11 Secrets of Tour Directors

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Tour directors get paid to travel the world, dine at incredible restaurants, and sleep in comfy hotel beds. Of course, there’s a lot more to the job than merely hoisting a brightly colored flag and rattling off pertinent facts. Some would even describe the work as exhausting, both physically and mentally. Unlike tour guides—who provide local expertise about a city or attraction and generally don't have to travel far—tour directors book gigs across the country or abroad via tour operation companies, handle the pre-trip planning, and conduct the tour, all while fixing the problems that pop up along the way. To find out what their day-to-day work is really like, Mental Floss spoke with three tour directors (or managers, as they're also known). Here’s what they had to say about an occupation that many label a “dream job.”

1. FORMAL TRAINING IN TOURISM ISN’T REQUIRED.

While some tour directors hold certificates in tourism and hospitality management, this isn’t a strict requirement, and professional directors come from a range of educational backgrounds. Kimberly Fields-McArthur, an American tour director based in Australia, has a degree in biblical studies and archaeology, and Anne Marie Brooks, a former tour director turned cruise ship worker in Orlando, has a background in musical theater.

More important than education or training: their skills. Tour directors must be highly organized, adept at speaking in front of large groups, and people-oriented. "A lot of it is a personality thing versus a training thing," Brooks says. "You can’t train someone to have a personality to work with people.”

2. WHEN THEY’RE ON A TOUR, THEY’RE ON CALL 24/7.

While they might get to spend the night in a nice hotel, the sleep of a tour director is often interrupted. Brooks, who used to lead city tours for high school performance groups, recalled a time when a large group of rowdy, drunk men stayed on the same floor of a hotel as the girls in her group. Although she was staying on a different floor, she received word around 3 a.m. that the boozed-up bros were making some of the girls—and adult chaperones—uncomfortable, so she went down to the front desk to sort it out. No other rooms were available, but the hotel agreed to hire a security guard to sit in the hallway for the duration of their stay.

Similarly, Fields-McArthur says she’s been forced to respond to issues in the middle of the night quite a few times. “One of them was a gentleman who made a very bad decision about what height he could jump into the pool from and ended up breaking his foot,” she says. “That was 2 o’clock in the morning.”

3. THEY HATE IT WHEN YOU CALL THEIR JOB A “FREE VACATION.”

“There’s nothing about what I’m doing right now that is me on vacation,” Fields-McArthur says. “If I am on vacation, it means I am not doing my job and you are probably not having a good time.”

Kathi Thompson Cullin, a tour director based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, adds: "I was up at 6 o’clock this morning and didn’t go to bed until midnight doing my paperwork.” When they're not traveling, they're handling all the pre-trip arrangements: crafting the itinerary, ordering tickets for activities, taking care of transportation and lodging, and following up with venues to make sure they haven't forgotten about their reservations (a common problem). Plus, there's the added challenge of shepherding dozens of people around a city that's unfamiliar to them, which isn't exactly a walk in the park, either.

4. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF SHOES ... AND LUGGAGE.

If you’re looking for a job that forces you to stay active, tour directing might be the profession for you. Thompson Cullin and Brooks say they walk so much they burn through three or four pairs of sneakers per year. (Pro tip: If you’re looking for comfy travel shoes, they both swear by their Skechers.) Suitcases tend to be another casualty of the job. Thompson Cullin says she stopped buying expensive luggage because it would just end up “beat up and broken with the wheels off” by the end of the year.

5. THEY’RE TRAINED TO ANTICIPATE THE WORST ...

People get lost. Accidents happen. Natural disasters strike. Tour directors have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. “If I’m leading a trip to Indonesia, I need to know volcanoes might be part of the process of being there, and earthquakes might be part of the process,” Fields-McArthur says. So educating herself about potential disasters—and how to deal with them—is part of her pre-trip research.

Things can go wrong with the guests, too. "I’ve had trips where people have gotten very sick," she says. "I had one trip where I had seven people end up in the hospital at different times for completely different reasons. I’ve seen broken bones and illnesses and hospital stays for days on end, where we ended up having the trip continue on to a different country and we had to leave them behind.” (In those instances, the tour director notifies the tour company, which follows up with anyone injured and left behind to ensure they have travel arrangements once they recover.)

