About to cross The Golden Gate Bridge on an open-top tour bus.
Photo by Douglas B. Davis.
I mentioned in Confessions of A Tour Guide: Part One that I used some skills as a tour guide that one can use in any performance venue.

Now we’ll talk about skills I’ve picked up since becoming a tour guide in San Francisco. These may not be exclusive to the city, but I can’t think of too many other jobs where they apply.

Be accurate in your presentation.

Okay, this is certainly something that applies to other jobs but it’s obviously more-than-a-little important as a tour guide.

A lot of guides here in San Francisco give walking tours. I mean A LOT. When I was out on a walking tour for my previous employer, I’d run into 4 or 5 other guides leading people around with strings of words, and the words were usually similar to the words I was leading my guests around with - but not always.

It seemed any given building might have been erected in 1915, but maybe 1922, and the name of the architect would sometimes change for the same building. That’s right, YOUR GUIDE MIGHT BE WRONG. I never was - *cough* - but you wouldn’t know it by the number of hobos who would correct me.

That was one of my favorite parts of the job. I’d be standing in Saint Mary’s Square talking about the Chinese immigrants who came during the gold rush and a very smelly, disheveled man would stumble up and either:

1. Inform me that not only did Dr. Sun Yat-sen rule The People's Republic of China in 1912, but he was also a co-founder of the Kuomintang.


2. Fart, and call me a commie.

The point is, try and be accurate. Hobos will still correct you but at least you’re giving it your best shot. Thankfully this only happened on walking tours because I have yet to meet a hobo who could run fast enough to catch up to us during the bus tours.

In part one, I mentioned a guide who billed herself as “The Best Tour Guide In The World!” which we all thought was kind of odd because she got just about everything wrong.

Example: We have this really cool building on the waterfront in San Francisco called “The Ferry Building.” It was built in 1898 and survived the famous 1906 earthquake with little structural damage.

San Francisco's Ferry Building, as seen from the bay while approaching
on a ferry. Photo by DW Rhodes.
She gave bus tours - not walking tours - and, while riding her bus one day, I heard her tell the guests, “The clock tower of The Ferry Building used to face directly down Market Street, but it shifted 20 degrees off its axis in the 1906 earthquake.”

Yeah, that is so not true.

What’s really weird about this is she wasn’t new, she’d been telling visitors this for years and no one corrected her, which is one of the reasons I’m glad to no longer be with that company.

Below is a screen-cap from a film called “A Trip Down Market Street,” where the clock tower is quite visibly shifted 20 degrees to the side, as it was originally built. The movie was made in 1906 just days before the great earthquake, which is quite obvious because all of the buildings seen in the movie, with the Ferry Building being the only exception, perished in the ensuing fire.

Still from “A Trip Down Market Street,” 1906. Public domain.
I guess “THE BEST TOUR GUIDE IN THE WORLD!” hadn’t discovered Google yet.

But she's not the only one who got things wrong. I'd actually get something wrong on occasion (gasp!) and, when someone kindly brought the error to my attention, I’d correct it and go with the latest thing I’d read/heard/seen.

So your tour guide may not always be right folks, but at least they’ll know more than you do (most of the time). Your other option would be to hire a hobo because they seem to know a lot about this city. To find one, just take a walk through downtown. They’ll find you.

Make it about the guests, not you.

There was a guide who lasted a whole eight days. I think his brevity will be self-explanatory when you see this post from his Facebook timeline:

Yes, the company said they’d kick ten bucks to any guide who got good reviews on any of the user review sites but, NO, you don’t tell guests that. Or your Facebook Friends. Or anyone. You can ask people to throw a good review up for you, if they don’t mind, and that’s fine. But paying them?

This same fellow showed up in a reply to a positive user review at Trip Advisor when he commented publicly to the guest:

Here, he's not only offering to kick back a few bucks to the guest for a positive review, but it might not have even been his tour. “Use my name and I'll send you $5..” REALLY?

This guy needs someone to gift him a nice book on ethics for his birthday.. TRUE STORY.

Actually, guests DON’T GIVE A DAMN if you get ten bucks, even if you offer to split it with them.

