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Dennis Makowetsky

‘I was a rookie tour manager at age 60’

posted July 20, 2021
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What happens when you arrive with your group at a four-star hotel in Greece only to find the lobby in disrepair, the bathrooms dirty, stained linens on the beds, and electric receptacles hanging by wires from the walls?

What happens when your flight with an impossibly short connection is delayed by weather in Toronto and you and your group of 55 miss your connection in Montreal? Or a carrier rebooks your group on a homeward-bound flight in Paris three hours earlier than expected … and doesn’t tell you?

What happens when an elderly lady falls, experiencing internal injuries, and must be left behind in a hospital in Belgium? Or worse: One of your travelers passes away on the battlefield while re-enacting the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo?

What happens when your new bus breaks down on the Amalfi Coast drive? Or another new coach gets stuck under an overpass in Istanbul, blowing out the windows in the coach and leaving your group stranded?

What happens when your travel bag—with all your tour information, personal documents, and cash—is stolen outside of Paris on the second day of a tour and you have 52 people to take care of?

These are all examples of the challenges I faced while on the road as a tour manager.

Editor’s note: What’s termed “tour manager” in Canada is called “tour director” in the U.S.

I was a rookie tour manager at age 60. I had spent 35 years in high school classrooms teaching history and the social sciences—mostly in Southwestern Ontario, but one year in Nottinghamshire, England, and three and a half in Abruzzo, Italy. Throughout my teaching career, lesson planning and designing and carrying out student tours became second nature. So I thought I was ready for this new career challenge.

It didn’t take long to find out that I wasn’t.

Looking at the litany of challenges cataloged above, it would be easy to conclude that tours are plagued by continual problems. But that is far from the case. In fact, most of my 57 international tours ran smoothly. Hotels were generally of high quality, staffed by caring individuals. Airlines usually did their best to provide dependable service for their customers during an increasingly difficult time for travel. Most people traveled safely, injuries were few and far between, and theft, while it was constantly on our minds, was seldom an issue. But it was impossible to do as many tours as I did and not experience complications. So, even at my age, I learned many lessons—quickly.

On the Beach at Dieppe
Dennis Makowetsky is pictured with a group on the beach in Dieppe.

First off, I learned how important it is to have an excellent travel company in your corner, and with Ellison Travel and Tours, I certainly had that.

In the case of the Greek hotel, while I worked at getting the group into more suitable accommodations, Ellison quickly offered a refund for the night in question and agreed to provide an additional dinner in the beautiful town of Oia, overlooking the sea at sunset. So what might have been a damper on the tour was reversed. 

On

 

With the missed connection in Montreal, Ellison Travel booked a city tour with an excellent lunch for the following day. The situation was not perfect, but it could have been much worse.

With my stolen bag, the tour company was in my corner all along the way, making sure I had the documents I needed, providing access to the finances I required to run the tour, and helping to arrange replacement documents so I could board the plane with the rest of the group on the final day.

I have more examples of the company’s incredible support. I never had to apologize for Ellison Travel on any of the tours I did.

I also learned many things of a personal nature—some of them obvious but essential just the same:

  • Keep a cool head. When you show up at an airport and your flight has been rescheduled, you get much farther with a reasonable approach. Often this is easier said than done, though.
  • Be patient. Take a few deep breaths before acting. Sometimes solutions present themselves while you’re contemplating. Knee-jerk reactions seldom turn out well.
  • Don’t feel sorry for yourself or blame others. This is wasted energy that could be more usefully directed to dealing with the crisis at hand.
  • Plan ahead. Get to know the nature of the group before traveling. Tailor the itinerary as much as possible to group needs. Think ahead to where pitfalls may occur. Use free time during lunch breaks and after hours to reconnoiter future activities.
  • Remember who you work for. Try to strike a balance between the comfort of the group and the interests of the suppliers.
  • Know your role. Examine company policy regarding the role of a tour manager. And if you are a former teacher traveling with students, differentiate between the two roles. Issues of conduct, unless immediately dangerous, are the purview of the teacher chaperones.
  • Always remember that this is not a personal trip. The needs of the group and your suppliers always come first. This is often a difficulty for tour managers.

Going into my new career in the travel industry, I assumed the skills I developed while teaching would be useful—and they were. What I didn’t expect was the richness of the experiences and the personal growth they brought, even for someone of my age. I would not have missed the opportunity for the world.

Dennis (Mak) Makowetsky is the author of Can You Hear Me in the Back? Reflections on 15 years as a tour manager, published in April 2021 and available on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.