6. ... BUT IF SOMETHING LESS SERIOUS GOES WRONG, YOU PROBABLY WON’T KNOW ABOUT IT.

Problems arise more often than you’d expect. A misspelled name could result in the hotel not having any record of a 50-plus person reservation—this once happened to Thompson Cullin—and businesses often forget that large groups are scheduled to come in on any given day. “So many things go wrong on a day-to-day basis that our guests will never know about,” Brooks says. One time, a restaurant she took her group to was understaffed, so she stepped in, grabbed a pitcher of soda and plates of food, and started refilling their glasses and serving them—all while playing it off like she was merely mingling with the group.

The job is hard work, but tour directors never let it show. Fortunately, Thompson Cullin was able to fix the hotel reservation error before her guests ever found out about it. “Think of me as a duck floating on the water,” she says. “To the human eye I’m looking very peaceful floating along, not a care in the world, but underneath my feet are paddling like crazy just to stay afloat.”

7. THEY REALLY LIKE TALL PEOPLE.

While guests do get separated from the group from time to time, tour directors do their best to avoid it. In addition to holding a flag or umbrella at the front of the line to help guests find their way, they have another trick up their sleeve: “What I usually do is try to make friends with somebody who’s very tall in the group,” Fields-McArthur says. She'll ask if they'd mind being the last person in line; that way, when she looks back and sees their head bobbing above the others, she knows that the group didn’t get split up. (Of course, this doesn’t stop the occasional straggler from ditching the group any time they get distracted by a gelato shop or chic boutique.)

8. SOMETIMES THEY HAVE TO BREAK UP FIGHTS.

When you take a big group of strangers from diverse backgrounds and send them on a trip together, it doesn’t always end well. Thompson Cullin said part of her job involves playing mediator and preventing disagreements from escalating. The most extreme example of this is the time when she had to physically break up a fight in the hotel lobby between two women who weren't getting along on her tour. When tensions reached a boiling point, one woman raised her arm to hit the other, but Thompson Cullin arrived in the nick of time. “I grabbed both of their arms and said, ‘Come with me now,’” she says. They did cooperate, but only after they received a warning that they’d be kicked off the tour if they continued to quibble.

9. THEY OFTEN DEPEND ON TIPS.

The median wage for travel guides—those who "plan, organize, and conduct long distance travel, tours, and expeditions for individuals and groups"—is $25,770 annually or $12.39 hourly, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor. However, Fields-McArthur says many U.S. tour companies pay directors by the day, and wages range from $100 to $300 per day (on the lower end of the scale) to roughly $400 per day for higher-paying jobs. For directors in the former camp, tips are essential. “On some of the older adult tours, sometimes they give you $5 in an envelope and say, ‘That was the best trip of my life,’ and you’re like, ‘Great, I can’t pay my bills now,’” Fields-McArthur says with a laugh. If you’re on a tour and you're unsure how much to tip, check the information packet provided by the company. They usually include tipping guidelines.

10. THEY MEET SOME INTERESTING CHARACTERS.

Tour directors see a steady stream of fascinating people from around the world. One of the most memorable characters that Thompson Cullin ever encountered was a “sweet little old man” from New Jersey on a tour of Sedona, Arizona, who happened to be an ex-con and “retired” member of the Mafia. “He said to me at lunch, ‘You know what Kathi, I like you. You got moxie. Here’s my card. Anybody ever gives you trouble, you call me and I’ll take care of them,'” she says. She thought he was joking at first. He wasn’t.

11. THEY NEVER GET TIRED OF THE AMAZING SIGHTS.

Sure, they may get sick of certain activities—Brooks, for example, has had her fill of Radio City Music Hall—but awe-inspiring sights like the Grand Canyon become no less impressive with repeated viewings. “I never get tired of it. That’s probably the one question I get asked all the time,” Thompson Cullin says. She also enjoys witnessing how her guests react to the sights they’re seeing. “My biggest perk is to see people’s faces transform into childlike wonder when they see things for the very first time—things that they have always wanted to see.”

