Guiding tours that people enjoy

Guiding tours that people enjoy is about allowing the visitor to connect with a place and linking it with a lasting good memory of their visit. That’s not as intimidating as it sounds because much of what makes an enjoyable tour is common sense when you pause to collect your thoughts.

© Tim Prevett - Guided Tour

First and foremost, it’s essential that you are enthused about your subject matter. Nothing communicates as well as enthusiasm. You're meant to be talking about something you love, somewhere you’re proud of. How wonderful! Act like it! Relax. Let your enthusiasm rise. That will carry your content far better, and deal with any nerves you might have.

Also, it’s OK to be you. Tours range from dramatic or theatrical styles to informative or documentary, story telling, chatty or even comedic. Don’t try to be what you’re not. Know your own style and be comfortable with that.

Structuring the tour

If it’s down to you to structure the tour, try to include things which even those familiar with the subject or the place didn't know. If you can get an "oooh I didn't know that" moment or two, that something-new-but-familiar will always be associated with the tour. It's my delight to surprise a number of Nantwich folks each year (known as 'dabbers') by darting down a well concealed side passage on the Nantwich Ghost Tour which you won't see unless you look for it.

A list of questions to consider now:

  • How many stops will be do-able during the time period?
  • How long at each stop?
  • Considering various abilities and agility, how long may it take between stops?
  • How much space is there for the group to stand? Will you be obstructing thoroughfares?
  • Are there alternative routes or stopping places if it’s busy? Having taken Roman Tours in Chester, things get very busy with multiple groups with their guides filling some public spaces at peak times.
  • Is there shelter in rain? Or shade from sun? A closed off area to lessen windchill? Once covering the Romans at the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester, I had the luxury of an external fort reconstruction for sunshine, or an internal replica guard room if wet. Where could you take your group if the weather was changeable?
  • Are there background noises to deal with? Some may distract others, can be made light of, or even aid an appropriately atmospheric vibe. If it’s too dominant, it will distract. Buses are my biggest noise competitor on one street in Crewe, or sometimes the bells of St Mary's Church in Nantwich if the bellringers are in the tower!

Once you've got the tour together, it’s time for pre-tour preparation.

Preparing for the tour

Are you going to use props? Maybe include old photos, maps, newspaper articles, material illustrative of things you can't see. Crewe has lost substantial amounts of built heritage, and folk are surprised at what was there when I show them old pictures and plans through the tour.

Have a shoulder bag which these can slip in and out of. Alternatively, if within secure premises, leave props and materials at relevant points.

Don't rely too heavily on a script. If you try to memorise it, this can make you anxious to get it verbatim. If reading much material you will struggle to keep your place if your eyes are darting between the print and your group. If you need notes, use a clipboard or even better, checking postcard sized pads with notes between stops is a more fluid way of keeping content flowing.

Hopefully you’re now prepared for the tour. Now do deliver it...

Delivering the tour

Make sure any props, prompts and illustrative materials are in the right order before each tour. Preferably before greeting your waiting guests. It will also save time. If a mid tour re-order is necessary, I do it between stops.

Before the tour, chat with people about their personal interest in being there while they assemble. That way you can ascertain some of the pitch of the tour in advance and weave in new information or first hand experiences which can enrich the interactive feel. If you have a list of attendees, allow a few moments of grace if not all are present before setting off. The eve of finishing this blog post saw us delayed by traffic en route to an underground tour of Manchester. The guide was waiting those few extra minutes that helped us get there in time. If he hadn't, the group would have disappeared without a chance for us to rejoin elsewhere.

When it’s time to go, give an introduction - who you are, what you do. Provide information about the tour’s length, where it will finish, toilets and any particular health and safety aspects and get your audience to focus on the tour.

Give the tour that’s advertised. If it’s a civil war trail of a town, give that tour! Don’t detail Georgian and Victorian properties, as amazing as they may be. Such a thing happened to me. The tour was good, the knowledge enlightening. But it didn't take away the disappointment of a Saturday morning not getting the tour I'd hoped for.

