19 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of IKEA Employees

Stephen Chernin/Getty Images
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

Chances are good you have a piece of IKEA furniture in your home. Perhaps you’re even sitting on an IKEA couch, reading at an IKEA desk, or lying in an IKEA bed right now. The Swedish company is the world’s largest furniture retailer, selling billions of dollars worth of goods each year, from BILLY bookcases to GLIMMA tealights. Its massive blue-and-yellow stores are kept well-stocked and running smoothly thanks to the efforts of more than 194,000 employees (or as IKEA calls them, “coworkers”) across the globe. We spoke with a few of them about what it’s like to work for one of the world’s most recognizable retail stores.

1. THE IKEA PATHWAY HAS A CODE NAME.

It’s no secret IKEA’s maze-like showrooms are designed to take shoppers through every department, from the kitchen to the textiles, making sure they lay eyes on as many goods as possible. "One could describe it as if IKEA grabs you by the hand and consciously guides you through the store in order to make you buy as much as possible," Johan Stenebo, an IKEA veteran, wrote in his book, The Truth About IKEA.

The winding walkway is known lovingly among employees as the “Long Natural Path” or the “Long Natural Way.” According to a 2011 New Yorker article by Lauren Collins, the pathway is supposed to curve every 50 feet to prevent shoppers from getting bored.

2. THERE ARE SECRET SHORTCUTS ...

Need to get to bedding but don’t want to walk through textiles, bathroom, and living room first? Stuck on the top floor but need a quick way to ground level? Take a shortcut.

There are multiple quick routes through the store, both for safety reasons and stocking reasons, and they’re open to the public. But they’re not advertised, so you’ll need a keen eye for secret passageways. Often they take the form of unmarked service doors.

“If you know where to look, you’ll find them,” says Paula, who worked at an IKEA store in Houston for a year. At her store, there was a shortcut route that started with an unmarked door near the escalators. “Nobody’s going to stop you unless it explicitly says ‘employees only,’ but other than that you can open doors and you’d be amazed,” she says.

“I love IKEA, but sometimes you just need to get in and out in like 20 minutes,” says Marie, who worked at IKEA for 11 years. If that’s the case, just ask an employee to give you the quickest route to your destination and they’ll point you to the nearest shortcut.

3. ... BUT DON’T GET TOO USED TO THEM.

“They’re always changing,” says Paul Robertson, who worked for 10 years at IKEA Canada. “They used to change them fairly frequently because we had a lot of repeat business, so customers would get familiar with the shortcuts and know how to zip through. After a while they would change the shortcuts to force people to go around the long way again.”

4. THE WALLS MOVE.

Shoppers look at merchandise at a Ikea store in Paramus, New Jersey
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

According to Paula, the partitions that enclose IKEA’s various showrooms are on rollers and can be moved. “They have a lock on them so people can’t randomly move them,” Paula says. “At the end of the night we move all the walls out of the way so we have a straight shot to where the trash is.” This also makes it easier to remodel the display rooms.

5. CUSTOMERS SOMETIMES BUY ENTIRE ROOMS.

Speaking of the display rooms, occasionally customers will decide they like an entire room so much, they’ll order it as-is. “There have been people that come in and see a room and like everything there and they take it,” Paula says.

6. THERE'S AN “OPEN THE WALLET” SECTION.

Customers at a check-out line in IKEA
NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images

IKEA stores are littered with piles of small, practical items that are so cheap they’re hard to pass up. These areas are called the “Open The Wallet” sections. “There, an abundance of cheap goods—flowerpots, slippers, lint rollers—encourages the customer to make a purchase, any purchase, the thinking being that IKEA shoppers buy either nothing or a lot,” Collins writes.

According to Rob, a two-year IKEA veteran, this area was located at the bottom of the stairs on the second floor at his store. “It’s basically impulse buys,” he says. “It’s a lot of very cheap items, things that look practical, useful, something you didn’t realize you wanted.” The next thing you know you’re shoving five packs of tea candles and a bunch of plastic hangers into your yellow shopping bag, when all you really came in for was a desk lamp.