10 Secrets of Subway Conductors

Chris Hondros, Getty Images
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

Despite listening to their announcements every day, there’s a lot the average rider doesn’t know about being a subway conductor. The men and women at the front of the train are the eyes and ears of the subway system, and they often act as the only line of communication between passengers and the greater transit authority. We spoke with conductors who work for two of the country’s busiest transit systems to learn more about what it's like on the rails—including the real meanings behind the phrases they use, how dirty trains really get, and the one thing they wish more riders would do.

1. IT CAN TAKE A WHILE TO GET A JOB ...

Aspiring transit employees often have to be patient. Candidates must first complete a written exam, and if they pass, their name is added to a list of people waiting to fill whatever jobs open up. The time it takes to reach the top of the list varies: Joe Benton, who's worked for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco for 10 years, tells Mental Floss he was hired a year after first submitting his application. Tramell Thompson, a New York City subway conductor since 2013, says he waited nearly four years after taking his civil service exam to secure the job. Once hired, subway conductors must undergo a training process that can take two to three months. This involves riding real trains in the yards, and learning the various signals, regulations, and procedures.

2. ... BUT STAYING IN THE POSITION PAYS OFF.

The typical base salary for a New York subway conductor is $67,000, Thompson says, but both pay and benefits become more appealing the longer a conductor works for the transit authority. As Victor Almodovar, a New York City subway conductor for 15 years, tells Mental Floss, "seniority is everything." After 12 years, he was able to get weekends off, and he now has the freedom to choose which train line he works on—something most conductors just starting out aren't allowed to do.

3. THEY MIGHT TALK ABOUT THINGS BLOWING UP—BUT DON'T PANIC.

If you could eavesdrop on the private conversations between subway personnel, you probably wouldn’t understand them. All transit conductors speak in shorthand specific to the systems they work for: “BART has literally its own language,” Benton says. That language includes a lot of numbers, like track numbers, platform numbers, and train IDs. But other bits of lingo are more colorful—and could potentially cause panic if they were ever broadcast over the wrong intercom. As an example, Thompson notes they sometimes might say "the railroad blew up." While it may sound terrifying, he explains that it means the trains aren't running on their proper schedule.

4. THERE'S A GOOD REASON THEY'RE ALWAYS POINTING.

If you live in New York City, pay close attention next time you’re waiting on a subway platform: When the train pulls in, you should see the conductor pointing a finger out the car window. The object they’re pointing at is a black-and-white strip of wood called a zebra board. It hangs above the center of every subway platform, and when the train pulls into the station correctly, it will line up perfectly with the subway conductor’s window. If the conductor notices the board is a little too far behind or ahead of them when they point their finger, they know it’s not safe to open the doors. The gesture is also a good indicator that your conductor is paying attention.

5. THEY WORD ANNOUNCEMENTS CAREFULLY.

There are a few phrases regular subway riders are used to hearing—“sick passenger,” “police investigation,” and the standard “we are experiencing delays,” to name a few. These may sound like obvious euphemisms, but Thompson promises that using carefully worded language is in the passengers’ best interests. A police investigation, for instance, could refer to someone causing a scene on a train, but in some cases it’s a lot more serious. “If God forbid there’s a terrorism or a bomb scare, that’s not something you want to put over the public address system,” Almodovar says. “It becomes self-preservation and you don’t want that on a packed rush hour train. So instead you say, ‘We have a police investigation,’ which is basically the truth but you’re not telling them the whole truth.”

“A passenger seeking medical attention” is another example of masking something that’s potentially disturbing without being dishonest. Thompson says, “I’m not going to say, ‘Attention passengers, somebody jumped in front of the train and it’s causing delays.’ I would say, ‘There’s an injured passenger on the train ahead of us,’ or ‘There’s a passenger seeking medical attention ahead of us.’” However, with the MTA now pushing its employees to be more transparent, riders may occasionally get conductors who make no effort to mince words.

