My First Student Tour

I finally led my first tour!

For the last few weeks, I have been preparing myself to lead student tours in Washington D.C. I passed my license exam, took a familiarization tour, underwent company training, and spent many hours preparing on my own. My first assignment was a four-school combination; this meant I had four small groups combined into one larger group. Whenever I told any of my new colleagues that this was my first group, they laughed, shook their head and said my assignment was definitely a ‘baptism by fire’. What they meant was that while every tour is uniquely challenging, having a combination group only enhances those challenges because you are dealing with multiple group personalities. The largest group is meant to be the lead group, but in reality all of the groups want to have some sort of a voice in making decisions about the tour. Finding a way to balance those personalities, so that each group feels important, was definitely challenge number one for me going into this week.

I always knew day 1 was going to be chaotic because the four groups were all arriving at different times. I met the first group at the airport and we then made our way to the Museum of the American Indian. After spending some time at the museum, we left to meet group 2. At this point I found out that group 3 was delayed, which meant I had a decision to make about how to coordinate lunch. I decided, along with the help of my driver (who was fabulous and a huge help throughout the week), that we would take the first two groups to lunch and I would come out to meet group 3 once they arrived. While this would mean group 3 and I would be rushed for lunch, it kept the afternoon itinerary intact. After lunch, we finally met up with the last group back on the Mall where I gave everyone about two hours to explore the American History Museum and the Natural History Museum. From here we made our way across the bridge to the Marine Corps Memorial and had time to add in a visit to the Air Force Memorial. We ended the day with dinner and a visit to the 9/11 Memorial.

We began day 2 with a visit to the White House, the WWII Memorial and Ford’s Theatre. This was the first stop where we had timed entry tickets and although I had budgeted two hours for the theatre tour, it was still rushed. I also had to deal with a student who wasn’t feeling well. Both the chaperone and I believed the illness had more to do with being homesick than being physically ill, but I still had to balance getting the rest of the group through the tour and tending to the sick student. After lunch, the student was beginning to feel much better and we all continued the day with a visit to the Holocaust Museum and the Air and Space Museum. I had made the decision to move up our visit to the Air and Space Museum because the original time allotted would not have given the group much time to explore (and this is always a favorite museum). Unfortunately, two of the students were late coming out of the museum and we had to battle traffic to reach the restaurant for our dinner reservation. What I was beginning to learn by this point in the tour was that timing was definitely something that has to be thought through, but can really only be learned by experience. We ended the day with a visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the FDR Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial. We seemed to be slightly ahead of the large crowds, so viewing the monuments was very pleasant, even in hot evening sun. This evening’s walk around the tidal basin with my group might have been my favorite part of the week because the students were excited about what we were seeing, were listening to my commentary, and were asking insightful questions. This educational engagement with the students made my experience very rewarding.

Day 3 started out with a severe thunderstorm warning that meant I had some decisions to make about the itinerary for the day. According to the weather forecast, the DC area was supposed to experience severe weather that evening, along with scattered thunderstorms throughout the day. After talking with a few other Course Leaders at breakfast, I decided that moving the evening sightseeing up to the afternoon would be the best course of action. We began the day at Arlington National Cemetery where we visited the Kennedy gravesites and then hiked over to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The sky was looking very grey at this point and we just managed to finish watching the Changing of the Guard before it started pouring. Luckily, the amphitheater was a good place to shelter while the storm passed. Most of the group then chose to visit the mansion with me, while a few decided they were done and wanted to head back down to the visitor’s center. The group that chose to continue were very pleased to be able to tour the mansion and the surrounding grounds, so I’m glad I pressed on despite the weather. We then headed to lunch before making our way back into DC to see the Korean War Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam War Memorial. These were the memorials that had originally been scheduled for this evening, but I had decided to move up because of the weather forecast. After touring ‘the big three’ we made our way across town to the Capitol. Here we had 3:20 tour reservations that were made months in advance. Unfortunately, when we arrived, I found out they were closing the Capitol at 3:00 due to a special ceremony taking place in the Rotunda. This was definitely an unexpected curveball that I now had to deal with… luckily everything worked out because we were able to still watch the introductory movie and were given passes to the House of Representatives gallery. Being able to watch the debates take place in the House of Representatives definitely made up for not being able to take the tour. After the Capitol we had a picture stop at the Library of Congress and at the Supreme Court before making our way to dinner. By this time the weather forecast had changed and the DC area was no longer expecting severe storms. We had already pushed our evening activities up, so I offered the group leaders a choice, to either add something extra (like a drive up Embassy Row) or to let them head back to the hotel early. They unanimously voted to head back early. Everyone was tired by this point and the students wanted to go swimming back at the hotel pool.

Day 4, the last day of the tour, began at Mt. Vernon. We toured the grounds, had timed tickets to the mansion, and visited the museum and education center. We then had a buffet lunch and made our way back into DC. Here the group began to split up again for their flights home. I dropped everyone off on the Mall and gave each group a choice of Smithsonian Museums to visit before they had to leave for the airport. By 5:30 they had all left and I headed to Union Station to catch my train home.

Overall, I was very happy with the way things went. There were definitely things I want to do differently next time and I now know where I am weakest on my commentary, but I felt comfortable making decisions and leading the group around Washington DC. I knew going into this tour that balancing the four groups would be a challenge, but I think I did a good job of giving them equal attention. This experience also reinforced to me that this profession is first and foremost about your people skills, and your ability to organize and make decisions based on constantly changing variables. A close second is your destination knowledge, but all that knowledge won’t do your group any good if they don’t trust you and you can’t get them to the sights comfortably in the first place! A good Tour Director adapts to things like the weather and the specific needs of the group, but also ensures that the group gets everything they were promised on their itinerary.  I’m actually glad I had to deal with having a combination group, bad weather, and the closing of the Capitol on my first tour; it gave me more confidence in my ability to make the decisions necessary to do this job well.

I enjoy problem solving and that’s a big part of being a Tour Director; I have to be the one to solve the problems that will inevitably occur while on tour. People choose group tours in order to alleviate some of the stress of traveling; and the same can be said about student tours. The group leaders put in a lot of work to research companies, raise money, and recruit students to go on the trip. Once they arrive, they want to relinquish some of that responsibility to the Tour Director. Sure, the chaperones are still responsible for their students, but they no longer have to worry about the logistics of getting from one place to another. It is certainly a lot of responsibility for me to take on, but I now know I can handle it and still enjoy myself. In the end, that’s what this career change was all about; finding a job that is fulfilling, challenging and enjoyable.

I can’t wait for my next tour so that I can introduce a new group of students to a wonderful city while improving my own knowledge of Washington D.C. and my Tour Directing skills. Student season is pretty much over for the year, so I may have to wait a while to lead another student tour. As for what I’ll do in the mean time, I’m not sure yet…but stay tuned; I’ll share an update once I know what I’ll be doing and where I’ll be going next!