Photo by dctourism on Flickr.

Tourism, and the consequent presence of tourists, is a way of life in Washington, DC. But what does the perennial tourist swarm look like from the other side: the tour guide’s point of view?

One of the most persistent complaints, both from DC residents and visitors, are about tour buses and the accompanying congestion. A recent letter by Senator Webb (D-VA) criticized congestion caused in part by the buses, as well as the accompanied decrease in the quality of our visitors’ experience.

The discussion on Greater Greater Washington revealed how the nuts and bolts of my daily experience as a tour guide, the little tricks and travails I take for granted, are not well known. Therefore, let’s examine how the student tour of Washington works.

I don’t do this to excuse the rough spots of my industry, but rather to explain where we are today. No one would like to see improvements in the system more than I, but we need to understand the landscape, if you will, before examining proposals for systematic improvement.

The lion’s share of my business is the student group. Most often these are eighth graders, studying American History and tying it in with a trip to DC. It’s easy to be cynical about them (and oh do they provide fodder for that!), but by and large these kids are enthusiastic to be here, interested in what they’re seeing, and ready to learn things and have a good time. Don’t worry, we beat that out of ‘em.

Depending on how far they’re coming from, and how much they can pay, the group will either fly in to a local airport or be driven in on a bus, er, excuse me, a “motor coach.” Except for local schools coming on day trips, next to no groups use their own school buses. The coach is driven by a professional driver, with a Commercial Drivers License (CDL), and most of them know their way around DC and are well versed on the patchwork of rules and regulations in Washington.

While a handful of drivers are licensed guides, and a small number of groups get by without a guide, most groups hire a licensed DC guide to show them around town. The guide will either be a “step on,” meeting the group in the morning and leaving at night, or an “over the road,” staying with the group at the hotel for the duration of the stay.

While a guide is expected to provide commentary on the things we see in DC (I don’t shut up for four days), the real utility of our work is dealing with the logistics of getting up to 55 kids, teachers, and chaperones into and out of DC attractions. Can you take bottled water into the Capitol? (No.) Can you take pictures at the Archives? (Not any more.) Where’s the bathroom at the Holocaust Memorial Museum? (Downstairs.)

It’s a thousand and one questions like this that keep me hopping. Visitors are impressed with the knowledge I display, but I imagine many readers here could match me on that. It’s the little things that if I do my job properly a tour group will never notice that’s the hard part of my job.

Back to our group. They have arrived in DC. I’ve jumped on board. They’re pumped, I’m ready to show them the sights, what’s next? This is where we hit up the most important tool we have: the itinerary. The itinerary is the spine of a tour. It provides structure and support yet allowing flexibility to allow free movement. Well, a good one is. Sadly, many (most?) of my itineraries are lacking in the flexibility department.

Tours aren’t quite commodities, but companies have a hard time differentiating themselves. The buses and guides are largely independent contractors, so we’re available for hire to anyone that wants us. While I do develop a relationship with a few companies, there isn’t enough permanence to allow a company to use me (because I am awesome) and other good guides to differentiate themselves from other companies. And hey, everyone says they hire the best guides in their sales pitches.

Nor can they really break themselves out in the hotels and restaurants. How much a group is willing to spend is far more of a determining factor than which company they hire. And let’s face it, there’s only so many places to eat for a group in DC. I’ve eaten at Hard Rock, Buca di Beppo, and Pizzeria Uno more times than I can count (or want to). So what’s left?

To make themselves different, tour companies promise groups the world. In your time in DC, you will see the Capitol, the White House, Arlington Cemetery, and all the Memorials. In the morning. Flipping through my itineraries from this season I found a few of these gems:

  • 11:00 lunch at Reagan Building, 12:15 Capitol appointment.
  • Or: 2:30 Capitol appointment, 5:00 dinner, 8:00 Sheer Madness at the Kennedy Center, return to the hotel (in Alexandria) before dinner.
  • And my personal favorite: 9:00 Holocaust Memorial Museum, 10: Visit the Smithsonian (guess what time the Holocaust opens).

Nothing brightens up a tour guides day than to compare notes and find you have the least realistic itinerary.

But tour companies aren’t just the only complicit ones here. The customer often judges the quality of their visit with how much they can see in their time here. I’m certainly not going to tell them they’re wrong; everyone places value as they see fit. Sometimes, especially in the last few years, you have groups trying to save money by reducing a four day trip to three or such. And sadly, all to often, you find the “these kids will never come back to DC” reasoning from well-meaning teachers of underprivileged kids.

But whoever is at fault, and I’m not interested in laying blame, the end result is more often than not a packed itinerary that leaves little time to relax. It’s not unusual to be at breakfast at 7 am and be returning to the hotel at 10:30 pm. We keep these kids hopping and wear them out. We also have no room for delay. This means while I sympathize with my fellow residents, I’m on a mission.

I will push my visitors like a driver on a runaway stagecoach to get them in line at, say, the Archives, trampling women and small children to get there. I will overwhelm the food courts of DC with my herd because I only have thirty minutes for lunch. And yes, I will do things with a bus that will leave commuters fuming in rage for miles back.

But let me confess my bus sins in another post…

Cross-posted at DC Like a Local.

Tim Krepp is an author and tour guide, living and specializing in Washington, DC, but working throughout the east coast. A resident of the more fashionable east side of Capitol Hill, Tim has lived in Washington, DC since graduating from George Washington University a few decades ago.