6. SOMETIMES PASSENGERS KNOW MORE THAN THEY DO.

Passengers aren’t the only ones who are kept in the dark during delays. When a conductor doesn’t give a specific reason for the delay in their announcements, it may be because he or she doesn’t know why the train stopped in the first place. “In that case, I would tell them we’re investigating the issue,” Thompson says. Usually the control center—the hub that keeps New York City’s subways moving—will inform conductors of the problem before too much time passes, but in some cases transit news travels faster by phone. “The information will get to passengers through all these MTA apps before it’s even relayed to us,” Thompson says. “So sometimes I ask them, ‘Hey, can you check your phone and see what’s on the [MTA] website?’” (Conductors are forbidden from using their phones for personal reasons on the job, but the MTA is experimenting with giving employees work iPhones to better keep them up-to-date.)

7. MOST DELAYS AREN’T THEIR FAULT.

For better or worse, subway conductors are the face of city transit systems: That means they’re usually the first people to receive complaints and abuse from passengers when a train isn’t moving fast enough. But if your train has been stuck underground for what feels like forever, there’s only a small chance one of the system's employees is to blame; the much more likely cause is faulty equipment. According to WNYC, signal problems account for 36 percent of extended subway delays (eight minutes or more) in New York City, followed by mechanical problems at 31 percent, and rail and track issues at 19 percent. “When you get mad you have to understand that we are not the ones who made the schedules; we’re ones who have to work with the tracks and the signals which are over 100 years old and they break down,” Almodovar says. “We have to work with what we have."

8. THEY HATE DELAYS MORE THAN YOU DO.

A signal malfunction might mess up the average passenger's morning commute, but it can ruin a subway conductor's whole day—so despite being blamed for them constantly, it’s possible that no one hates train delays more than subway conductors. “I didn’t really have a lunch today,” Almodovar says, recalling how he fell behind schedule when the automatic brakes were activated on the train ahead of his. “I had enough time to run downstairs, get a slice of pizza, then I’m right back on the train.”

On some days, conductors are lucky if they get to eat at all. “With all these signal issues, track issues, and all types of other issues, it’s hard for the schedules to work,” Thompson says. “Sometimes we gotta choose between using the bathroom and eating.”

9. SOME WON’T LET THEIR FAMILIES RIDE.

Staying on schedule is a priority for most subway systems. That means employees might rush through jobs where they would ideally take their time—like cleaning a subway car that a passenger has been sick in, for instance. Thompson says the lax sanitation procedures he sees up-close have convinced him to never let his son ride the subway. “It’s like working in a restaurant—you know the other-end stuff that the customers don’t know,” he says.

10. THEY WISH YOU’D LEAVE THE HOUSE EARLIER.

If you want your commute to go smoothly, subway employees will tell you the best thing to do is plan ahead. This means finding out how delays or construction might impact your preferred route before stepping outside the house. Almodovar recommends downloading a navigation app called Citymapper, which integrates the latest data from city transit systems into one spot. Official transit system websites and Twitter accounts are also good places to go for service updates.

But regardless of what your apps tell you, it’s always safer to assume your train will be behind schedule. “We all know that the transit authority isn’t the most punctual service,” Thompson says. “Leave an extra five to 10 minutes earlier from your house, because things are always happening.”

15 Secrets of Real Estate Agents

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ISTOCK

Real estate agents play a huge role in one of the most important financial decisions of our lives. When it comes to buying, selling, leasing, or renting, they’re the ones who shepherd us through a process that can only be described as overwhelming. We talked to a handful of agents across the country to learn more about the tricks of their trade—and in the process, picked up a few tips for you.

1. CRIMINALS ARE BAD. KIDS ARE WORSE.

It isn’t just an urban legend that criminals will visit open houses to case them for a burglary. Colorado realtor Crip Erickson said these incidents happen in waves, and sometimes the crime has a super-specific target, such as prescription drugs in a medicine cabinet. Still, he said criminals aren’t the only ones to worry about during an open house. “By far the biggest problem are couples with young kids who don’t watch them,” Erickson says. “There’s been major damage done.”

