I have been fortunate enough to work alongside some of the greatest tour guides in the business. Guides who make a simple tourist excursion become the trip of a lifetime, who can talk to anybody, anywhere, about anything. Tour guides who have the proverbial "it". They would be your favorite graduate professor or favorite cab driver.
They have: The Gift of Gab.
ighty people vacationing at the Marriott Beach Resort in St. Thomas, USVI climb aboard a beautiful sailing catamaran to go snorkeling for the afternoon. A tour guide named Jason hands out
flippers, vests, and masks to a young couple on board who seemingly just realized sunscreen is a good idea.
“Here you go, Tim. Here’s your mask, Denise.”
He shifts his attention to the next couple over, they are a yuppie-esque couple who each brought their own snorkel vest but forgot their flippers.
“What’s your name and what’s your shoe size?…. Brittany, Eric, got it. I’ll be right back.”
Brittany, Eric, Tim, Denise. Brittany, Eric, Tim, Denise.
As Jason walks from the stern of the 80 person sailing catamaran to the bench where the flippers are stowed, he is repeating all four names over and over and over in his head. When he brings the pair of flippers back to Brittany and Eric he looks them in the eye and calls them by their first names. He repeats this process again and again until all the guests receive their gear.
Donny, Derrick, Raphi, Linda, Brittany, Eric, Tim, Denise. Donny, Derrick…
"When we see a green sea turtle, we are not going to touch it. DERRICK in the back - do NOT kiss or lick any of my green sea turtles.... I still can't figure out why people from Topeka, Kansas always wanna lick the green sea turtles."
Within a half hour after leaving the dock, Jason has memorized every single one of the customer’s names. He continues to use each person’s first name every time he talks to that individual over the next three hours on the boat. He uses their names while he gives instructions, while he guides the hour-long snorkel tour through a Caribbean reef, while he pours free rum punch for the two-hour leisure sail back to St. Thomas.
The impact is undeniable. It’s impressive. It’s functional. People feel connected to their tour guide. The feel like they just made friends with the coolest guy in the Caribbean. Every single person on that boat begins to relax and have a better time. They break away from their personal-space bubbles and begin to mingle with the other strangers on board. Everyone is loose. It’s as if everyone has already had two drinks of rum punch from the bar on board — which legally doesn’t open until everyone gets out of the water after the snorkel tour.
When the catamaran arrives at Buck Island, our snorkel destination, Jason gathers the 80 passengers around him to give a safety and instructional speech before everyone jumps in the water. This is where the camaraderie and humor is extremely functional: People are actually paying attention. He proceeds to give serious instructions punctuated by jokes. He’s got 80 people wrapped around his finger. They are all listening because none of them want to disappoint their new friend and guide by being rude or screwing up in the water.
***Usually, people roll their eyes while listening to the dreaded safety speech and wonder why such a thorough instruction is necessary. Let me tell you. It’s absolutely necessary. It’s absolutely necessary because tourists are helpless. They’re on vacation, they don’t think. They freak out if they’re struggling with the seal on their snorkel mask. They almost drown themselves trying to clear water from their snorkel. They forget the name of their boat and climb aboard another tour company’s vessel. ***
After the speech, Jason proceeds to give the most fun, interactive, and educational snorkel tour anyone could hope to be a part of. The customers are encouraged to spend the first half of their tour with the guide before having the freedom to explore the reef on their own.
On my tours, this is exactly what happens — people swim away from me and only about 25 people will continue following me after the halfway mark. On every other guide’s tours, this is exactly what happens as well. This never happens to Jason. Nobody leaves his tours. Ever.
When we finish the tour, the guests step off the boat and leave tips with one of the deck hands. We double our money every time Jason is on board that boat. He’s that charismatic. He’s that impressive, knowledgeable, and amiable.
"This strap right here on your snorkel vest clips around your waist, it needs to be snug. THIS strap clips between your legs. GENTLMEN - you might want to consider leaving a little extra slack in this strap. LADIES... it's your vacation."
Of course he works hard at his trade — like a professional athlete hitting the gym. He studies incessantly. If he sees a fish he’s never seen before, he makes darn sure he knows what it is tomorrow. He learned how to memorize 80 names and faces within a half hour. He worked his way up the tour guiding ladder and now he is the best guide on the only snorkel boat in St. Thomas that takes customers out 365 days a year.
The gift of gab, however, is only buoyed by the effort. At its base level, the gift is natural. Quick wit, inherent curiosity, charisma, the ability to preform in front of strangers — these things can’t be taught. Guides like Jason will be a crowd favorite in any place, giving any tour, to anybody.
hy certain people possess one passion over another is a mystery. On almost any given night at the Asylum Bar in Ketchikan, Alaska, a crowd of tour guides are gathered around
each other talking shop. It is immediately evident that the motivations for being in Ketchikan are as diverse as the tourists themselves. Money, lifestyle, lack of a better idea, fun, nature. My passion is the town itself — a fascination with life in Southeast Alaska.
For many of us, our job is our favorite thing in the world to do. To live is to kayak. To live is to fish, fly float planes, teach others about the Alaskan wilderness. Our passion for our job is fierce. It resembles that of an addiction — and the cruise ship passengers are our enablers.
