Ellen Levitt tour guide

How to Lead Guided Tours as a Hobby or an Encore Career

If you enjoy going on tours, you might enjoy creating and leading tours. This activity is a fine opportunity for people who are retired, working part-time, or who want to do something educational and sociable on the side. Teachers, librarians, archivists, architects, docents, and journalists gravitate to this but you may have many years of expertise in a field or know a certain neighborhood quite well, and this could be a good fit for you.

Tours offer a chance to see things with the added commentary and assistance of a knowledgeable leader who has done background research on the place or overall topic. Walking and biking tours also give people a chance for some exercise, while bus tours are good for covering more ground.

Decide whether or not you are you giving tours for free (for a family or friends, for instance) or to earn money. Find out what the going rate is for tours in your area. Are you giving a tour for family or friends, a school group or club to which you belong? Consult a few people for suggestions of places to visit, to milk the nostalgic value. Will you set up advance enrollment for your tours, or a just-show-up policy? If people are paying, do you want cash only or will you accept checks and even credit cards? If you have Square or PayPal apps, you can use those for payment.

I have mapped out and conducted tours for the past four years. The experience has been lots of fun, giving me chances to learn while doing research and speaking with participants. Doing tours is an incentive for me to bike and walk more as well, although sometimes my feet ache after walking tours, and a few times I panicked when a participant asked a tough question, or when we encountered bad traffic and had to change plans on the spot. Being a tour guide can keep you on your toes!

How to go about doing this? First, think about tours you have joined; what you liked and disliked about them, how you would improve upon them. Are you good at speaking in front of a group and making small talk? If so, guiding could work out well for you. (If not, but wish to try your hand at tours, practice your speech skills.)

Do you need a license to conduct tours in your city or town? Find out. In New York City, for example, you need a license and there is a multiple choice test to take. In New York City there is the DCAS agency that is in charge of such licensing. Go online to find out the requirements of your region.

Do you want to work with an established tour group or go out on your own? I have done both, and each has pros and cons. Look into tour companies (businesses and non-profit groups) in your region, and contact them about possibilities. I have given tours for a New York City group called the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, both for school groups and adults, after I contacted them and sat for an interview with the women who run it. But I have also run tours on my own, promoting them on a Facebook page geared toward a specialty topic. Use social media sites to reach potential customers and groups. Facebook nostalgia pages and Twitter feeds are especially good to target. If you are interested in leading tours in a museum or a park, contact the office and see if they have such a need.

If you give a tour for a particular business or non-profit group, they may want you to follow a pre-made tour of their devising. This can be easier for you but also restricting if you wish to give a tour tailored to your expertise. If you are the author of a book or write a newspaper column or web blog, people might contact you about giving a tour based upon your topic. That is how I initially got into giving tours, when a rabbi emailed me about leading a bus tour based on a book I wrote, The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens.

Certain tools can help you map out a feasible itinerary. A cell phone mapping application or in particular, Google Maps, can be invaluable. Figure out which places you want to visit along your route and then plot them out by using “My Maps” and the “Create or Open a Map” function.

Will you visit inside various buildings, or merely stand in front and speak about them? You have to figure out a mix that would hold the interest of participants. Sometimes you will need permission to get inside certain buildings; there may be restrictions based on the size of your group.

There are various factors that can impact a tour, and you may not have control over them all. Typically, I set up and advertise tours a few weeks in advance to accommodate my schedule; but I do not know the precise weather that much in advance. I regret to say that a few times no one showed up to my tours because there was rain earlier in the day.

Will your tour date or time conflict with something popular, such as a major parade in the area? You may want to select a different date. My first bus tour, in the Bronx, New York City, conflicted with a parade on a major street (the Grand Concourse). On the spot, I reworked part of the tour, jettisoning two locations for a different one that was more accessible. Your tour may come up against a car accident, burst pipes on a street, or other woes. You have to be flexible and make the best of it.

Overall I have greatly enjoyed making and leading tours, and I have joined tours given by semi-retired adults who relished the sociable, educational part-time work involved. One described the experience as “conducting a fun open-air lesson,” and that is fitting.

Image: Ellen Levitt, second from left, after leading a tour for the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy in New York City.

Ellen Levitt is a veteran New York City public school teacher, as well as a freelance writer. Among her books is Walking Manhattan from www.wildernesspress.com . She holds a first-degree black belt in the Tora Dojo Association style of karate, and has taught children’s and women’s classes. She is a lifelong resident of Brooklyn.


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