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Dealing with Difficult Participants

Aug 1, 2018 |

Tips and Resources

| by Lindsay Taulbee

Leading group travel is fun and rewarding, but it also comes with its own set of responsibilities. Whenever you bring together people with different backgrounds, interests, and experience, the potential for friction arises. Unfortunately, one difficult person can sour the experience for everyone else.

Here, we outline four of the most common types of “problem people” you may encounter and how to handle them in order to ensure a successful trip.

Fur-seal-by-Pelin-Karaca
photo by Pelin Karaca

The Goldilocks

“My room is too hot.” “This food is too cold.” “That hike was too long.” “The bus ride is too bumpy.” No matter how well your trip is going, a Goldilocks will always find something to nitpick—nothing is ever “just right.”

Certainly, if you experience legitimate issues during your trip, they should be addressed with your in-country guide or travel provider. However, if a member of your group seems determined to find something—anything—to complain about, you may have a Goldilocks on your hands. Whether they complain outright, make sarcastic comments, or constantly compare the trip with previous experiences, this person can bring down the trip’s whole mood.

Solution:

A lot of the little bumps and squeaks of daily life on the road can be turned into adventures if you put the right spin on them. Try reframing a negative experience into a positive one—“it’s great that this rain gives us some unique photo opportunities”—and set appropriate expectations that things may be different than what they’re accustomed to at home.

Some people complain because they feel a lack of control. Acknowledge their frustrations and, when possible, see what accommodations can be made without inconveniencing other group members. People often just want a sympathetic ear and the assurance that you care about making their trip pleasant and comfortable.

Zebras-by-Pelin-Karaca
photo by Pelin Karaca

The White Rabbit

“I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date!”

Often, a group travel itinerary is carefully scheduled, taking into consideration the amount of time needed for each activity and for traveling from one place to the next. One chronically tardy individual can throw a wrench into your whole schedule, forcing you to cut short activities or even miss out on experiences altogether. A White Rabbit’s dawdling can quickly draw the ire of his or her other travelers, making the whole group grumpy.

Solution:

It’s important to communicate expectations about timeliness early on to prevent misunderstandings. Every time the group disperses, hold a quick briefing and advise participants exactly when and where they should plan to meet up again, encouraging them to be at least 5 to 10 minutes early.  After your briefing, stay behind and be available to answer questions. Make sure the information you provide is accurate and descriptive enough, and ask people to repeat it back to you if necessary to ensure they’ve understood.

If someone continues to show up late, you may need to pull the offending party aside and gently explain how their behavior is negatively affecting the group.

Sifaka-by-Pelin-Karaca
photo by Pelin Karaca

The Scarecrow

“If I only had a brain!”

A close relative of the White Rabbit, the Scarecrow is absent-minded or doesn’t follow instructions. Maybe they don’t pay attention to guides or lecturers, or perhaps they arrive for activities unprepared—forgetting to bring their water bottle or sunscreen, for example.

On hikes, the Scarecrow might run ahead, scaring off wildlife before others can see, or lag behind, stopping to smell the roses for a little too long. Either way, they end up disrupting the pace of the program or inconveniencing others.

Solution:

First and foremost, tactfully make sure the participant doesn’t have a hearing impairment or other medical issue. If that does turn out to be the case, you can position the person close enough to hear instructions, or pull them aside after briefings to relay important information one-on-one.

If a participant has trouble keeping up, assist them as much as you can, with help from the in-country guide. Give them an arm to lean on over rough ground, carry a bag that’s about to tip them over, or slow your pace so they don’t get left behind.

If there’s no underlying medical issue and they’re just being inconsiderate, place one guide or group leader at the front of the pack and another one to bring up the rear during hikes. Check in during activities to make sure the person understands instructions. If supplies are needed for an activity, bring extras if you can, in case someone forgets their own.

Iceland-by-Helgi-Gudmundsson
photo by Helgi Gudmundsson

The Grouch

“Now leave me alone and get lost!”

Travel affects everyone differently. Participants can become exhausted, disoriented, or insecure in new surroundings. They could be troubled by minor stomach upset or jet lag. They may even find that their preconceived ideas about the program or destination don’t match up with reality.

The Grouch can be outwardly cranky and irritable, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes they’re quiet and withdrawn, keeping to themselves and choosing to miss activities or avoiding interaction with other group members.

Solution:

People tend to be cranky when tired, so be prepared for this, especially on the first day of your trip. Remind participants to drink lots of water, which will help counteract jet lag.

For more serious issues, don’t always expect participants to come to you with complaints. If a traveler seems unhappy, disgruntled, or too quiet, approach the person to see if it’s possible to resolve the issue. Stay calm and keep a positive attitude, and ask questions about their experience so far. By understanding their expectations for the program, you can help find opportunities to meet those goals.

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Final thoughts

As group leader, you are there to support your fellow travelers, and it’s your responsibility to see that they are listened to and looked after to the fullest extent possible.

If any serious issues arise, speak with the person in question and keep documentation. If the person continues to cause problems, or if the person’s actions are dangerous or seriously impacting the trip, you may need to involve your travel provider. Most minor hiccups, however, can be resolved with clear communication.

Do what you can for the difficult people, but don’t sell the rest of the group short just to appease one squeaky wheel. By keeping a sense of humor, remaining calm, and listening to your travelers, you’ll ensure a positive experience for everyone.


main photo by Greg Basco

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