International Tour Management Institute (ITMI)

The Premier Training Institute for Tour & Travel Professionals Since 1976

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A Tribute to the Tour Director

Written by David Cogswell | January 07, 2013
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The creation of a “tour product” involves many layers of work, such as the wise use of a tour infrastructure and the legacy of contacts and knowledge from years of institutional experience. It also means accounting with hairline accuracy, creative marketing, and some measure of good taste and judgment at every decision-making juncture.

But no matter how many components are skillfully woven together for the final product, in the end it all comes down on the shoulders of the tour director to fulfill the instructions that make the tour experience unfold. The tour director is where the rubber hits the road for the entire tour operation.

While every component in the chain is essential, it is fair to say that the tour director can make or break any tour product. The tour director is the public face of the tour operator, the only representative of the company that most clients have any significant contact with. It’s a huge responsibility that tour operators entrust to their tour directors.  

Ted Bravos, CEO of the International Tour Management Institute (ITMI), which trains tour directors, agrees that they are the hidden heroes of the travel industry. “The single most important element of a successful group tour experience, is the tour director,” he says. “Tour directing is like project management on wheels. Tour directors are the ‘eyes and ears’ of the tour company. They are paid to make decisions on the other side of the world that the owner of the tour company would do if they were standing in their shoes.”

Successful tour operators know how important their tour directors are. I have observed tour directors in action countless times while taking several tours a year for nearly two decades. In all those experiences the group dynamic never ceases to fascinate me and the role of the tour director is especially intriguing. It requires a delicate blend of qualities.

A tour director must have a firm grounding in knowledge of the destination in order to be a good host. But perhaps more importantly he or she must be able to lead a group of people and keep them on track, moving on schedule through a complex and demanding itinerary. A tour director must have highly developed leadership skills and nurturing capacities, because on any tour the tour director quickly becomes the person everyone turns to for practically everything.

The tour director must be the host of a caravanning party as well as a specialist in logistics, a friend to those in need, a teacher, a problem-solver and an entertainer. The better the tour director does his or her job, the less it is visible to the guests. The job suddenly becomes visible the moment something goes wrong, a connection is missed, some miscalculation takes place or a traffic jam destroys a day’s schedule. And no trip ever is without its mishaps and problems.

Of the many tour directors I have traveled with, my experiences have been positive almost without exception. Obviously tour directors vary greatly in personality, in their areas of expertise and their qualifications. But overall they are a very impressive international class of travel professionals. It’s such a benign vocation. How many people would take on so much work and responsibility just to make sure your trip goes splendidly? Anyone without a great deal of grace, stamina, resourcefulness and heart would not last long in that profession.

On my recent Brendan Vacations’ Slow Food itinerary in Italy, the tour director was Susanna Mariani. Susanna is a native Italian who studied in Rome to be an illustrator, but has now shifted into tour guiding and gone back to school to study archeology. I knew she had to be one of Brendan’s best or the company would not have chosen her to guide a group of travel agents and journalists on a sample of the company’s newest, most innovative product line. 

I met Susanna at the Independent Hotel in Rome after flying overnight from New York. She greeted the jetlagged arrivals with drinks at the roof garden restaurant on top of the hotel, one of the highest buildings in central Rome with a great panoramic view of the cityscape. After spending the night in an airline seat it was a burst of euphoria. I was instantly in love -- with Rome, the rooftop restaurant and a beautiful Italian woman who treated me like a friend. That was Susanna. Who could not fall under the spell of all that?

Call it charisma. It is a handy thing for a tour director, or anyone who must lead people, to be irresistible. As with other tour directors I’ve met, Susanna’s secret weapon is that she is loaded with charm, which when coupled with sincere humility smoothes many a rough road. To know her is to love her, and everyone in our group fell for her, making for a fun, harmonious group.

Susanna speaks English with a musical Italian lilt. She is so full of joy she can barely contain it. She smiles almost all the time. She’s sleek and stylish, as virtually all the Italians are. They make us Americans look like such a thick lot.

From the moment I met Susanna I knew my trip to Italy would be great -- and it was. This is the power of a good tour director. Through the power of personality, character and skill, a tour director can give you faith that things will go well and then make that happen. I have the greatest esteem for the profession.