Saturday, January 24, 2009

So you wanna be a tour guide... Part 2 - licensing

Now, you can't just decide you want to be a tour guide and go to it, like you might decide to be a bartender, or actor, or traveling salesman. You've got to have credentials. All tour guides are required to have an active license from the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs - the same guys who license everyone from tattoo artists to hot dog vendors.

To get the license you've got to jump through a few hoops - pay the money, currently $50 for a two-year license, get a certificate saying you don't owe child support, and pass a test, which is also $50. So yes - tour guides do know what they're talking about (mostly). Even if you're not a working guide, having a license is a little bit of a point of pride. It's a quick, official way to become an credentialed expert in New York. Well, expert might be a bit of a stretch. You can get a tour guide license without an 8th grade education, much less a history degree from an accredited institute of higher learning. It's kind of like becoming a Deacon in the Church - you're still a layperson, but an acknowledged layperson.

The test is kind of silly. It was pretty easy until 2003 (to put it in perspective, I passed after living in New York for three months). Then they decided to amp it up a bit. However, instead of just making the test harder, they also decided to make it into a lecture. So now some of the questions are a page long and don't really have a whole lot to do with the answer, but it is a better test in general.

People always ask me how to study for the test, and I have only a few quick suggestions.

First, ignore the DCA's lazy advice to read the Blue Guide. It's out of date, a reference book that you don't really "read" and has a couple of egregious errors in it anyway (the Flatiron building was never the tallest in the world, for starters).

Second, learn where and what the different museums are.

Third, go over the commercial traffic rules - a lot of being a tour guide is knowing where you can take buses - and know what streets in Manhattan go which way.

Fourth, casually read over the NY Times City Section from 2002 - that's when the test was written, and a lot of questions are taken from the articles.

Do this, and have some good, general New Yorker knowledge, and you'll be fine.

If you really want to ace it though, you can go right to the source. The entire thing was written by Justin Ferate, so maybe you should just drop him a line. I actually wrote kind of a snotty letter to him and DCA after I took the revised test, as it mostly consists of him showing off (as you can tell from the sample questions), but once I had a class with him and learned he took people the back way through a hole in the fence to the Vanderbilt Mausoleum in the Moravian Cemetery in Staten Island, I decided he was OK.

Now, the test is 150 questions. There's two different "passing" grades for the test: 97 and 120. Originally they were going to make all current guides take the test and pass with a 120, instead of grandfathering them in. When there was an outcry over this, they grandfathered in the existing guides, and lowered the passing score to 97 - but you still get a little star by your name as a special mention if you get a 120 or higher. You can check if your favorite tour guide got the star here (.pdf file).

Whether you need to be licensed or not in all practicality is a different story. Almost all large or mid-sized tour companies will check to make sure you're licensed, although a few unlicensed people have slipped through. Now, in a pinch the Blue Bus will throw someone on top of the double-decker who can't even speak English, much less is a licensed guide, and I wouldn't be surprised if some other companies did the same. Some folks let their licenses lapse out of laziness or lack of funds - one of the dumb things the DCA does is make the renewal date April 1st - right after the dead season, when a lot of guides are struggling to come up with the $50 for renewal. I've run into people who've been suspended from the large companies for letting their license lapse. On the other hand, just looking over the list right now there's at least one working (and very good) tour guide I know who has let his lapse without any apparent consequences.

Smaller outfits are a bit different. I know of at least one, high-end company that doesn't bother to get their guides licensed. And out-of-town guides rarely, if ever, get licensed (the legalities of them conducting tours is still fuzzy). Enforcement isn't like Rome (which as I've mentioned, is the only city with more cynicism toward tourists than New York), where roving bands of undercover cops patrol the center of the city, protecting the jobs of the officially designated guides. I've heard of the DCA doing license checks exactly once in the last decade. If you're a casual part-timer, it's really professional pride that dictates a valid license, not practical concerns.

But licensing itself is only a reflection of knowledge, and a limited knowledge at that. And knowledge is just one tool - and generally an overused one - in a tour guide's arsenal. A lot of guides think "most knowledge=best tour guide" and if you God-forbid find yourself in a group of more than a couple guides, you are guaranteed some "whose tour guide dick is bigger" competition regarding who knows the most about the city. But knowledge counts for less and less in this day and age of wikipedia and google. And there's certainly no guarantee that someone who has the little star (120 and above) by their name is a better guide than someone who doesn't, or even someone who flunked the test completely. And I know of zero tour operators that require, or even give preference to, someone with the star by their name.

Me? I could have been grandfathered in and skipped the new test, but as the DCA let currently licensed guides take it for free, I shlepped down to their offices on Lower Broadway. I scored a 123 and got the little star - but I had to take it twice.

5 comments:

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  2. Justin Ferate does NOT have a gold star next to his name... What a scandal! I have none next to my name either... I aced the test back in 1999.

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  3. Ahem. As it happens, Moses has the little star AND is a stellar tour guide.

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  4. what's in a star...i've been a bigapplegreeter ( volunteer tour guide ) for about 15 years and lead 7-12 hrs tours a few times a month..although i haven't yet taken the licensed exam , i still feel tourists are very satisfied with my outings; they aren't so much interested in historical facts and dates as much with just having a good time..eating great pizza, seeing places they wouldn't get to see on their own.

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