Don’t be a know-it-all, even if you really do know it all. If people make comments that are slightly inaccurate, don’t cite chapter and verse at them, as it were. Let it go. The worst tour my family ever did left us feeling stamped on by the guide and proprietor of an attraction. Every last comment and question had to rephrased into his precise scientific articulation. Shame, as it was a superb place - thankfully it didn't put us off our interest, but left us ambivalent about recommending the venue. A good tour engages people to go away feeling good and wanting to know more.

Keep it concise. Don't over-run excessively! You can always give extra info in person between stops or after the tour.

Don't assume people know terms and abbreviations which you take for granted - unless they are obviously a specialist group. On my Strange at Crewe - Crewe Train Station Ghost Tour, I refer to odd experiences on a restored TPO which used to be at Crewe Heritage Centre. Unless you are into rail heritage, you won't know that a TPO is Travelling Post Office.

Stay appropriate - to your advertised content, in your attitude with those around you, and don’t relate gossip! It doesn't look good to relate behind the scenes disputes or betray confidences. Being a guide is being an ambassador for a given location. It's the one chance to give a good impression. What will people remember most from your tour?

Keep gauging the audience's interest and try to maintain eye contact with people. Don't be distracted by people taking photos or notes, and if someone looks bored, and you know you’re not being boring, look at those who are interested. But if several people are looking bored, is it time to move on?

When talking to your group, face them! For instance, in Nantwich I talk about the spirit of a jilted bride at the Tudor Sweet Briar Hall. I get the group looking towards the building, I stand between them with my back to the building. They see me, the subject of the stop, and can look across the road when I gesture to the haunted Boot and Shoe pub. Eye contact is not broken, and my voice doesn't disappear into the building.

Remember to plug other things you or your organisation will be doing in the weeks and months following the tour. At the end of my two new Heritage Open Days tours in Crewe, I will be letting folk know that I also do Ghost Tours of Crewe and Nantwich town centres, and a completely different Ghost Tour at Crewe Train Station, with other historical tours on the way. What about other nearby attractions? I'll also have leaflets for Crewe Heritage Centre to give out and web addresses for other things to do in the area. Cross promote and you'll be cross promoted too.

Lastly, be accessible. What I appreciate most on others’ tours (if not of a more theatrical type) is a guide's personable character. If people feel you are approachable, they will relax into the tour.

Completing the tour

Being able to hang around to talk with punters at a tour's end gives a sense of completion and can generate more information, leads and customers. This has been when I have been given so many more personal histories and experiences of a given location. Also, use this time as ‘the buffer’ into which the interesting sidelines can be placed, away from the main tour.

Keep a notepad handy. If you are repeating tours, you will come up with new phrases you want to keep. Some tour groups you take will stimulate your creativity and new things will happen! The notepad can also be used to jot down what those lingering conversations communicate to you.

Keeping the feeling

People will most of all remember the manner in which you guided them, how you made them feel. That will be the filter through which they recall any facts you told them or places you showed them. A tour can help change people's perception of their environment for ever, or give lifelong memories. When I covered for the Chester Ghost Tour, I received an email a few weeks later from guests on the tour who had come from Australia. They said the tour had been one of the highlights of their few weeks in the UK.

We do more activities based on feeling than on logic. What we choose to spend our time and money on is mainly because we like the way it makes us feel, rather than it being necessarily a sensible choice. A tour done well generates a sublime, satisfying feeling for the guide, not to mention their audience! Your energy and your effort has linked you, the place and your guests together into an enjoyable memory for all involved.

You can experience Tim Prevett live over Heritage Open Days on the following tours: Crewe Town Centre - Heritage Lost and History Discovered Tour and Crewe Town Centre - Murders, Mishaps and Morals Tour