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We’ve all felt deflated after receiving a bad review on TripAdvisor or coming back from a tour where the group didn’t quite click. Like in any job, not every day is a success for a tour guide. However, when review sites rule the roost in our industry, a small misunderstanding on one tour can seriously affect your business.

While we’ve spoken before about dealing with difficult customers(opens in a new tab), we’re going to delve a little deeper into the more complex issues that tour guides face and how tour operators can preempt and avoid them altogether by training guides so that they are prepared and equipped to navigate these sensitive situations.

Understanding The Nuances of Cultural Differences

Interacting with people from all over the world and learning about different cultures is one of the main attractions of working in the tourism industry. However, lack of knowledge about your guests’ culture can cause potential offence and lead to serious issues with customer satisfaction. How, as tour operators, can you navigate this complex issue?

Firstly, do a little research into customer profiling. Break down which countries your guests come from and which age groups they belong to. This will be a lot easier for some operators than for others, if you directly target certain markets you will already have a good idea of what your audience is looking for. But even if you know your specific audience already, you may not have done your research into common etiquette in their specific country.

Next, get reading! While your guests may be in a culture foreign to them, it’s also important that you take the initiative to have an understanding of theirs. The internet is your best friend for finding out about cultural etiquette around the world. Sites like eDiplomat(opens in a new tab) offer insight into areas such as body language, dress, and gender relations in different cultures. This allows you to anticipate any situations that might occur and prepare for any possible misunderstandings between guests of different nationalities and your guides. We also recommend reading up on cultural differences in tourism, there are plenty of books that explore the topic(opens in a new tab).

Because it may be a subtle adjustment, it’s possible that it will go unnoticed by your guests, but believe me, behind-the-scenes work like this will contribute to the success of the tour, and on that more rare occasion where it does go directly noticed, it will most certainly be appreciated. The smallest anticipation also has great value in preventing potentially uncomfortable situations or interactions.

A Tour Operator’s Experience: Secret Paradise Maldives

Learning about cultural differences works both ways. Secret Paradise(opens in a new tab) who run tours and holidays in the Maldives often have to prepare their guests for a new cultural experience. What many visitors to the islands are unaware of is that the Maldives is an Islamic country, which means tourists need to consider things like conservative clothing when exploring and alcohol not being so readily available as in non-Islamic countries.

One of Secret Paradise’s guides, Mashir Ali, gave us insight into how to convey cultural differences and traditions to guests. As he explains it, the key to avoiding miscommunication is setting clear expectations prior to arrival so guests feel prepared. He suggested adding information to the booking process or as part of a briefing before the tour starts. Mashir also pointed out that it’s important not to dismiss guests’ concerns or dissatisfaction, but to acknowledge that you understand their position and turn it into a positive conversation.

You can also help guests understand your position by explaining the reasons for certain rules and traditions. Mashir said that when guests have a clear understanding of the culture, they are much more receptive to advice from tour operators and are less defensive. On his tours, Mashir does this by explaining that Secret Paradise is a responsible and sustainable tour company and following local customs and practices plays an important role in complying with their company ethos.

No one wants to feel scolded, but it’s also the responsibility of the guide to ensure a respectful environment by informing guests of necessary information and properly discussing any potential areas of discomfort. Secret Paradise offers visitors information about local culture at various stages on their website, in their FAQs (a place where many users will look for information they may not have considered) and they also dedicate a page to the topic(opens in a new tab).

Pleasing the Seemingly Pleased Customer

Perhaps the most disconcerting issues with guests arise when you aren’t expecting it. When you’ve finished a tour and everyone has engaged with your subject, mixed well, and the tour, in general, appears to have been a success. Then you see it, the scathing review. These are the comments that hurt the most because, unlike the know-it-alls and the openly rude customers, this person leaves you feeling unaware and out of touch with how the tour experience really was.

Moments like these highlight the importance of hiring and training guides to be attuned to nuances. A guide who is hyper-aware of small gestures and interactions that reveal how a guest is truly feeling is key to avoiding the unexpected dissatisfied customer. No one explains this better than tourism guru Nikki Padilla Rivera. She talks about empathy(opens in a new tab) being an essential quality in tour guides. It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone shows their emotions in the same way.

