

Tomer remarked: “This down period would be a good time for the trade to pick up some new skills and training, so they can be prepared for recovery once the pandemic is over.”

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