7. THERE'S A REASON THEY PILE THOSE BINS SO HIGH.

Another method for getting people to add things to their bags is known internally as the “bulla bulla” technique. Big bins are stuffed to the point of overflowing with hundreds of items “to create the impression of volume and, therefore, inexpensiveness,” according to Collins.

“One of the big things is the sort of jumbo bin, they love that,” says Robertson. “If stock starts running low there, fill it back up. Pile it high. Customers think they’re getting a deal.”

8. YES, YOU CAN NAP ON THE FURNITURE ...

People nap at an IKEA store in China
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The displays are meant to be touched, tested, and experienced. If you want to curl up on an IKEA couch or sprawl out on the bed, go for it. “You are allowed to sit on the beds,” says Paula, “but if you’ve been there for two or three hours, we have to wake you up.”

This is a particularly well-documented phenomenon in China, where shoppers have been photographed snoozing all over the showroom. “We don’t see it as a problem,” IKEA spokesman Josefin Thorell told the Wall Street Journal. “We’re happy people feel at home in our stores. Certainly, it entails a little extra work for the staff, purely practically. But on the other hand, if customers try out our furniture and like it, we can sell an extra mattress or two.”

9. ... BUT YOU PROBABLY DON’T WANT TO.

According to Jana, an IKEA employee in Texas, the pillows on the display beds get swapped out once a month at her store, and the pillowcases only get changed when they are visibly dirty. The same goes for blankets and duvet covers. “I changed a bunch of duvet covers yesterday because from people touching the same corner every day, it looked dingy,” she says. “If we see something and think it looks gross, it needs to be changed.”

10. THEY WISH YOU’D STOP OPENING THINGS.

Customers inspect goods at an IKEA
NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images

“Customers will open anything and everything,” says Jana. “Everything in that store, we have on display. You can touch it, feel it, lay your face on it, but for some reason they’ll open the package and then leave it there. What they don’t understand is when they open certain things, we can’t resell them, so we have to scan them out.”

11. THEY’RE TRAINED NOT TO OFFER HELP.

If you’re the passive-aggressive type of shopper, you’re bound to be disappointed at IKEA. Employees are given specific instructions to let the customers come to them if they need assistance. “You were supposed to only help customers if they asked you for it,” says Rob. “We were told that’s a very Scandinavian way of how stores work.” The same rule applies in the warehouse, where customers are expected to find and lift their own items unless it’s obvious they need assistance.

12. THE BOOKS IN THE SHOWROOM OFTEN COME FROM EMPLOYEES’ OWN LIBRARIES.

IKEA’s sample rooms often feature towering bookshelves, but empty shelves aren’t particularly inviting. So, employees are asked to bring books from their own collection to fill the blank space. “All of that was stuff we owned,” Rob says. Usually they were asked to bring books that matched a certain color scheme. And you couldn’t bring in anything racy. “You had to use your common sense,” Rob says. “Nothing pornographic or anything.”

13. THE MOST POPULAR ITEMS ARE …

The BILLY bookcase and the LACK table. The POÄNG chair, MALM bed, KALLAX shelving units, RENS sheepskin rug, and EKTORP sofa are some of the other top picks.

14. THE SERIAL NUMBERS CAN TELL YOU A LOT.

According to Robertson, there’s some rhyme and reason to the eight-digit code linked to each IKEA item. “While I was there, it was that the last two numbers would tell you what color the item was. So let’s say it ended in 40, it was blue. That would mean the 4 range was blue, so 41 might be light blue and 42 would be dark blue.”

Many of the names have meaning, too. According to Collins, “traditionally, the names of IKEA’s bookcases derive from different occupations; curtains are given names from mathematics; and bathroom products are named for lakes and rivers.”