Training your guides to understand this and giving them the tools to cater to the different personality types in a group is a great way to keep customers satisfied time and time again. Teach guides to look out for group dynamics, in order to to ensure big personalities feel like they are being heard without ignoring more reserved guests who find the louder characters obnoxious. It’s a matter of being aware of your individual guests’ self-esteem and how the guide’s actions can have huge consequences (opens in a new tab)not only on this self-esteem but also on guests’ feedback. This balance is an art form, but it’s something everyone can learn.

Be sure to consider this in your hiring process(opens in a new tab). Look out for guides who show a tendency for being empathetic, who actively listen and will make guests feel heard and valued.

Challenges Facing Female Guides

We live in a world of intersectionality and it’s time for the tourism industry to acknowledge this. As an operator, don’t group all your tour guides’ issues under the same umbrella, by doing this you are likely to miss more complex issues facing guides of different genders, sexuality, and race.

Trip Kinetics has expressed the challenges facing female guides so eloquently that we urge you to read their article.(opens in a new tab) They discuss the difficult situations that female guides can be confronted with, such as guests flirting with guides and making them feel uncomfortable, being asked personal questions, and guests trying to take control of the tour. These are not rare, isolated incidents, so what can tour operators do to protect and prepare their employees?

Lead with support. Make sure your guides know you do not accept behaviour from guests that makes them feel uncomfortable. This sounds simple, but transparency about your policies can save employees a lot of anxiety and will give them the confidence to bring any issues to you. Once you have clearly established that guides don’t need to put up with such situations, you should acknowledge that as an employer you cannot be on every tour and prevent your guides from ever finding themselves in uncomfortable positions. Train guides on how to diffuse these situations and give them a clear plan of action. Much like cognitive behavioural therapy(opens in a new tab), set up role-plays in training(opens in a new tab) where the team can put protocols into practice. Guides may still experience anxiety when such a situation arises, but they will have the confidence from previously workshopping it and the tools to navigate these types of complex situations.

Dealing With the Unexpected

The importance of training is often overlooked. As with training guides for situations they can expect to encounter, it’s also important to train them for the unexpected(opens in a new tab). This is not the impossible task it appears to be. The unexpected is not so unfamiliar when you have a band of guides with a wealth of experience and knowledge. Try brainstorming issues that they have come across on tours and discuss different ways of dealing with situations and the possible consequences. Then, you guessed it, go back to role-play! Let guides see how it feels to react to a scenario rather than just talk about it.

Teach the importance of flexibility as new guides (and even experienced guides!) may be demoralised by guests deep in their own conversations or the distraction of a passing street performer. Come up with back-up plans for anticipated issues. For example, allocating time into the schedule for guests to enjoy spur-of-the-moment activities, having a plan B if a shop on the tour is closed (such as other shops you can visit instead). Hold some improvisation sessions where guides can practise jumping back into stories after an interruption.

Pandemic Panic & How it Affects Your Tours

We are all wondering how the world of tours and travel will have changed in the long run as a result of the pandemic. One consequence that has been noted is how interpersonal behaviour has evolved. The stress of new rules and regulations and never knowing what’s coming next has, at times, made people act irrationally. Christopher Elliot from the Washington Post explored his theory(opens in a new tab) that we’ve reached the point where some people have forgotten their manners in the pandemic—they don’t know what’s expected from them and it puts them on edge.

As tour operators, it’s important to take this into consideration(opens in a new tab). Putting on a smile with travellers who are frustrated with covid regulations may drive you to your breaking point, but try taking a different approach. Understanding why people are acting like this and treating guests with a little more patience than usual will not go unnoticed. Travellers and guides are both trying to determine the new limits of what is expected from them. Make sure your guides are fully briefed on what guests are allowed and not allowed to do(opens in a new tab). Therefore, if someone is refusing to wear a mask your employee is not afraid to ask them to leave.


If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of mental health in every aspect of our lives, especially in our work. Taking care of your guides and preparing them on topics such as cultural differences, empathy, difficult customer protocol, unexpected interruptions, and pandemic-related frustrations can reduce their anxiety and in turn help them perform better and help ensure customer satisfaction.

If you want help creating a blog that helps communicate your company’s message with guests or to redesign your site so that it contains content that clearly addresses customer anxieties, get in touch with us(opens in a new tab). We can produce content and design pages that improve customer satisfaction and reduce challenges for your guides.

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