THE BUSI­NESS OF FIELD GUID­ING

Tourism Tattler - - BUSINESS & FINANCE - By Ben Co­ley About the au­thor: Ben Co­ley is the head trainer at Bush­wise Train­ing. For more in­for­ma­tion: www.bush­wise.co.za

The tourism in­dus­try is one of the most de­mand­ing in­dus­tries in the world. Ba­si­cally you are do­ing ev­ery­thing you can to sat­isfy peo­ple's ex­pec­ta­tions; peo­ple who have paid a lot of money and ex­pect the best. For many sa­fari go­ers, their first trip may well also be their last thanks to a strug­gling econ­omy and in­fla­tion. In my time as a guide, an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of guests were vis­it­ing as part of a trip of a life­time: a hon­ey­moon, a 40th birth­day. This is the pres­sure under which most tourism based es­tab­lish­ments work: how do you make every­one's trip, a trip of a life­time? The an­swers are le­gion: 100% com­mit­ment, courtesy, pro­fes­sion­al­ism, clean­li­ness − the list is end­less. It is not an easy job!

There are many cogs in the tourism ma­chine, most of whom re­ceive lit­tle to no recog­ni­tion for their daily sac­ri­fices. The next time you spend a night at a fancy es­tab­lish­ment, spare a thought for the clean­ing staff, the wait­ers, the scullery and the count­less of­fice-folk that made your book­ing pos­si­ble. In the lodge in­dus­try how­ever, one role stands head and shoul­ders above the rest. It is a role that has the abil­ity to make or break a guest's stay. With host­ing du­ties, it is not un­usual for a field guide to spend as many as 16 hours a day in di­rect con­tact to your as­signed guests. Those guests' ex­pe­ri­ences are there­fore di­rectly af­fected by the qual­ity, en­thu­si­asm and ded­i­ca­tion of their guide. Peo­ple come to the bush to learn about the en­vi­ron­ment and spend time among crea­tures that they have ad­mired since child­hood. If the food and ac­com­mo­da­tion is not up to scratch, a stay can still be res­cued by a great guide. First im­pres­sions count. This is why many lodges send their guides to meet their guests di­rectly off the plane. They are am­bas­sadors not only of the com­pany in ques­tion, but also for the coun­try. It is im­per­a­tive that they look the part, their trans­port is clean, they are punc­tual and that courtesy is ob­served at all times. Guides work long shifts, some­times two months or more with­out a day off but fa­tigue lev­els are un­for­tu­nately ir­rel­e­vant. It is not the guests' fault that you are tired, you still need to give each and ev­ery visi­tor the same high level of ser­vice from start to fin­ish! Guides are a jack-of-all-trades. But one as­pect trumps all oth­ers: a great guide is a peo­ple per­son. Sure, an in depth knowl­edge of the nat­u­ral world is a must, but if you can­not com­mu­ni­cate with peo­ple, the in­for­ma­tion soon be­comes ex­tra­ne­ous. A sim­ple ques­tion: would you rather go on a game drive with a sci­en­tist who knows ev­ery­thing but is in­audi­ble, rude and un­mo­ti­vated; or with a newly qual­i­fied guide that has much to learn but whose en­thu­si­asm is in­fec­tious? Facts and fig­ures are won­der­ful but un­less they can be quan­ti­fied and moulded into an en­ter­tain­ing story, a guide will lose his guests' at­ten­tion quickly. In my opin­ion, a guid­ing po­si­tion is 70% peo­ple skills, and 30% knowl­edge.

A guide is on call 24 hours a day. Dur­ing my time I have re­sponded to many a guest's call dur­ing the dead of night, in­clud­ing be­ing asked to re­move a baby croc­o­dile from their room (although this turned out to be a gecko!), to change light­bulbs and, as all guides are re­quired to hold a first aid qual­i­fi­ca­tion, even the oc­ca­sional med­i­cal com­plaint! It re­ally is a job in which you give ev­ery­thing! But, for the right per­son, it is the most re­ward­ing job in the world. Where else can you play in the bush for ten hours a day and share those ex­pe­ri­ences with to­tal strangers. The bush has a great way of break­ing down so­cial and economic bound­aries and those brief ex­pe­ri­ences can forge friend­ships that last a life­time.

A guide is an am­bas­sador for the en­vi­ron­ment. We live in an over-pop­u­lated and de­te­ri­o­rat­ing world and the small ar­eas that re­main as pris­tine refuges for the sur­viv­ing an­i­mals need to be pro­tected. The best way to do this is by rais­ing aware­ness; by in­fect­ing the gen­eral public with the need to do their part. Most vis­i­tors have zero knowl­edge of the in­tri­ca­cies of the ta­pes­try of life and be­ing im­mersed in it by a good guide can be life chang­ing! Sure, the ‘green' move­ment is not for every­one but if we can open the eyes of just 1% of the tourist that flock to see South Africa's great bio­di­ver­sity, we have made our dif­fer­ence. This is job of a guide.

So, what then has the role of a guide brought to the in­dus­try in re­cent years? Sim­ple: they have made the nat­u­ral world un­der­stand­able for the masses. Peo­ple tend to fear, or at least, avoid things they do not fully un­der­stand. A guide is there to bridge that gap be­tween the city dweller and his/her an­ces­try. The de­sire to spend time in na­ture is strong with all of us, but a guide is there to fa­cil­i­tate and res­ur­rect that re­la­tion­ship; to pol­li­nate guests with knowl­edge, un­der­stand­ing and pas­sion. But most im­por­tantly, to do it via per­sonal at­ten­tion. That's the busi­ness of field guid­ing.

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