Tour director train­ing and employment

By Randy Keck

Nearly nine years ago, in the May 1998 issue, I wrote an article entitled “So You Think You Want to Be a Tour Director.” It is time for an update on the opportunities for employment as a tour director, which include working as a local or regional guide.

ITMI 2007 Symposium

Tour directors utilize the expertise of local guides. Photos: Keck

In January 2007 I had the opportunity to again attend the annual symposium of the International Tour Management Institute, or ITMI (625 Market St., Ste. 810, San Francisco, CA 94105; 800/442-4864, fax 415/957-9474, e-mail or visit, the oldest, largest and most highly regarded training institute for tour directors and guides in the U.S.

Held in Charleston, South Carolina, this year, it provided the opportunity to talk with tour operators representing all facets of the tour industry. More importantly, it provided the chance to speak with and in some cases interview ITMI graduates who have been working as tour directors and guides for periods ranging from less than one year to more than 20 years. The information provided in this article is from the “inside” of the tour industry, directly from the horse’s mouth.

The events of 9-11 dealt a crippling blow to the travel and tour industry both in the United States and around the world. It has taken years for our now-highly-security-oriented travel industry to recover, but recover it has. Inbound travel to the U.S. has grown dramatically. Both domestic travel within the U.S. and outbound international travel are prospering.

This growth on all fronts has created an increased demand for and an overall excellent prospectus for trained tour directors.

Who are today’s tour directors?

Tour directors work with local guides as a team.

Tour directors working today come from a wide variety of backgrounds and age ranges, from the 20s to the 70s. Many are retired or semiretired from other occupations and professions.

Logically, many come from backgrounds in the human services arena. Typically, they share a common bond: the love of travel and the desire, in a leadership capacity, to share the experience of travel with others.

Tour director employment offers flexibility in that most tour directors can manage to work as little or as much as they wish, especially after acquiring some successful work experience. I met with tour directors who worked, by choice, as little as two to three weeks per year and with some who worked more than 40 per year. Tour directing can be an ideal part-time occupation, with the opportunity to fuse the travel work/lifestyle with another career or leisure time.

One trend I was especially aware of at the symposium was that a much greater number of tour directors were clearly over the age of 60 than in times past.

Tour directing is really an ageless occupation which operates on the theory that you are only as old as you choose to be, with individual physical and mental fitness the prime components. Tour company employers today well understand this.

The ITMI training experience

The International Tour Management Institute training program is overwhelmingly praised by the plethora of tour companies which hire their graduates. Some companies even have a policy of hiring only ITMI graduates.

The ITMI training course is a 2-week, full-time, intensive immersion experience that is divided into two consecutive one-week components. Students must pass the first week before they graduate to and pay for the final week. The course includes field training, which in this case means on-the-road training.

In 2007 ITMI will offer six classes in San Francisco and one in the Los Angeles area, in North Hollywood. Classes are limited to a maximum of 35 students. The cost of the course is currently $1,450 for the first week and $1,650 for the second.

The ITMI website provides complete information regarding the tour director training course and tour industry employment opportunities.

Tour director employment opportunities

An all-important aspect of ITMI training is their placement program for graduates.

Tour operator/tour director interviews, here with Tauck World Discovery, at the ITMI Symposium Marketplace.

First, graduates typically have the opportunity to interview with some tour companies upon graduation. A key component of the placement process is the Marketplace element of the ITMI annual symposium each January. The Marketplace provides the invaluable opportunity for tour directors, including recent graduates, to interview with many tour companies over two days in a formal setting. This important annual Marketplace has operated successfully, matching tour companies and tour directors for over 20 years.

At the 2007 symposium I was quite amazed by the number of tour directors attending who were not even taking place in the Marketplace because they already had a full schedule of assignments for the coming year. They were there primarily to network with fellow tour directors and take advantage of the educational training seminars at the symposium.

Some tour directors work exclusively for one company, while others work for from two to many. Some tour companies hire tour directors as employees, and others hire them as independent contractors.

There continues to be significant diversity in terms of conditions of employment among tour companies, including rates of pay. A general guideline regarding remuneration is that, including gratuities and commissions, tour directors can expect to make $150 to $250 per day. All tour-related expenses are usually covered by the tour company.

Fall opportunities abundant

The fall continues to be the busiest tour season, so there is keen competition among tour companies to fill their tour director assignment rosters as early as possible.

Overall, the majority of tour director employment opportunities today are for travel within the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii. More companies are using foreign-based tour directors for overseas tours than in the past. There are several companies, however, which operate overseas tours with only American tour directors, and opportunities exist even for new graduates who bring special skills to the table.

A working knowledge of one or more foreign languages continues to be a valuable asset. A broad experience background in international travel and/or living overseas prior to becoming a tour director is also most helpful.

Today there are many more companies operating student tours of varying types than in the past. Seasonal demand for tour directors in this field is quite high currently. There is also significant growth in the field of intergenerational travel, which will be the subject of a future column.

Where to get started

Those who wish to investigate the possibility of becoming a tour director should first thoroughly familiarize themselves with the ITMI website, then call the San Francisco office with any remaining questions. Those who submit applications will be scheduled for a 45- to 60-minute telephone interview with senior ITMI training staff.

One advance advisory that I, as a former tour director, can offer those considering this work/lifestyle is this: you should find comfort and appeal as opposed to discomfort and consternation with the universal tour director axiom “The years are short and the days are long.”

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝When at least for a moment in time,
The tour gods have allowed the planets
To align in perfect harmony,
And all is smiles and wellness
With your charge of trusting souls,
It’s ‘magic.’ ❞
— Randy reflecting on those precious perfect moments as a tour director