"Alright folks, you signed up for the Alaska Rainforest Adventure. We've now come to the adventure part. I'm going to need you folks to duck your heads underneath this tree limb."
- Louis Liva
A few guides on the island have another passion: the tour itself. It is their deepest desire, no matter what company they’re working for, to give their guests the best experience possible. Coupling this passion with a natural God-given talent for entertaining, they are part-naturalist, part-historian, part-comedian, and part-philosopher. They are wholly experts at their tour. Often their tourists refer to the experience as being the single best thing they did on their vacation — and many times they claim it was the best thing they’ve ever done in their entire lives.
These guides have an uncanny, inexplicable, ridiculous ability to cater each tour to their guests on-the-fly. Tourists in Alaska come from all over the world. They are different ages. Different races. Different nationalities. They belong to different tax brackets. Their IQs range from Forest Gump to Rain Man. The ability to seamlessly cater to every personality on tour can only be described as a gift.
"Let's take a silent moment to enjoy the nature around us.
Now we can talk about the real reason I brought you all out here today.
Let's discuss the value of timeshares in all of your lives. "
- Tim Kistner
Jack Finnegan is one of these guides. Before Jack moved to Ketchikan, he spent years traveling twice across the US and once around the entire world performing a one-man show he wrote. The show was simple: storytelling. People from all over the world came out to see this one man tell true stories about the places he’s been. Here is a man that can stand on a wooden crate in Morocco, speaking a different language than anyone listening, and because of his natural gravity will have a crowd gathering around him within minutes. That’s freakish. When Johnny Accountant from Boston, Massachusetts books an excursion in Ketchikan — he gets to drive his own inflatable speedboat on the Pacific Ocean (arguably the most fun tour on the island) — AND he spends those two hours on the water being guided by Jack Finnegan. Best. Tour. Ever.
The best guides from the best companies on the island possess this ability. They can meet ten complete strangers, relate to every single one of them about something — anything — and because they can read their group so well, their tourists are caught in the gravity of a very special personality.
Most of the guides, bartenders, and salesmen in Ketchikan are extremely competent at their jobs. They are informative and fun and are experts in their fields. But only a few of them have the gift. The gift that will cause a 68 year old pharmacist from Ft. Lauderdale to remember their guide’s name years later when she finally remembers to write that review online. We all know who they are, and we all attempt to emulate them.
"Absolutely, I can pour you a coors light...
... but wouldn't you rather have a beer?"
- Devon Bitner
the first time I drove a boat on the ocean, I had a tour group following me. The first time I ever went snorkeling, I was training to be a snorkel guide. The first time I ever drove a dog sled team
by myself, there were two clients (who each paid $340 for the tour) were sitting in my sled.
If some of my tourists knew the truth, they would probably ask for their money back — they want an expert. Fortunately, they are clueless. But they can’t really be blamed for incorrectly believing their guide has been doing this for “the last five seasons”… because we’re that good. It’s believable. It’s believable because, like all good tour guides, we are sponges seeking out and soaking up every ounce of information. It’s a natural curiosity and fascination with the world around us that enables us to devour information.
By the end of the season, we ARE experts.
We are constantly learning. Whenever we get stumped by some tourist’s question on tour, we admit we don’t know and then look it up that night. Not knowing something we ought to know drives us mad — not because we didn’t know the answer for a tourist, but because we didn’t know the answer. We thrive on knowledge.
here is an old adage in golf: “let the club do the work”. In other words, brute strength isn’t the best way to hit a golf ball. Let the club do what the club was designed to do. Precision is more important.
There is another saying I learned from a world-renown dog musher, Frank Teasley: “The hardest thing to teach a new musher — is to shut up.” What Frank is referring to with this statement is: don’t over-talk or over-command the dogs on the team because they will stop listening. The repeated commands simply become background noise and they won’t respond.
I have professionally guided tours in the pristine Southeast Alaskan wilderness, in the dreamscape of a Wyoming winter, and in the paradisaical Caribbean Islands. The most important lesson a tour guide needs to remember is this: know when to shut up. Get out of your own way. Let Alaska, Wyoming, and St. Thomas do the work.
This is also the lesson that requires the most conscious effort. I fail and fail and fail at this. But the guides who really get it - the ones we all envy, the ones we remember…. They know that the true gift of gab requires silence. In any music piece, the notes that are not played are equally — if not more — important than the notes that are.
Jason can teach anyone how to snorkel safely and his captain can teach any competent person how to deckhand. Jack Finnegan can teach anyone how to safely operate a Zodiac boat — even if they’ve never driven a car, don’t speak English, or were raised in New Jersey (difficulty level = 10). Eight-time Iditarod veteran Frank Teasley can teach anyone how to ride a dog sled on a groomed trail in Jackson, Wyoming. The actual skill-level required for many of the tourist excursions is easy — evidenced alone by the fact that tourists can learn them in a day, or hours, or minutes.
When the owner of a tour company interviews a potential tour guide, it’s not as important for him to ask: “Have you ever snorkeled before? Have you ever seen bears before? Have you ever caught a halibut? Have you ever driven a dog team?”
The important question is this: “Can you talk to people? Do you have the gift of gab?”