15. THEY WITNESS A LOT OF ARGUMENTS.

“If you really wanna test your relationship, go through IKEA and buy something,” says Jana. “I guess they just get stressed and overwhelmed that the store’s so big. I had a couple trying to make a decision on a rug and he was mad and she was on verge of tears. Then we were out of the rug they wanted, which made it even worse.”

Lovers' quarrels are so common in the store that at least one psychologist told the Wall Street Journal she has her bickering clients construct the NORNÄS coffee table as a relationship-building exercise. Janice Simonsen, design spokeswoman for IKEA U.S., also told the paper she spent five years as a furnishings consultant and created a list of guidelines specifically for couples planning a trip to the store.

16. THEY SPEAK IN CODE.

People look at chairs in a South Korean IKEA
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

When “Code 22” comes over the intercom, it’s a distress call from the cash lanes. “We usually hear it around rush hour or on weekends,” says Jana. “It means the cash lanes are backed up into the warehouse. Anyone in the store who is register-trained has to go to the front and help.”

If a lost kid is wandering the store (which happens a lot), Jana says managers use “Code 99” to put all employees on alert. “There are so many wardrobes to hide in or bed skirts to hide under,” says Marie. “If a kid really wanted to be hidden it would not be too hard.”

17. THINGS GET WILD AFTER HOURS.

“At the end of night, they’d open all the walls and we’d have a big empty space and there would be pallet jack races,” Paula recalls.

And there’s perhaps no better place to play hide-and-seek than in a massive, multiple-story maze stuffed with nooks and crannies. “On closing shifts, one guy I worked with would always manage to have me distracted, then he’d go hide in the store,” says Robertson. “So I would have to finish up tasks, walk through the store knowing somewhere along the way he would jump out at me, and he got me all the time.”

18. THEY GET GREAT CHRISTMAS GIFTS.

IKEA is known for having good employee perks, including its end-of-year gifts, which range from electronics to plane tickets. “The first year I worked there they gave out bikes,” says Rob. “This year they gave out Rokus.” Paula says her store gave employees who had been specially recognized by their coworkers the chance to win plane tickets to anywhere in the world.

19. PINTEREST DRIVES SALES.

Employees can tell when an item has been featured in a viral Pinterest project because it sells out quickly. “There was one specific spice rack we were constantly sold out of,” says Paula. “Someone had gone on Pinterest and said you can paint it and make it a bookshelf for picture books for toddlers. We had to tell people, ‘If you’re here for the spice rack, we don’t have it.’” (For reference, it’s called the BEKVÄM spice rack.)

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

13 Secrets of Obituary Writers

iStock
iStock

When Chicago Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell sits down to assess the lives of the recently departed, she feels less like a journalist and more like a historian. “I sometimes feel like I’m a frustrated history teacher,” she tells Mental Floss. “I get to teach a lesson every day and share it with readers.”

Unlike death notices, which only recite basic facts about the deceased, or funeral eulogies, which offer impassioned remembrances from loved ones, obituaries are a written memorial of a person’s legacy published for the world to see. Instead of dwelling on death they celebrate life, from the most recognizable celebrity to the quietest neighbor. They prove that almost everyone has a story to tell, and it’s sometimes only after a passing that people realize exactly how a person has left their mark in the world.

O’Donnell recalls a 2010 death notice for a Montana resident named Jim Cole, which mentioned his interest in photographing grizzly bears. Only after excavating details of his life did she realize Cole is the only person in North America to survive two grizzly attacks, 14 years apart. “They called him Grizzly Jim,” she says. “He wore an eyepatch because the second attack left him without an eye.” (Cole died of natural, not wildlife-related, causes at age 60.)

For more on how obituary writers approach the delicate art of human posterity, we asked several of them—including O’Donnell—to tell us about their work. Here’s what they had to say about a life spent covering death.

