One of the largest gratuities I ever received while working as a tour guide took place on a cycling tour in Costa Rica. It was a wife and husband who were into birding in a big way, and were were pretty much in paradise with all the birds they were seeing. But part way through the group tour, I had an idea.
I spoke with a local birding guide, and asked if he did early morning tours and how much it would cost. Later at dinner, I checked with my birding couple to see if they wanted to get up early for a private birding tour and told them how much it would cost. They were wildly excited, and had the time of their lives the next morning before our regularly scheduled activities.
At the end of the tour I got a very generous tip from them (which essentially doubled my wages for the entire week) and they wrote a letter to my employer, stating that I was one of the best tour guides they've ever had. All of that for about 15- to 20-minutes worth of extra work on my part.
And that's exactly what I'll talk about here: The techniques you can use to consistently earn large tips as a tour guide, and make it a regular part of your income.
1. Learn to be an Amazing Guide
The obvious must be stated: No matter how many "tipping systems" or "gratuity hacks" you know, nothing will compensate for being a mediocre tour guide. I spend a lot of time over at Be a Better Guide focusing on how to be extraordinary tour leaders—and this should be your primary focus.
What are some areas you can work on? An amazing tour guide is patient, energetic, organized, funny, adaptable, empathetic, a problem solver, a powerful speaker, an incredible listener, and above all, a people person. It's a lot to tackle but remember: Exceptional service is in the details. The more you can hone these skills, the more you will make in tips—guaranteed.
2. Delivering and Over-Delivering
Expectations are everything in the service industry. Your clients are coming on your tours with a list of things they expect, including—but not limited to—how they'll be treated as a customer, what's included in the tour, what they'll see, how the tour will run, and more. You must work diligently to meet all of these expectations, and be crystal clear on what they are.
This is where the majority of tour operators and guides fail. TripAdvisor is littered with terrible reviews from unhappy customers whose expectations were not met.
To get great gratuities, you must meet (and properly set) those client expectations. But to get fantastic tips, you must then go above and beyond those expectations, wowing and delighting your guests at every opportunity. On my tour in Costa Rica, for example, those guests were so impressed because I was not expected to give them that kind of personal service on a group tour. Had I been their private guide, hired for $10,000 to lead a completely custom tour—my actions would simply have been expected.
But remember — Deliver first, then over-deliver.
3. Increase your Perceived Value as a Guide
Are you an expert in your field? Do you have unique or special connections to your subject matter? Are you a born and bred local? All of these attributes will raise the value you bring as a guide—and increase your potential tips.
An example is my friend Dario who works as a private tour leader in Siena, Italy. He's a local, and therefore a member of one of the city's Contrada (or neighborhoods). Tourists to the city of Siena do not have access to these neighborhoods, but Dario has permission to bring guests inside as part of his tour. He receives incredible tips (beyond his high tour price) partly because guests feel it was because of Dario that they had this incredibly rare experience.
Think of ways you can play up your perceived value, and build it into the design of your tour. Can you introduce your guests to some local colorful characters? Get them somewhere the public cannot access? How about using your special connections to meet the head chef, top brew master, or someone normally unavailable?
Reinforce to your guests that the main reason your tour is so amazing is you.
4. Increase the Price of your Tour
There's a high correlation between the cost of your tour and what you earn in tips as the guide. Generally speaking, the longer your tour and higher the cost, the more you'll earn in gratuities.
Consider the impact if you doubled the cost of your tour without changing much of the itinerary or content. While you'd need to focus your efforts on delivering a more premium experience, you'd also see a huge jump in tips.
For example, National Geographic Expeditions is known for having scientists, researchers, and extremely knowledgeable naturalists lead their tours. By committing to this next level of expertise, they're able to charge premium prices for their tours, and their expedition leaders earn very generous tips.
5. The Principle of Reciprocity
Robert B Cialdini is the Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University and is best known for his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. It's an incredible book, but his Principle of Reciprocity is especially relevant for us here.
The principle states that we're all bound (and motivated) to repay debts of all kinds. If someone does something nice for you, you'll then feel obligated to repay that kindness. This principle is active in all of our social relationships, but it's especially important when trying to earn more tips.
If you give first and freely, people will repay that kindness. Can you give away a small edible treat on your tour (e.g. a sweet or inexpensive local delicacy)? How about giving out a high-quality, homemade map with some of your favorite coffee shops or restaurants? Or perhaps a handout with instructions on how to have a truly authentic local experience?