2. WHEN IT COMES TO STAGING, THEY HAVE PLENTY OF TRICKS.

Chocolate chip cookie spray may be the cliché, but the realtors we spoke with emphasized music and interior design when getting a property ready to show. In addition to a little freshly popped popcorn, Erickson says he plays low-key tunes that visitors won’t know (to avoid any bad associations with a certain song). Monica Webster, who works in New York City and Greenwich, Connecticut, says her musical accompaniment depends on the property: “If I have a 6-million dollar beautiful brand-new build that's very cosmopolitan and metropolitan, I’m going to play different music than if I have an 1875 Old Greenwich house. It all depends.”

Webster says she also advises fellow agents to get dogs out of the house, turn the lights on ahead of time, make sure people walk through the front door instead of the garage, and depersonalize when necessary so prospective buyers can envision themselves in the space.

3. THEY CAN’T TELL YOU IF A PROPERTY IS HAUNTED.

An agent or broker isn't allowed to “stigmatize” a property, which can include suggesting a house is haunted. Sellers and their agents must disclose material defects, but spooky happenings can be kept quiet. If you’re truly curious, neighbors are often a great resource. Erickson says he tells prospective buyers to Google a property and check the county sheriff's website for any news stories, criminal activity, or building permits associated with the address.

4. THEY’RE ON-CALL 24/7.

In the wee hours, agents’ jobs are equal parts salesperson and therapist. “I’ve had lots of midnight phone calls with someone sobbing on the other end of the line,” Erickson says. Webster agrees: "I call myself a psychologist,” she says. “We’re in people's bedrooms!” Every agent talked about the difficulty of making people happy in the high-stress environment of finding a home. The word “compromise” came up a lot, and it applies to both the agent-buyer/seller relationship and among the buyers/sellers themselves. Erickson says that when dealing with a couple, he has them separately write down what they’re looking for in a home. “Sometimes they’re on the same page, and sometimes they’re not,” he says.

5. LITTLE SLIPS CAN COST THEM THEIR GIGS.

Webster says the hardest part of the job is finding out what buyers and sellers really want and managing their expectations. Keeping a seller happy can be just as important as perfecting a listing. Once, after a showing of a $10 million listing, Webster was fired for not calling the owner with an immediate report. “Our job is very intense,” she says. “We’re always on the front lines. Always.”

6. THEY SEE THE EXTREMES OF HUMAN EMOTION.

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Paul MacMahon, a realtor in Dallas, says: “We work with people in all stages of life, good and bad … Selling and buying homes is almost always an emotional roller coaster and we are there with our clients every step of the way. We talk to people when they're ecstatic, infuriated, excited, and defeated.”

7. THEY SPEAK THEIR OWN LANGUAGE.

There’s a skill to crafting the perfect, limited-character sell. Erickson says a few things to look out for are “charming” (a.k.a. “small”), “cozy” (“a shack that’s about to fall down”) or “mature landscaping,” which often means there are dead trees that will need to be dealt with. Virginia agent Sarah Marchese adds that “potential” means it’s old and falling apart, “won’t last long” means it’s already been on the market too long, and “motivated seller” means it’s overpriced and any offer is good.

8. THEY NEED SALES.

Most agents are independent contractors working under brokers and are paid solely on commissions, which means they only make money when a transaction closes. Agents generally make between 5 and 7 percent, and depending on the state, that amount goes to the listing agent’s broker or can be split between the buyer and seller’s agent brokers. Lease commissions vary, but they're usually between 40 and 100 percent of one month's rent.

9. THEY REALLY DO HAVE TO ALWAYS BE CLOSING.

A hand passing over keys to another hand, with a printed agreement underneath them
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Given this financial structure, it’s no wonder agents will go to great lengths to secure a sale. Agents have seen it all, and done it all. MacMahon has one story of going the distance: “I once hiked down a mountain in Canada while trying to keep a deal from falling apart on the phone. It was getting dark so I had to use the phone's flashlight while I was talking. While I was talking to the other agent I heard my sister-in-law tell my wife not to worry, but there were bears on the mountain. I've had more relaxing vacation days.”

