- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2007

Even trained tour guides don’t always know what to expect when they meet a group of visitors for the first time.

“Every tour is like a blind date,” says Ellen Gold, president of the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C. “You need to know emergency preparedness.”

Historian Jeanne Fogle, a fourth-generation Washingtonian who has been a guide for 23 years under her own label, A Tour de Force says: “Guiding is not just knowing information, because there is always something new to learn. And you have to know how to think on your feet because something is always going to happen.”

She also trains guide candidates, and no, she doesn’t use notes or teach others to do so.

“You have to know a lot more than the history of sites,” agrees relative newcomer Peter McCall, who is into his second year as a part-time freelance guide after paying about $1,000 for professional training courses. Sometimes it comes down to matters as simple — and potentially complicated — as knowing bus routes and the location of bathrooms.

Knowing how to “dumb down” — Mr. McCall’s expression for adjusting a talk to different age levels — takes a knowledge of psychology and a gift for improvisation. He is a longtime amateur historian and natural storyteller, but he found out the hard way and even sought outside instruction for guidance on what it takes to claim the attention of fidgety eighth-graders.

From March through June, thousands of visitors of every stripe come to Washington for recreational sightseeing — often a compulsory trip for students from middle schools around the country. Transportation and lodging generally are arranged by bus companies or event managers, who then rely on local talent to impart information about Washington’s famous buildings and monuments.

Of course, there’s more than the physical and mental strain of being in charge of a group of strangers who have varying degrees of interest in and concentration on the subject at hand. Since September 11, 2001, security restraints have meant that getting in and out of buildings takes longer; buses have more restricted parking; traffic rules keep changing.

The U.S. Capitol, for instance, is off-limits to licensed guides except the ones trained in-house by the Office of the Director of Visitor Services. The 70 or more Capitol guides are a world unto themselves, being government employees in distinctive uniforms and offering specialized tours of all kinds.

The centerpiece of most formal training programs, however, remains the mind-numbing accumulation of facts and insights into people and events that molded the city and its institutions. Depending on the course chosen, study is thorough and intensive, with written work and exams — just like college.

“I’ve learned more in two years than in the past 30 of living in Washington,” says Mr. McCall, 65, retired from working full-time in public relations. “Tour guiding is a true calling, like the ministry or politics,” he says. “You’ve got to have passion.”

Clift Seferlis agrees.

“If your enthusiasm isn’t infectious and you can’t relate to others, then the job isn’t for you. Plus, the hours are nuts,” says Mr. Seferlis, 36, a guide for seven years who has his own company under the name Green Book Tours “for anybody who is not a school group.” A trained stone carver with a degree in architectural history, he leads a double life, like many others who juggle a daily job with guiding as a sideline.

“In peak season, an experienced freelance guide can make over $1,000 a week” reads the pitch for a class Ms. Fogle offers three times a year at First Class Inc., a nonprofit program with classrooms near Dupont Circle. That class is a two-hour introduction to the profession. Ms. Fogle also teaches a far more rigorous certificate course each fall and spring as part of the travel and tourism department at Northern Virginia Community College’s Annandale campus. That one meets eight Saturdays for 5 hours.

“It’s a job combinable with other careers… but you need the training because the [required] test they take is hard,” says Talula Guntner, assistant dean of the community college’s travel department. She describes tour guiding as “more than what you are seeing and doing.”

Other training opportunities listed by the guild include WashingTours & Events, headed by guide Maricar Donato, which is offered in two “tracks,” each lasting five weeks or 35 hours. Cindy and Neil Amrine run a session called Guide Service of Washington Inc. for eight weeks each year.

Mrs. Gold estimates there are about 1,000 guides in the area, including about 300 members of the guild, where programs are geared to professional development and include an annual job fair held for guides and tour companies. Technically, one is not able to sell one’s services without obtaining a license from the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which requires passing a written test in addition to procuring a doctor’s certificate, a police report and six letters from references.

Depending upon the applicant, test questions are either a “snap” (Peter McCall) or “somewhat cryptic” (Sarah Plumb, who passed the test in March and only recently took her first group around the city). Also, technically, guides bringing groups into the city from out of town must acquire a local license as well. Theoretically, anyone can set himself up in business simply by passing the test and buying the license, which must be renewed every two years. The irony, however, is that their qualifications seldom are checked by authorities on the street.

Mrs. Plumb, 60, guides part time, having completed two of Ms. Fogle’s community college courses. Her first job, which she got through a fellow student, went well, she reports, although it involved meeting a group from Hawaii at the airport on a Friday and staying with them through their departure Monday evening. By contrast, the final grade in the college course was a real challenge. It included a research paper and a written test as well as giving a “pretend” tour to her peers on a rented minibus, to be judged by body language and level of enthusiasm as well as knowledge.

Her particular assignment was to talk about anything of interest on a trip from Washington National Cathedral to the Kennedy Center, including a 10-minute spiel at the latter site.

A Tour de Force: www.atourdeforce.com

Green Book Tours: www.greenbooktours.com

Training opportunities:

Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C.: www.washingtondctourguides.com

WashingTours & Events: www.washingtours.net

First Class Inc.: www.takeaclass.org

Northern Virginia Community College certificate program: https://www.nvcc.edu/curcatalog/programs/tougui.htm

Guide Service of Washington Inc.: www.dctourguides.com

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