Remember, the more personalized and unexpected the gift/service, the more powerful the principle of reciprocity applies (i.e. the greater the reward you'll receive).
6. Build a Social Connection
Michael Lynn, a professor in food and beverage management at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, and someone who's been studying tips for many years, says the following:
“If people in the service industry can establish a social connection with their customers, they'll get better tips. The simple fact is, we're more likely to want to help someone we're connected to, and we're more likely to care about someone's opinion if we have a social connection to them."
Because we generally only have a small window of time to build this connection, here are 5 ways to quickly connect with your clients:
Get your first impression right. Acknowledge clients right away as they arrive, and if you're busy or with someone else, give them a nod and smile. Ideally, be free and ready 10 to 15 minutes before your tour to spend extra time with your guests
Introduce yourself by name. Also be sure to repeat your name throughout the tour
Wear something unusual/something that gives you some identity. This will tell your guests something unique or special about who you are.
Learn your guests' names and use them when possible. (If you have a difficult time remembering names, repeat the customer's name when first introduced.)
Smile. Research has confirmed the cultural wisdom of smiling and has found that smiling people are perceived as more attractive, sincere, sociable, and competent than unsmiling people.
7. Be Clear on Your Tipping Policy
Whatever your policy on gratuities, make sure that your guests know about it before the tour. If you include tips in your tour or are not allowed to receive tips, then that needs to be communicated. If you warmly welcome gratuities on your tour—or are completely dependent on them—than that should be made clear as well.
For tips on how to best communicate this, here are three examples from well-established tour companies. Note how specific they get with how much gratuity is suggested per tour or per guide.
G Adventures: Tipping F.A.Q.
Is tipping included and if not, how much should I budget?
Although not compulsory, tipping is expected and is an expression of satisfaction with the people who have assisted you throughout your tour. Although it may not be customary to you, it is of considerable significance to the people who will take care of you during your travels. At the end of your trip, if you felt that your G Adventures CEO (G Adventures guides are called Chief Experience Officers) did an outstanding job, tipping is appreciated. The amount is entirely a personal preference, however as a guideline 20-25 USD/EUR per person, per week can be used.
Backroads Tours: Tipping F.A.Q.
Gratuities for most services during your trip are covered in the overall cost. We are often asked, however, whether it is appropriate to tip the Backroads Trip Leaders and what a reasonable amount might be. While we have considered including such gratuities in the overall trip cost, we always come back to the belief that recognizing excellent service is a personal matter. If you feel your Trip Leaders have provided an exceptional trip experience, gratuities are encouraged—and welcomed—at the end of the trip. A typical gratuity on a 6- day Casual Inn Trip is $140 per guest (about $23 per day). The gratuity is then divided among your Trip Leaders and other Backroads support staff (van drivers, etc.).
Vermont Bike Tours FAQ: Is tipping included?
All gratuities are built into the included features of your vacation with the exception of those for your Trip Leaders and drivers. Tipping for your Trip Leaders and drivers is optional and not included in the price of your vacation. Tipping guidelines are included in your VBT Welcome Handbook.
“It is customary to express a personal 'thank you' to your VBT Trip Leader at the end of your trip, especially if he or she has provided you with excellent service or individual assistance. We recommend the local currency equivalent of $10 - $12 per person for each day of your trip for each Trip Leader."
8. Give a Tip Speech
A "tip speech" is when the tour guide reinforces their tipping policy while on tour. We all know that many clients may not read the pre-trip information, or thoroughly read your website, so it's important to re-clarify how gratuities work on your tour.
I would suggest including this in your opening introduction to the tour and then a one or two sentence reminder at the end. You do not want to repeatedly be bringing up your tips, nor do you want to make people feel guilty or uncomfortable in any way. Remember though: communication and clarity about tipping will reduce stress for your guests. We all know how awkward it can be wondering how much money to leave, if tipping is expected, and what currencies might be appropriate.
If you would like to know some of the exact wording I used for my own tip speeches—literally phrases that you can copy and use on your own tour, sign up and I'll email you your access to Be a Better Guide's free course on tipping. (I also cover the six most common mistakes tour guides make when asking for tips and offer three guilt-free tipping systems from real tour operators around the world.)
As in life, we as tour guides should always be striving to be the best we can be. Seeking out ways to be more effective, inspiring, and extraordinary. I firmly believe that life is too short for boring—and our job as tour leaders is to create memories of a lifetime.
And guess what? If we can do that, we'll get great tips too.
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