In many ways, an outbound tour leader appears to have a truly enviable job. He or she is paid to travel around the world, meets people of diverse nationalities, learns about interesting cultures and can savour the unique cuisines of different countries. As in most jobs, however, there is balance. For all the good things, there is a corresponding down side, and there can certainly be days when the problems far outweigh the benefits.
Just imagine having to wake up at 5am to reconfirm local tour schedules, ensuring group members catch their flights, missing out on family life in order to lead tours during public holidays, and routinely having to put in long working hours while suffering from jet lag.
"The kind of travelling we do is not for fun," says Evan Wong, a branch manager for Miramar Express. "There are many responsibilities to shoulder and you must be knowledgeable about wherever you are visiting. It is important to be patient when dealing with members of the tour group and to handle any crisis quickly and independently. Therefore, you have to be on top form both physically and mentally to do the job well."
Ms Wong became an outbound tour leader in the early 1990s. On a previous holiday, she had visited Korea and returned with many happy memories. She had also been so impressed by the performance and level of service offered by the tour leader that she decided to become one herself.
Starting from scratch, she began as a branch assistant doing ticketing and clerical work, before moving on to lead short tours to Guangzhou and Southeast Asia. After about four years, she became assistant branch manager and took on more management responsibilities, which led to her appointment as branch manager this year. She now manages about 10 staff, ensuring they reach sales targets and keep colleagues informed of new tour itineraries. As part of their training, regular role-plays are organised to show them how to deal with different types of client. Ms Wong also continues to lead a couple of tours every year in order to keep in touch with customer needs.
One of the biggest challenges she has faced was after the chaotic opening of Chek Lap Kok airport in 1998. The tour she was leading was stranded in Hainan Island and unable to get a flight back to Hong Kong. Ms Wong was unfairly held responsible by some of her group and had to scramble for tickets to get everyone on a flight home. Afterwards, they thanked her, but she remembers it as a very acrimonious incident.
She firmly believes in the old Chinese saying that it is better to walk ten thousand miles than to study ten thousand books, and this explains why she still gets a great deal of job satisfaction. "After travelling to so many countries, I have learned a lot and become more mature and independent," she says.
Anyone hoping to become a tour leader must have completed Form Five and have the appropriate licence from the Travel Industry Council (TIC), which conducts training courses. The Vocational Training Council and the University of Hong Kong offer similar programmes. Ms Wong says that, when hiring, she considers personality before qualifications. "A tour leader deals with many people every day so must be mature, outgoing and have excellent communication skills," she explains. University graduates tend to have stronger language skills which help them to advance more quickly to management roles.
Without experience and the relevant industry licence, recruits can start as counter sales staff with a monthly income of up to HK$8,000 including commission. After obtaining a licence from the TIC, they can lead short-haul tours and earn between HK$10,000 - 20,000 a month including commission. Once they have at least five years' experience and have passed an internal company examination, they can be promoted to escort guide with monthly salary and commission of up to HK$30,000. At that point, their responsibilities will include leading long-haul tours to North America and Europe, and handling all arrangements for hotels, restaurants and transportation. As an escort guide, it is also essential to be fully informed about the destination country's culture and customs.
Further promotion usually involves a switch to more administrative duties and product development. Junior staff who prefer to work in an office-based role can work their way up in four steps from counter sales to branch manager.
With the recovery of the local economy and with so many countries keen to promote themselves as tourist destinations, Ms Wong believes the prospects for outbound tour leaders are promising. Over the past six months, Miramar Express has opened three additional travel agency branches to meet market demand. She also hopes that the government will work to secure visa-free access to more countries to make it easier for Hong Kong people to travel.
Duties of tour leader
- An outbound tour leader's duties are diverse and leave
little time for relaxation
- It is essential to be well informed, outgoing and able
to handle any potential crisis
- More experienced staff lead long-haul tours and must oversee
all bookings and group travel arrangements
- With a stronger economy, industry prospects are good and
more tours based around themes are likely to be introduced