10. THEY WANT YOU TO BE PREPARED.

It helps if clients have done their homework. At the very start of the process, Webster gives clients a form outlining every step of the process to prepare them for what’s to come. Letting them know that it's important to get finances in order, determine a budget, and get pre-approved for a mortgage helps to set realistic expectations. (Most sellers won’t consider an offer without a pre-approval letter anyway.)

They also want you to know your limits. Both Marchese and Erickson say that one of the biggest real estate mistakes people make is trying to handle buying or selling on their own. Sellers often don’t know how to properly price their home and don’t anticipate the work involved in dealing with lenders, appraisers, attorneys, inspectors, and buyers.

11. ASKING PRICES AREN’T ARBITRARY.

A realtor and family looking at a new home to purchase
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Agents price a home based on comparable properties around the neighborhood and predictions about where the market is headed both on a grand scale and with the seasons. An agent will run a “comparative market analysis,” which collects active listings as well as those pending or under contract and then evaluates things such as the age of the structure, renovations, lot size, views, and neighborhood.

Seasonal trends also affect sellers’ prospects. For example, Erickson told us things slow down after the Fourth of July when people begin to think about school starting up again and aren’t necessarily looking to move.

According to MacMahon, it’s about finding a sweet spot that maximizes the seller's profit but isn't too high . A property has to pass an appraisal report to get a mortgage approved. Banks won’t extend mortgages for sale prices that wildly deviate from appraisals, a policy that dooms many sales. Appraisals also help protect buyers from paying too much for a home only to discover they're deep underwater on their mortgage.

12. IF YOU’VE FOUND A PROPERTY YOU LOVE, HANDWRITTEN LETTERS HELP.

If a seller is fielding competing offers, letters, photos, or videos can sway their decision. These tokens of your affection for the property can distinguish your offer from the pack or simply allay sellers’ fears about what’s going to happen to the property once they’ve moved on. “The smartest thing I could do would be to tell a buyer: ‘Write a letter and say you’re not going to tear this house down,’’’ Webster says. Marchese wrote that she’s known sellers who have taken an offer based on a heartfelt note, even if it wasn't the best move financially. “Never underestimate the power of emotional attachment,” she wrote. “It raises its head in so many ways.”

13. BUT DIVINE INTERVENTION CAN HELP, TOO.

Those aren’t the only tactics buyers can use to secure a property. Erickson says buyers sometimes contact the sellers directly—he doesn’t advise that path, but admits it can work out. Webster tells us there’s also a relatively recent superstition that sees buyers and sellers burying a statue of St. Joseph to help the process along.

Marchese wrote that she’s seen buyers “stalk” certain areas for listings, contact homeowners out of the blue to ask if they’d be interested in selling, and even submit backup offers in case a deal with another buyer falls through.

14. THEY’RE NOT JUST SELLING HOUSES.

Real estate agent showing new home to clients
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Agents also have to sell themselves, because large portions of their business come from referrals and repeat clients. Many come to be known as neighborhood experts by moving a large quantity of homes in a given area, and that perception alone can be enough to get hired. Agents can also "farm" areas, meaning they choose a specific geographical area and target their marketing efforts there.

Aside from investing in professional architectural photographers, sending out postcards, and networking, MacMahon says he’s also strategic about his online presence, because he knows potential clients will do their research: “We're all small business owners and we have to be aware that we're our own PR firms.”

15. THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ ON THE INTERNET.

When Erickson meets prospective clients, he says his goal “is to try to establish a rapport so you don't come off as a salesman.” He believes that big real estate sites like Zillow and Trulia make people wary of agents because listings aren’t always accurate, and a simple inquiry can result in multiple realtors—often not local—contacting someone. “That process doesn’t work,” Erickson says. Marchese addresses the way the internet has changed real estate with a slightly different perspective: “I think there is a big concern among agents today that, with the internet, our profession will become obsolete. But I think it’s only helping to strengthen the industry. The more informed people are the better we have to be at our job!”

Note: This article originally misstated that people bury statues of St. Anthony for good luck.

A version of this article originally ran in 2015.

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