They just want a good tour where they learn something and have a laugh or two. Mentioning that you gladly take tips (we’ll get to that) and that you'd appreciate a nice review on Yelp should be reminders at best, but never a plea.

I know it will sound selfish, but I just had a tuna sandwich.

The selfish part is this: All I really cared about is that it was GOOD TUNA (and bread, and cheese). I don’t know which boat went out to get the tuna, or who owns the boat, or anything about the crew.

I'm not wondering if the fishermen are doing okay this year, or the dairy people, or the bakers. ALL I WANTED WAS A GOOD TUNA SANDWICH AND, BY GOLLY, THAT’S WHAT I JUST HAD. If I got a plea from the Tuna boat captain asking me to rate his tuna on Yelp, I’d probably decline to do so, and switch to turkey.

The truth is, guests are selfish - and should be. They only care about getting a good tour, they don’t care about the guide at all (unless the guide REALLY SUCKS, and then BOY, do they care!).

If you’re an open-top bus guide, LEARN TO DUCK.

Photo by DW Rhodes.
Prior to hiring on with a company that operates buses with no roof, where guests can sit up on top in the fresh air, I’d never been on one. I found out quickly that it’s a good idea to keep your head low most of the time.

There are quite a few hazards around a city like San Francisco - including low bridges, tunnels, cables and, worst of all, tree branches.

One friend and co-worker seemed to get whacked by trees a disproportionate number of times, and we all figured he just got so caught up in his tour that he’d forget anything else existed. That’s okay, I feel the same way about Scarlett Johansson.

By the third time, he’d earned himself a little concussion that came with a doctor’s note saying he shouldn’t ride around on the top of buses for a while, so they put him on walking tours as a temporary measure. But he STILL got hit by a tree, while on a walking tour. I kid you not. He was talking to his guests and getting so excited about some statue in Washington Square Park that he ran smack into a Eucalyptus.

Stay safe, kids.

Asking for and receiving tips.

This is the big one. This is the one that needs to be said, but it’s kind of like talking about the guy in the room who has a booger hanging out of his nose. It’s an uncomfortable subject, but someone should address it.

I was told while training as a tour bus guide that I should go ahead and briefly mention our willingness to receive tips at least twice during the two and a half hour tour. This was a hop-on, hop-off tour and there would likely be a whole different set of people toward the end of it than when you’d left two hours earlier, so giving tips a mention a couple of times didn’t seem excessive.

“But why mention it at all?” you may ask. Good question!

“I mean, waiters, bartenders, and cab drivers don’t keep pestering you for tips when they bring you an omelette, serve you a drink, or take you home after the bar closes, right?” Again, you make an excellent point!

“So why do you tour guides go on and on about it?”

Sweet Tap-Dancing Jesus, be quiet already and I’ll tell you!

People go out to eat a whole lot, and some people (HI, UNCLE FRANK!) go to bars a whole lot, and it’s just an accepted part of the service that you tip the staff in those places - at least here in the United States.

But people don’t go on tours a lot. Also, they’re usually so caught up in the majesty that is the Golden Gate Bridge that slipping you a five is the last thing on their mind before jumping off the bus.

My view of The Golden Gate Bridge several times each day.
Photo by DW Rhodes.
I really wish it wasn’t necessary to ask for tips, because it’s uncomfortable for the guide too, but it’s a necessity because tour companies don’t really pay any kind of living wage. Especially here in San Francisco, where the average one-bedroom rental in a decent neighborhood can run $3500.00 a month.

I live over a very noisy strip-club in a one-room apartment with my wife and I don’t pay anywhere near that amount in rent, yet my wage from the tour company seemed to barely cover rent and bills, while the tips fed us. I’d come home from a very low tip day and say, “Sorry honey, Ramen tonight.”

I spent a few years as a taxi driver in my past and I recall never having to ask for tips; I did pretty well, and I never had to worry a customer might be from a country where tipping isn’t practiced. Foreign visitors seem to know that you tip a taxi driver in the US, but they sure don’t seem to be aware of tipping when it comes to tour guides.

In the next and final post, I (very uncomfortably) address this when I talk about HOW TO BE A GOOD TOUR GUEST.

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