Itineraries: How Tour Guides Abroad Learn to Cater to Exotic Americans

2016-11-29 18:52:20

 

Itineraries: How Tour Guides Abroad Learn to Cater to Exotic Americans

Don’t compliment an American’s girth. Answer their children’s questions. Fill your museum tour with fun facts.

These are among the tips that tour guides in countries as different as Uganda, Russia, Guyana and Italy might receive as they train to play host to people from the United States.

If you’re an American traveler fascinated by the foreign and exotic, understand this: Your tour guide probably finds you equally strange and otherworldly. Just ask the people who train the guides.

Because American tourists tend to want a personal connection to the guide, and expect the tour to be interactive and entertaining, guides need special training, said Chuck Lennox, a travel consultant in Seattle who has trained guides in South America and Africa among other places.

In many cultures, the classroom teaching model is the expert delivering a steady stream of knowledge to students who do not ask questions. This tradition can seep into a didactic presentation style among tour guides. Americans like more give and take, Mr. Lennox said.

“We teach guides to ask what their group is interested in, and what they already know, so the tour can be customized,” he said. Guides are also taught to observe and respond to body language for signs of interest or disinterest.

Even compliments and expressions of gratitude can be tricky. On his tours in Guyana in South America, Mr. Lennox noted that some rural guides would give overweight Americans a thumbs-up and say things like, “Ah, packing it on — good deal!” as a compliment, equating an ample waistline with abundant wealth.

Conversely, Americans seemed to say “thank you” for everything the guides did, a custom that made the local people feel indebted to them, Mr. Lennox said.

Learning cultural cues is important for guides and tourists alike, given the large number of people from the United States who visit other countries. Tens of millions of Americans travel abroad each year, according to the Commerce Department. And when they travel, nearly 40 percent of American leisure travelers overseas participate in some kind of guided tour, according to the research website Statista.com.

Mark Jordahl, who has run his own tour company in Uganda for almost a decade, says that Americans often want to become friends with their guides, and so they will ask questions about the guides’ families, education and homes to get to know them better.

Mr. Jordahl, an American who has hired and trained people to guide his American clients, said the trainees sometimes ask him, “Why is this person I don’t even know asking me so many personal questions?”

Mr. Jordahl explains to them that Americans in search of an “authentic” experience hope to interact with the guide as more of an equal than as a hired hand.

That same expectation of equality applies to the tourists’ children, who may want to pepper the guide with questions. Mr. Jordahl, who has two young sons of his own, says that in Ugandan society, men do not interact with children as fully as Americans do, so “it doesn’t occur to them to engage with the kids who are part of the group.”

When children ask direct questions, he said, guides sometimes “literally don’t even hear them and often don’t acknowledge their presence.”

Elena Weber, who teaches at the Irkutsk State Linguistic University in Siberia, and trains tour guides in the Lake Baikal and Irkutsk area, encourages personal interaction. The Americans who travel to Siberia have probably already been to many of the most famous tourist destinations in the world, she said, and they will have had better food and lodging elsewhere.

So she tells her student-guides to try to treat their American visitors the same way they might a personal guest or family member. “It is only through personal connection,” she said, that they can help tourists, “find some place in their hearts for Siberia.”

In Europe, on the other hand, the guide might need to approach the American tourist not so much as a valued family member but as, perhaps, a less cultured second cousin.

Americans usually don’t have the same depth of knowledge in history and art as Europeans do, according to Jason Spiehler, a founder of Walks of Italy, Walks of New York and Walks of Turkey, so his group leaders are trained to start at a more basic level when giving tours.

“It’s easy for a guide in Italy to reference a painter like Bellini or an architect like Borromini and assume their clients are following along,” he said. Not so if the clients are Americans, whose knowledge of the Italian masters might stop at Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

The guide’s mix of information is important, too. While Italians prefer an “academic” tour, Mr. Spiehler said, Americans want a tour that is “not only informative but also entertaining, filled with stories and fun facts.”

So, for example, Americans touring St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican might be told that the interior of the dome, from floor to ceiling, is high enough to accommodate nearly three Statues of Liberty if they were stacked atop one another.

Americans also like privileges like priority lines and V.I.P. access, Mr. Spiehler said, which accounts for the popularity of his company’s “Pristine Sistine” tour of the Sistine Chapel, early in the morning before it opens to the general public.

Of course, the training that guides receive and the adjustments they make to accommodate the Americans can have its own rewards, Mr. Lennox noted. “It absolutely can affect the amount in tips they receive,” he said.

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