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In Tour Conducting, Glamour Takes a Back Seat

October 16, 1987|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

In his full-disclosure class on tour conducting, Marc Mancini reminds his students that along with describing the Great Pyramid, they may also have to deal with Death on the Nile. In Mancini's 24 years as a tour conductor, he's had several elderly passengers die during excursions, including one who quietly stopped breathing in the seat of a moving bus.

If that doesn't trash at least half the glamour imagined to fill the lives of globe-trotting tour escorts, Mancini mentions that he once supervised a group that got stuck in an outside glass elevator in an observation tower 500 feet above Niagara Falls. And for those who still think tour directing is a fun way to see the world for free and get paid for it, he outlines several other scenarios: the tour to Tahiti in which five participants contracted an exotic fever, the time he was intentionally locked in the luggage compartment by an angry New York bus driver, and the day he loaded a group onto a bus that was crawling with roaches by mid-journey.

But Mancini, a 41-year-old Manhattan Beach resident, is not the tour industry's answer to Larry, Moe and Curly. Rather, he is an instructor of tour escort instructors. Mancini teaches the people who hire and train tour directors for major travel companies--instructing them in how to pick good candidates and how to prepare them psychologically for the 24-hour-a-day demands of the job, including heading off and coping with disasters.

Although tour escort jobs can be among the higher-paying in the travel industry (with wages of $50 to $120 a day, plus tips and on-the-road expenses), the burnout rate for tour conductors is extremely high, says Mancini, who also offers a class on tour conducting at West Los Angeles College, where he's a professor of French.

"The average part-time tour escort lasts only about four years in his job, the average full-timer only about seven years," says Mancini, who has surveyed travel companies for a book he's writing on tour conducting. He feels that improved selection processes and better training of tour conductors could extend those numbers considerably.

To that end, Mancini, who is also a film journalist and an adjunct professor of cinema at Loyola University, is working with experts in vocational testing to develop a psychological screening system for identifying potentially successful tour conductors.

"The ideal is someone who's an entertainer and also organized but who's also resourceful and follows rules," he says. "That combination is not easy to find."

With psychological screening, though, he believes tour companies would be far more likely to select candidates well suited to the job. "Major tour companies get an average of 500 inquiries for jobs a year and they hire only an average of 20 to 30 people," he says. "With that kind of competition, they should be able to find people who do not burn out easily. Yet they don't."

William Newton, co-founder of International Tour Management Institute, a San Francisco-based firm, extensively discusses the psychology of tour participants with trainees in his intensive four-week tour conductor training seminars.

The $1,600 programs (in Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco) include weekends in which trainees observe and assist in the supervision of actual tours.

Can Become Family

Like Mancini, who points out that a tour is often the first time that adult travelers have been under such close supervision since their adolescence, Newton emphasizes that a tour group can become like a family, with the conductor as mother/father and tour members as children.

To avoid parent/child interactions, he's adopted the Transactional Analysis "I'm OK, you're OK" model to tour conducting.

"At the beginning of the tour it's like a parent-child relationship, but if you're going to have a successful tour, you have to be dealing with your group as adults," says Newton, who holds a Ph.D. in educational research from UC Berkeley. "However, when problems come up, people often go into their child state, and you have to recognize that. You can't respond as a parent or a child yourself. You have to learn to approach people from an adult standpoint when they're angry or upset, and sometimes that's not easy.

"We do role-playing of situations that can occur on tour. . . . We feel that if you learn the social and psychological aspects of tour directing, the mechanical aspects are then very easy."

Newton and his partner--who still work part-time as tour conductors and give four training sessions a year for a total of about 220 people--say job opportunities for tour conductors are increasing "dramatically." In fact, they claim to have more job referrals for their graduates than they have graduates.

But "we screen out people who want to be tour conductors because they think there's a quick buck to be made," he says. "I always ask myself, 'Is this somebody it would be fun to be on tour with?' "

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