Tauck People: Directors, Guides and Teachers
By David CogswellMoments after Tauck’s driver dropped me off at the Gallery Hotel Art in Florence, I heard someone speaking to me from behind. “Hi, I’m Florence.” I turned to see the radiant smile of a woman who sparkled with enthusiasm. After 14 hours of airplanes and airports my mind was dulled to the point of stupor and it spun for a moment on the fact that my tour director in Florence was named Florence. It seemed like the ultimate branding exercise.
Florence Hory was the tour director of the Tauck Culturious program Tuscany and Cinque Terre. The tour director is bar none the most important person when you’re on a tour. It’s a truly awesome responsibility and I have always marveled at the work of a competent tour director. The tour director is the CEO of the tour, the one with whom the buck really stops. Of course she has the total backing of the tour operator organization, and that is her power in reserve. But on the ground she is in charge. She is what makes it go. She coordinates it, and keeps 20 people moving harmoniously through a complex program.
Every tour operator knows that in their business the tour director is where the rubber meets the road. No matter how much planning and experience are built into a tour product, it is the tour director that makes or breaks it in practice. There is no other investment that is as important to a tour operator as that of the tour director.
In a similar way, but to a lesser degree, the quality of the local guides and the teachers is also of paramount importance in creating a great experience for clients. After all, a tour operator makes it on return business. There are no tour operators making it on one-off business. The tour operator’s biggest challenge is getting the message out to people who have never experienced an escorted tour. When they win a customer, they want to keep it.
On the Culturious tour I learned quickly that one of the primary keys to Tauck’s long-running success is its understanding of the fact that the tour experience ultimately comes down to the people on the ground who actually meet the clients and work for them to facilitate a great vacation. The company focuses most of its investment dollars on staff. Tauck is one of the few operators that hires its tour directors as full time employees with benefits. In Europe, it is difficult to adapt the benefits package because Europeans don’t have Social Security numbers. But the point is Tauck recognizes that if it wants its clients well taken care of, leading to return business, it must invest in quality ground staff. I was aware of Tauck’s employment policies before, but this was the first time I had seen the result in practice.
It first struck me with Florence, the tour director. And then as I began to meet Tauck’s local representatives, it was confirmed. We had a star-studded cast. Florence, who was with us from beginning to end, definitely had star quality. Every one of the guests would say the same. She said that for her tour directing was like being on stage. She performed with the glee of a child actress who has just discovered the thrill of audience appreciation. She worked as a model until she was 42. One of her last photo shoots became part of a massive ad campaign that put her face on billboards in airports and all over Italy. But modeling, she said, is “a dumb job.” She much prefers the job of tour director, which engages the whole person, not just the physical image.
Like many in her line of work, Florence is a true international. She was born in Strassbourg, France, that place that is both French and German. Her father was from Switzerland, her mother from a village near Venice. She speaks French, English, German, Italian and Spanish, as well as some Greek and Arabic.
The local guides that you meet in each city on an escorted tour have to go through rigorous processes to become licensed, including passing lengthy exams. “After that is when the real study begins,” Christiane Menzen, our guide for Lucca, told me. “You have to be able to answer all the questions your clients will come up with.”
Beyond the accreditation there is a broad latitude among guides in terms of their orientation, languages, special expertise, personality, leadership abilities and talent as presenters. Our guide for our walking tour of Florence, Valentina Melani, has a Ph D in art history. It’s the perfect qualification for a guide in Florence, which is the avocado of cities for art historians, the ultimate aesthetic experience. From our hotel near the Ponte Vecchio bridge, most of the major historical highlights of the Renaissance city were within a few blocks walk.
Valentina gave us a quick survey of the area, tying in the sights with their historical significance and providing the background for what we were seeing. She also provided tips for how to get around when the walking tour was over, where to find the best shopping, how to find the places people wanted to visit on their own.
We started our second morning in Florence with a lecture on Michelangelo by Elaine Ruffolo, a professor of art history for 20 years at Syracuse University in Florence. A gifted lecturer in full command of her subject, she dove right into an anecdotal and visual presentation of Michelangelo’s life that made him as real for us as the boy next door.
To set the stage for understanding Michelangelo and the Renaissance, she began with Medicis, the banking family who secured the Pope as a client. With his fortune in hand and a comfortable one-year float, they lent it out at 27 percent interest rates, becoming so wealthy and powerful that they ran the show in Florence. But to expiate the sin of usury, they paid for good works, in effect financing the Renaissance. Professor Ruffolo’s 50-minute lecture was riveting.
When we hiked near the village of Fiesole on the outskirts of Florence, our guide was Birgit Ensslin, a long-time Tauck associate. Originally from Germany, Birgit worked for many years as a tour director for Tauck in the U.S. Now she works as a local guide in Italy, and she helped in the creation of our itinerary. It was Birgit who trained Florence to lead the tour. The word going round was that Birgit is such a serious adventurer that she is one of few who have actually been to the base camp at Mount Everest.
All the guides were remarkable in their own ways, each adding immensely to the experience. It’s an example of a kind of quality that cannot be adequately shown in brochures. In fact, those reading brochure descriptions and comparing prices will miss most of the features that justify the higher cost of a Tauck tour over many others. -- David Cogswell