Photo: Guide Eak is always popping up when you need him!
Like many industries, the travel and tour business is a lot like an iceberg – what you see is only a small fraction of the whole package. From a client’s point of view, most any service they pay for – be it getting a package from FedEx, sending a text on their phone, or paddling a sea kayak into a limestone cave – is just one small part of a complex system that took a ton of planning and logistics to provide. That got us thinking – wouldn’t it be interesting to provide some insight into what exactly goes into a Smiling Albino trip?
In a four-part series, we’re going to take a look at the who, what, and how of crafting an Asian adventure, from the first contact email to the bittersweet hugs at the end.
Part III: Leading a trip
Most of us have been on tours before, following the guide around and listening as they explain the surroundings or answer questions. It all seems pretty laid back and enjoyable (at least it should!) but there’s actually a lot more going on than the guide simply going through the motions.
“Believe it or not, the most stressful part of the trip is meeting the customers,” says Eak, who has led all types of walking and cycling tours of Bangkok for Smiling Albino. “When I meet them at their hotel I don’t know what they look like or what they’ll be wearing. There have been many times where I’ve introduced myself to confused strangers because they happen to fit the same demographics as the customers!”
But once that’s out of the way and introductions are made, the trip gets underway, and that’s when a guide’s real job begins.
“I’ve already familiarized myself with the info package – how many guests there are, what age, what type of trip they’re on (family, gap year, honeymoon, etc), and any other information that’s important, for example if they have food allergies or an injury that I’ll need to take into consideration,” says Eak. With most Smiling Albino guides, the itinerary is left somewhat flexible to account for sightseeing, traffic jams, or any off-the-cuff adventures that we need to accommodate.
“For instance I remember one trip on our way to dinner when the clients suddenly decided it would be fun to ride one of the (now defunct) crowded green minibuses that used to terrorize the streets of Bangkok. We never want to say no to a customer, so we jumped on the next one that came along with no idea where it was going. It took us several blocks out of our way, so as we were swerving in and out of traffic I was thinking of the fastest way to get us back to our original route. Can we walk? Is there a shortcut? Is everyone comfortable with motorcycle taxis? If so, will they have helmets? Will it make us late for dinner? Should I change the reservation? It was a fun detour, but kept me on my toes for a while.”
Most trips follow a more subdued schedule, but that doesn’t mean a guide can take it easy. “It might not be obvious as we’re going along on the tour, but I’m thinking of a hundred things at any one time,” says Eak. “What was the weather forecast – if it rains, what’s our backup? Some bathrooms charge a few baht for entry – do I have coins to cover that if nature calls? Where are the nearby hospitals and police stations just in case? Are there any notable snacking spots along the route that we can’t miss? The list goes on.”
What really puts the icing on the cake of a Smiling Albino trip is a guide’s familiarity with the turf they’re on. Eak says, “I add unique touches whenever I can, depending on what the clients like. If someone in the group is particularly fond of, say, photography or cooking maybe I can point out a cool vantage point or detour past a fresh vegetable market. If it’s a honeymoon vacation, we can arrange a special blessing from a monk or a traditional Thai wedding garland. I had a customer once who made his own booze at home, so I made sure to stop by a little family-run convenience store that sold over-the-counter shots of Thai moonshine if you knew who to ask, just for a quick sample. I really love doing things like that to personalize a trip.”
Of course, all of this is happening while the guide is talking about the history of the area you’re in, or otherwise carrying on the types of stimulating, funny, and entertaining conversations that we’re known for.
“As we get further into the trip, it becomes easier because everyone learns what works and what doesn’t,” says Eak. “The last bit of a trip is always the most fun, and we know it’s been a good time when everyone is sad to say goodbye. Honestly, one of the best parts about the job is getting to know the customers, who are always interesting, funny, wonderful people. The great part is that with social media and communication being so easy these days, I’ve stayed in touch with many of our past guests over the years!
Next: For us, the trip doesn’t end when we say goodbye. How do we measure the success of a trip, and how do we get honest feedback that helps us make improve and refine every trip?