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What makes an excellent guide?

Jun 1, 2018 |

Behind the Scenes

| by Molly O'Brien

While the success of a trip depends on many factors, perhaps the most significant contributor to the quality of a travel program hinges on the guides. The skill and knowledge of a guide can make or break a program.

A few samples of testimonials from travelers specifically mention how exceptional guides shaped their overall travel experience:

“The entire program was totally enjoyable. The guides were the key to enriching the experience for us. Their communication skills were excellent and it all helped us to understand the culture, the people, the economy, business, government of the country.”—Hau’oli W., Chile

“The best part of this trip was the exceptionally excellent guide. All travel arrangements went smoothly. I could use all my energy to just enjoy the experience.”—Carolyn C.  Costa Rica

“The hands-down BEST guide we have ever had on any trip. On a scale of 1-10, we’d give him a 25.” —Craig & Janette L., Costa Rica

“This program was the experience of a lifetime and exceeded my expectations. In particular, the guides were exemplary - their knowledge, patience, and personalities were outstanding.”

 —Douglas B., Galápagos Islands

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photo by Sanford Sorkin

So what makes an “excellent” guide? It’s a simple question with a complex answer.

How do you narrow down all of the variables and find an appropriate measuring scale for selection of the right individual?  While it’s not an exact science, Holbrook’s Vice President of Program Development, Pelin Karaca sums up key ingredients: “In addition to being native to the country, bilingual, and a licensed guide, we look for individuals with leadership qualities and specific personality types. Knowledge can be learned and gained with experience; personality is intrinsic and often times more important than knowledge.”

Holbrook dedicates a substantial amount of time and effort in the selection and training of our in-country guides. Training programs are conducted on a regular basis. Below are elements of the makings of excellent guides from recruiting to training.

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photo by Dain Van Schoyck

Finding the perfect fit

Because the selection process is so specific, there isn’t one exact method we employ to acquire new guides. Most of our referrals will come from word of mouth, such as from our partners in country whom we work closely with and are familiar with our programs’ needs. Often times they have access to contacts in country and in turn provide Holbrook with names of potential new guides. Holbrook also receives direct requests through the website from individuals expressing interest, as well as requests through partner organizations like Road Scholar.  We also do some recruiting—in our travels if we come across a person we see has potential, we’ll approach them in regards to future possibilities.

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photo by Stephanie Kowacz

Matching expertise with special interest programs

Another important factor is matching the guide’s area of expertise with the type of program they are leading. Our goal is to get to know each guide personally, which allows us to adequately match each individual to the program that would benefit most from their strengths. Most of our guides are so well-versed in the culture, geography and customs of their country; therefore they are appropriate for a variety of tours. The only exceptions are specialty programs including birding, photography and garden tours. For these programs, the process is more involved and we work in conjunction with the guides in country and the (client) leader of a particular group to determine expert guide selection for each particular group. Overall, the process is customized and adaptable to meet the needs of each groups’ itinerary.

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photo by Greg Basco

The training process

The details of each training session vary dependent on the destination (country), but the foundation is the same. All guides receive one-on-one training with Holbrook staff to learn about expectations, procedures and protocols. In addition, there is a yearly 5-day training conference led by Holbrook, typically held in Central or South America. The conference includes in depth workshops, lectures, exercises and more, all designed to train new and existing guides. Karaca provided us with a copy of this year’s agenda for reference and it is certainly thorough. The program involves one-on-one exercises, role-play activities, interactive exercises, a lecture on the history and mission of Holbrook Travel, information of emergency protocol and even a presentation from a guest psychologist on topics, which include: communication, body language, handling challenging situations, and empathy.

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photo by Joanna Livingstone

Qualities that can’t be taught

All of the training and edification in the world cannot overshadow the importance of personality and passion. While finding true character can be more elusive than finding aptitude it is well worth the search. Here are some of the personality traits that characterize outstanding guides:

  • confidence—ability to lead and direct groups effectively

  • critical thinking skills—ability to make connections between bits of information as well as make sound decisions in difficult circumstances

  • communication skills—ability to relay information, instructions effectually

  • inquisitive—a thirst for knowledge, a desire to learn

  • fun-loving lively spirit—passion for the job and their country, and ability to have fun and laugh

  • empathy—sensitivity to others feeling and needs

  • trustworthy—to know and do what is right

  • teachable—a willingness and desire to learn new skills

“We strive for a balance between character and experience when making selections,” added Karaca.


main photo by Greg Basco

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