1. THEY LOOK FOR THE “ROSEBUD” MOMENT.

John Pope, who writes for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and assembled a book of obituaries, Getting Off at Elysian Fields, says that the goal of his work is to discover the “Rosebud” moment of an individual’s life. (That's a reference to the 1941 film Citizen Kane, and the desire of a reporter to define the mysterious dying word uttered by wealthy business magnate Kane.) “I look for ‘Rosebud,’ what makes a person tick,” he says. “When you talk to relatives, they talk about how he loved family, how he loved life, but you need to keep going and dig deeper.”

In 2009, Pope was tasked with profiling William Terral, a beloved pediatrician and gardening hobbyist. While the former was a noble career, Pope found his real jewel in the fact that Terral was once so struck by the bag of plasma separated from his blood during a medical procedure that he took it home, hung it from an IV hook, and pumped the liquid into the ground to see if it would help his garden grow. “His hibiscus flourished,” Pope says. So did his obituary.

2. IT’S ACTUALLY A PRETTY UPLIFTING JOB.

The stereotype of obituary writers toiling under the shadow of death, constantly aware of the fragile nature of life, isn’t exactly accurate. According to Pope, some family members have such fond memories of the deceased that talking to them can provoke a lot of amusement. “With Edward ‘Bud Rip’ Ripoll, a saloonkeeper, I had to ask his daughter to stop because I was laughing so hard and the stories were so good,” he says. (Ripoll was a Budweiser fan, and his urn was inscribed with the dedication, “This Bud’s for you.”)

O’Donnell describes it as “uplifting” work. “You’re frequently writing about people who made a difference in the world, large or small. The end of life is always sorrowful, but with someone like Mary White, who lived to be 93 and started the La Leche League [to normalize public breastfeeding] in her living room that now has tens of millions of members across the globe, that’s inspiring.”

3. THEY SOMETIMES KNOW WHEN DEATH IS IMMINENT.

Yellow flowers sit on top of a coffin
iStock

Obituary writers have all kinds of information channels when it comes to mortality. Funeral homes may call to notify them; death notices in their paper or in another might provide a clue that a lesser-known person’s life is worth investigating further. Or they may simply be tipped off that the end is near. “For Barbara Harris, who was a founding member of Second City, one of my co-workers heard she was ill,” O’Donnell says. “I was able to prepare the obituary in advance, so when the time came, there was something comprehensive for readers available.”

Other times, that information can be a little off. When an editor was sure a prominent celebrity was going to die, Pope was told to prepare a lengthy obituary. “It was Paul Prudhomme, a chef who a line editor was convinced was going to launch to glory at any moment," Pope says. “He died 27 years later.”

4. THEY NEED TO BE READY FOR AN EMOTIONAL DELUGE.

Mike Bodine, who writes for the Sheet in Mammoth Lakes, California, says that an obituary writer will often be the first person a relative of the deceased has spoken to in depth about a loved one’s passing. “They can be really distraught,” he says. “It’s a matter of waiting it out while people just let their heart out. You can’t always use what they’re saying, but just listening and being patient can help open people up. It can feel a little bit like handling the body itself. You don’t want to push people.”

5. THEY CAN GET CAUGHT UP IN FAMILY SQUABBLES.

Phoning family members to collect memories of the recently deceased can be a sobering experience. Bodine says that children of the deceased can sometimes try to use an obituary to vent about personal vendettas. “When someone has passed and a lot of money and kids are involved, it can turn into animosity,” he says. “Someone will say a sibling is screwing them over on money. It’s just distortion you have to wade through.”

6. FAMILIES CAN GET UPSET AT THEM.

While an obituary writer’s job is to celebrate life, that doesn't mean they exclude the less-flattering components. When he was writing about a local politician, Pope discovered that he had once been to prison for misappropriating campaign funds. When he mentioned that in the obituary, the man’s daughter phoned in an uproar. “She asked why we were doing that. I told her it was because it was the truth.”

O’Donnell has had similar experiences. “Unfortunately, in Chicago, a lot of politicians have been investigated and convicted of corruption," she says. "It gets reported at the time it happened and readers would have known about it. It would be a disingenuous, fraud obituary if you didn’t include it.”

