Guiding woes

As experiential tours cement their standing in a business event programme, operators say the glaring need for accountable, knowledgeable and passionate tour guides is swelling.

On a hot and humid midday in March, a tour guide leads a pack of visitors to Singapore’s famous Merlion Park. He rattles off a template description of the fabled sculpture, then herds the visitors towards a nearby jetty, enticing them to fork out a fare for a “scenic cruise” under the noon glare.

Unknown to these visitors, the ride is more enjoyable in the cool evening; and for every person who boards the boat, the guide pockets a handsome commission. He stays on shore after sending the group off on a tour without a story.

“These guides care about making money, not about providing good service to the client. I’ve been on tours where, the moment the tour guide gets on the bus, it’s about selling key chains and demanding tips – and he doesn’t even get off the bus (with the group at the attractions),” said Stanley Foo, founder and managing director, Oriental Travel and Tours.

This way of guiding may have gone unquestioned for the last ten or more years, but it is no longer satisfactory for today’s well-heeled travellers, who have carried their demands for personalised service and authentic experiences into the corporate space.

Foo expressed: “We are targeting a very niche market, not big group tours. We need someone who is very passionate and concerned about the welfare of the guests.”

Yet, Singapore’s guiding market is still dominated by lacklustre guides, opined Foo who estimated that they make up 95 per cent of the talent pool, and the remaining few are coveted by the country’s growing number of tour providers. Of the thousands of guides in the market, Oriental Travel and Tours’ roster comprises less than ten.

The test of time
The demand for passionate guides with a modicum of good service is growing even greater, as tours centred on niche themes like architecture, gastronomy, local businesses and fading industries gain popularity as elements within pre- and post-event or meeting programmes. These new concepts, however, are not addressed in the Singapore Tourism Board’s guiding examination, which is mandatory for guiding certification in Singapore.

TY Suen, founder & CEO of Monster Day Tours and UBE Singapore, expressed: “The (tourism) school only teaches guides about the standard attractions, history and culture. It’s good, but 5,000 guides can do this type of tour. We have programmes that not all guides can do.”

Monster Day Tours specialises in cultural walks, and UBE Singapore caters to the country’s burgeoning events segment with business-focused tours such as the Silicon Valley of Singapore Insider Tour, which dives into innovation parks one-north and JTC Launchpad.

Instead, the onus of training falls onto the tour operators, who must bear the resources of developing new hires into field experts. For instance, each guide taken in by Oriental Travel and Tours must undergo at least two training sessions per itinerary, including observation and trial runs.

Xperience Singapore provides a comprehensive brief detailing its tours, including key points that guides must address during each tour.

The rigorous process has bottlenecked supply, with DMC Diethelm Travel (Singapore) failing to secure popular tours due to a lack of trained guides. Judy Lum, its director, shared: “I have gotten very good reviews for Wok n’ Stroll’s Michelin food tour, but it is not easy to make a booking because they only have three guides available.”

Emphasis on service
While Singapore’s new breed of tour operators are willing to bear the responsibility of training, they are urging the creation of a curriculum that recognises Singapore’s changing tourism landscape and current tour formats, as well as a sharper focus on service and accountability.

Suen said: “I think the school should place more emphasis on character building and conduct, not just on content and knowledge, which guides can come out and learn.”

Looking for change, the trade has banded together to push growth in this area. The National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS) is developing a series of travel-specific service quality courses with the Singapore Management University’s technology college.

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