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The Be a Better Guide community has grown to more than 12,000 tour guides and travel professionals learning about and sharing best practices for creating engaging, memorable tours and experiences.

We met Kelsey in late 2017 and immediately connected, sharing our passion for better tours over several days.

Since then, we’ve discovered and shared Kelsey’s online resources with our tour guide community because we believe in raising the bar for everyone.

We recently caught up with Kelsey in New Zealand to discuss everything from his roots in our industry to the importance of storytelling.

Be a Better Guide Interview with Founder Kelsey Tonner

Can you talk to us about your passion for our industry?

After I finished university in Canada, I began searching for jobs that allowed me to travel, see new places and meet new people. I worked as a high-ropes instructor in Australia, a dog-sledding guide in the Rockies, a wilderness trip leader around the great lakes, and eventually, I connected with Backroads Tours – an active travel company that leads hiking and cycling trips around the world.

I got to work with some of the most incredible national and local guides, and I grew passionate about being the best tour leader I could be. I also became aware that there is no shortage of mediocre experiences available to travellers. Whether from a lack of knowledge, exclusive interest in profits, or a shortage of creativity, I saw many tour and activity companies wasting opportunities to create meaningful experiences for their guests.

Tell me how you approached change with the Be a Better Guide Project?

The initial idea for the project was simple: we wanted to raise the bar on what it meant to create incredible experiences for travellers. We built an online community where guides, tour leaders and tour companies could come together, share best practices and learn from one another.

We run a free online hub for tour leader training, we host online workshops and have since built the Online Tourism Academy – an educational space for individuals and tour companies alike. We hope that by creating a successful business, we can continue to support and grow the work of the Be a Better Guide Project.

What do you hope to achieve with the Be a Better Guide Project?

We aim to inspire, motivate and coach tour businesses to create remarkable experiences for their guests. We hope to show that by putting guest experience at the heart of your tour company – you will become a more profitable and successful business. More rave reviews, more word-of-mouth recommendations, more differentiation from competitors, and ultimately more sales are all possible for those individuals and companies that take our mission seriously.

Most of all, through the Be a Better Guide Community and the Online Tourism Academy, we want to create a support network for entrepreneurs. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to guest experience – and much of what works on a fly-fishing or mountain biking experience, will work on a walking tour or sightseeing circuit. A lot of traditional ideas of what a tour should be will need to be challenged or discarded – but there is no need for people to innovate alone!

What is the most crucial aspect of being an excellent tour guide?

The core of our teaching begins with some foundational principles:

  1. Be 100% guest-focused in the planning and delivery of a tour. We are in the service industry, and the experience of our guests is paramount. How can you eliminate frustrations or pain points? Where can you impress, wow or delight?
  2. Become a feedback fanatic. Are you collecting feedback from every single one of your guests? Are you surveying your employees and peers? Feedback is your engine for improvement. It allows you to measure what’s working and what’s missing the mark.
  3. Be committed to excellence. No matter how grand your tour or activity is right now – it can always be improved. No matter how great you are as a tour leader – you can still be better.

On top of these foundational principles, guides and tour leaders can then dive into the skills, traits and tools that separate the great tour leaders from the rest: leadership, enthusiasm, knowledge, attention to detail, social intelligence, a sense of fun, and customer service.

You mention that tour guides need to provide their groups unforgettable experiences. How important is storytelling?

At Be a Better Guide we care deeply about storytelling – so we created a program ‘Extraordinary Storytelling for Tour Leaders.’  Stories are mainly a way of organizing and transmitting information from one person to another. They have been used by human beings across vast stretches of human history and across all known cultures. What is remarkable is that now with modern scientific studies, we are learning more and more about why stories are such an effective way of communicating!

In the industry, there are too many guides sharing only facts, dates and data – and missing the opportunity to make their tours that much more memorable. Stories help us transcend culture and nationality by exploring universally recognized themes; they allow us to hold the attention of groups effectively, they can create a satisfying sense of journey for our tours and even generate deeper appreciation and awareness of important issues.

The skill of researching, crafting and sharing compelling stories is one of the essential tools in the tour leader’s toolbox.

What is one thing people can do to improve the tour guide experience right now?

Take an honest look at your experience and remove ANY waiting around that happens with your guests. Making people wait is one of the most common pain points and can usually be limited or eliminated with a little creativity.

Do you have a clear policy for starting your tour on time? Starting on time is a common culprit, as many tour operators will choose to wait for one to two guests at the expense of the entire group. Do you have one shuttle that picks up people from a half dozen locations around the city? If so, you may be making a company-focused decision instead of a guest-focused one. No person wants to wait 30 minutes while they are shuttled between other hotels.

What about filling out paperwork? What might your guests do once they are finished? Could you create a photo opportunity, an exciting video presentation or an interactive display? By keeping people occupied and engaged – you can significantly reduce the dissatisfaction from having to wait around.

What kind of results are tour guides getting from your programs?

I have consistently been impressed by the tangible results that graduates report back after participating in our programs. When people get serious about leading amazing tours, they find themselves on a path to success and profitability. We are honoured to have so many testimonials, but I’ll share just one. Stephen Turner runs Mop Top Tours, a Beatles tour, in the city of Liverpool. His passion for his guests shines through, and he shared these results with us just this year:

“Our business has gone from strength to strength since joining Kelsey’s Lead Amazing Tours Program a couple of years ago. Bookings have risen, repeat bookings have risen, prices per booking have risen, tips have risen, five-star reviews have risen, and, most importantly, I’ve been able to develop the tours so that they’re entertaining and fun for the guides as well!” – Stephen Turner, Mop Top Tours

What advice would you offer a company starting a tour business?

One of the first things that require serious consideration: Is my tour of activity genuinely remarkable? By this, I mean remarkable in the traditional sense of the word – worthy of remark.

Is your experience the type of thing that people will talk about? Is it noteworthy? Is it memorable enough to be recalled five or ten years down the line?

If you suspect the answer might be no, then you might be in trouble. Unremarkable tours are easily copied by competitors and will not inspire the rave reviews and word of mouth recommendations that are the lifeblood of a thriving tour company. Keep going back to the drawing board and work on your unique value proposition. Think about how you could wow and delight your guests at every step of their journey. The effort now will be worth it later.

Last question Kelsey. If I’m a tour guide, how do I learn more about best practices in our industry?

If you are interested in our mission and are curious about what the most successful tour and activity businesses are doing right now – then I highly recommend joining our community e-mail list. Check out our free training videos, PDF resources or online workshops at www.beabetterguide.com – all of which will help you build a thriving tour business.

If you enjoy these resources, then consider our Online Tourism Academy. We have programs for individuals, as well as for larger organizations. If you’re interested in inspiring, motivating and coaching a team of tour leaders – we would love to help with one of our custom training portals.

But above all, keep that commitment to your guests. Strive for quality, accept feedback with an open mind, and embrace insights wherever they can be found.

Thank you for your time, Kelsey. We really enjoyed learning more about the Be a Better Guide community. 

This is not a sponsored post. Our interest in the Be a Better Guide Project is a shared passion for building a better and more connected tour guide community.

Learn how tour guides are using HearMe Tour Guide systems to provide their guests with cinematic narration experiences. Tour operators Kingston Walking Tours are providing live guided narration set to background music and sound effects to enhance their stories, and Genteel & Bard is getting 5-star reviews mixing live storytelling with audio and video on the streets of historic Savannah, Georgia.

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