7. OTHER TIMES, PEOPLE LIE.

Family members may also omit certain facts. Because obituaries are perceived as the last word on many people, relatives and friends sometimes lean into the idea it should be a hagiography. “With [socialite] Mickey Easterling, no one was going to tell me her age,” Pope says. “I had to cite public records, which I’ve never had to do before.” On another occasion, the deceased’s loved ones refused to inform Pope that a suicide had occurred. He found out the truth months later, after listing the cause of death as “undetermined” in the obituary.

8. IT’S BETTER TO DIE ON CERTAIN DAYS THAN OTHERS.

A death certificate sits on top of a table
iStock

If you want a well-read obituary, try to die on a Friday. According to Pope, people who expire that day of the week are more likely to be targeted for inclusion in the Sunday edition of the paper, which affords more space and more time for the obituary writer to do a thorough job. “Dying on a Friday will get you more play on a Sunday,” he says. Holidays are also ill-advised times to make an exit, as reporters with dedicated beats (politics, movies, sports) aren’t usually around to assist in reporting notable deaths in those fields, and readership is down.

While you'd think the dying and their associates would have more pressing issues, sometimes they prioritize that recognition: In 1936, King George V's physician injected the monarch with enough morphine and cocaine to hasten his death in time for the next morning's papers, rather than the less-desirable evening editions.

9. PEOPLE CAN BE A LITTLE NERVOUS AROUND THEM.

When an obituary writer becomes well-known in the community, their very presence can portend bad news. If Pope needs to phone someone for any reason other than someone’s passing, he’ll sometimes begin the call by saying, “It’s Pope. No one died.”

That slight unease can work both ways. Once, Pope walked into a social gathering where three people whose obituaries he had already written and banked for future use were standing. “I just kind of stopped,” he says.

10. THEY GET INVITED TO FUNERALS.

Obituaries are often treasured by families who appreciate how a writer has summarized and memorialized the deceased. Sometimes, that gratitude can extend to invitations to come to the funeral. “That happens with some frequency,” O’Donnell says. “I went to the services for a rock concert roadie, who I didn’t know, but he worked a lot of rock concerts I went to the in 1970s. I met a lot of people there who went to the same concerts.”

Other times, they’ll be dispatched to cover the funeral for the purposes of writing a piece. “I went to Al Copeland’s funeral, the founder of Popeyes Chicken,” Pope says. “There were 24 white Bentleys, a horse-drawn hearse, and a band playing ‘My Way.’” The solemn music continued until the procession reached the grave, at which point they broke into “Love That Chicken From Popeyes.”

11. CERTAIN PHRASES CAN ANNOY THEM.

Work the death beat long enough and certain recurring phrases begin to wear on a writer’s patience. Pope dislikes using the term the late to precede a decedent’s name. “What’s the point?” he says. “Can we get over that?” He also dislikes funeral service because “it’s redundant,” and avoids using “natural causes” as the reason for a death whenever possible, because it's non-specific. "Always get the cause of death," he says.

12. SOME PEOPLE USE OBITS TO TAKE REVENGE.

A highlighter is run over the word 'revenge'
iStock

O’Donnell says she's struck by the more contemporary practice of “revenge” obituaries, which are penned by family members and tend to criticize their departed relative for allegations relating to abuse or other personal reasons that have prompted a vendetta. Pope recalls a time when a widow sent in a death notice to his paper claiming her late husband’s law firm had sent him to an early grave. “We spent a day with lawyers de-fanging it,” he says.

13. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN AWARDS SHOW CALLED “THE GRIMMYS.”

Acting as a kind of unofficial trade organization, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers invites devotees of the dead to exchange information on their work and attend functions like ObitCon. Each year, awards—known as the Grimmys—are awarded for best long- and short-form obituaries, as well as for lifetime achievement. The trophy resembles a tombstone. “I was nominated last year,” Pope says.

11 Secrets of Tour Directors

iStock
iStock

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.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER