The Captain and The Friend: Being a Leader on Tour

Activities, Expert Advice


Leading a group tour means wearing many different hats. One minute you’re handling logistics, then communication with the driver and vendors, then you’re telling jokes and entertaining your fellow travelers. All of these hats are necessary to ensure everyone’s having a great time, which is the ultimate goal of a vacation.

In other words, you as the tour organizer or leader need to have multiple personalities. Different situations demand that you act differently, to ensure the overall tour experience is smooth and enjoyable.

I call these two personalities the Captain and the Friend.

In over a decade of training thousands of tour leaders, I believe understanding this fundamental distinction can save you a lot of on-tour headaches.

The Friend

It’s pretty easy to imagine what Friend Mode looks like. If you’ve ever taken a group tour, that’s hopefully what you remember about your tour leader. They were knowledgeable and entertaining, while taking care of the group’s needs. If you’ve led a tour, this should be the most enjoyable part of the experience: creating a wonderful connection between yourself, your fellow travelers, and experiences you share together.

Friend mode is work, too. While having your own downtime is important, sometimes you should spend longer motor coach rides “working the bus,” having individual or small group conversations and checking with the entire bus as you move back. Don’t forget, there’s a natural bias to only interact with the travelers near the front of the bus, so walk back and have a seat in the back for a little bit, and just chat.

Rather than always obsessing about itinerary logistics and organizing (which are important), always remember how your guests are feeling, first. That’s what being a good friend is all about. As Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” A well-oiled tour can still be uninspiring if you haven’t done the work creating a connection.

Stepping into Captain Mode

It would be wonderful if your only job was to be a friend on tour. But we all know that’s not the case. There are many crucial moments where you need to be a strong, decisive leader. Or, as I call it, Captain Mode.

You wear your Captain’s hat when it’s important the whole group should be paying attention, and aware of the gravity of the moment. And it’s important that your travelers know you have this mode in you, so they respect it when they see it! I’ve seen too many tour leaders become so friendly, that travelers think demands are requests, and I’ve seen drivers not respect what a guide has to say. They get steamrolled by people who may like them, but don’t respect them.

How do you be a tour leader?

Simply put, a captain is captivating. They capture everyone’s attention by being a commanding presence. (I’ve even seen tour guides bring along an actual captain’s hat, so their group knows when they mean business.)

Some other ways to signal that your group needs to take what you’re saying seriously include:

  • Increase the volume of your voice, and take on a sharper, more authoritative tone.
  • If you’re on the shorter side, find a “perch” where you can stand above the group.
  • Use your arms to make larger, wide gestures that allow you to virtually take up more space.
  • Make eye contact with everyone.
  • Make sure you have silence before you start talking.

These are small indications to your travelers that right now, in this moment, you’re not their friend. It’s definitely not time to interrupt you, or to ignore you, or joke around and treat what’s to come as casual information.

Be Careful!

Being the Captain at specific times is crucial, or your tour can get derailed. But be careful: being too authoritative all the time, without also bonding with your guests, can distance you from the group and alienate people. Your endless take-charge attitude can be viewed as too aggressive for a vacation. They’ll see you only as an authoritarian presence. So, remember to switch into friend mode, ask questions of your travelers. Simply ask how they’re doing, or ask them to share something about their life. And remember, above all, that all tours are always somewhat imperfect. People are late. Drivers get lost. Travelers forget every instruction you give them, because their brains are in vacation mode. Be forgiving of humans being … humans.


Mitch is the co-founder of TripSchool [], a learning organization that helps tour guides, tour operators and other travel professionals grow their skills and pursue their travel career dreams. TripSchool offers courses ranging from tour technology to storytelling and guide certifications. Mitch has worked in the group travel industry for 20 years, since his days as a tour guide in Paris, France. Today he is an international speaker, author, tour guide trainer, and consultant for the group tour industry.

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