Wednesday, January 7, 2009

So you want to be a tour guide... Part 1 - Intro

Being a tour guide is not at all a bad job, if the circumstances of life are right. There are some people for whom it’s great. Unfortunately, these are usually not the people who are actually doing the job.

First of all, you have to realize that you aren’t going to get a “job” as a tour guide. When people think of a job, they think of something with steady hours, a set schedule, and more or less the same paycheck every week. That’s not tour guiding. Tour guiding is a hustle – lining up a series of gigs through the year. You work, you get paid (usually). You don’t work, you don’t get paid (definitely). The tour guiding business is seasonal and heavily dependent on the economy, so you are also. You’ve got to hustle hard and save when the going’s good, and try to survive when it isn’t.

You’ll probably cobble together some motley patchwork of bus work, group tours (mostly school groups) through independent operators, and maybe a steady gig at a museum, church or other institution if you’re lucky, with a small smattering of private and specialty tours you hustle up directly.

The double-decker buses are the meat-and-potatoes of tour guiding. They’re also the steadiest employment, although steady is a very relative term. They cater to the lowest common denominator of tourists, and everyone involved in this business – management, guides, ticket agents, even the drivers - is generally concerned only with trying to squeeze every last buck they can out of them. A fellow guide once called me a “tour guide grunt” for hustling 14-hours days on the things in the summer, but I made more money in 5 months than he made all year.

The people who are best suited for tour bus guiding are college students. Other than maybe being a lifeguard, this is the best student job you’ll ever get. Work outdoors in the summer, cracking jokes and flirting with girls, getting to educate and entertain people. Make a ton of money in three weeks on your winter break. Maybe hit the bus on weekends in the fall if you need some extra cash – one good Saturday of working hard will probably net you 250 bucks. You want to take the Spring semester off to go backpacking across South America? No problem – come back in April or May, get off the plane, take the train to midtown and you’ll be on a bus jabbering away in 20 minutes. You’ve got to hustle hard, you’re treated like a Mexican day laborer, and finding 5 minutes to pee is a luxury, but you can make money. You get no vacations, health insurance, or respect from the company, tourists, or anyone else, but hey – you’re young, healthy, and it’s a hell of a lot better than working McDonalds.

The problem in New York is that we have one of the biggest talent pools in the world – which leads to a lot of overqualified people in every job, in every field. Your cab driver was an engineer back in his home country. The sous chef at your neighborhood restaurant ran the swankiest joint there is in whatever mid-sized American city he came from. The guy serving you coffee at Starbucks just got his MBA. So while college students are generally best suited for the buses, you are much more likely to have an out-of-work college professor conducting your tour.

And this is the root of the dysfunction of the tour guide profession, or at least the low of end of it. Everyone in this city is qualified, everyone is smart, everyone is driven. The difference between the people who make it and the people who don’t are connections and social adroitness. If you’re lucky, you’ve got the first type of guide: lacking in connections. They’ve just moved here, are probably trying to make it as an actor, hustling and hoping until they’ve been here long enough to build up some relationships and try and catch a break. If you aren’t lucky, you’ve got the second type: lacking in social adroitness. These aren’t necessarily bad guides – if they’re having a good day, they can be really informative and entertaining. But there’s a reason they aren’t holding down a 9-5 as an architectural historian, and that reason isn’t because they don’t know architectural history inside and out. It’s because they’re crazy.

Now by crazy, I don’t mean they should be institutionalized, and I certainly don’t mean dangerous. But I do mean more than eccentric (which is a characteristic of every tour guide, if not every New Yorker). And I’m not saying all tour guides are crazy – I’m not even saying most are. But I am saying that craziness affects tour guides in a significantly larger percentage than the general public, and the further down the guide ladder you go, the more crazies there are. And this craziness is not helped by the fact that they're probably some sort of frustrated intellectual dealing with, well, the type of people who take double-decker bus rides. So you do the math.

More on the other gigs, and the types of guides they fit forthcoming.


  1. So... if you don't mind my asking, which is the better employer, CitySights or Grey Line? I recently obtained my guide license and am wondering which is the better of the evils.

  2. Well, it's kind of a moot point now

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