April comes and we are given a timetable for unlocking and reopening and, by the end of the month, we will be able to leave Wales and I can visit my 90 year old mother and those living in England will be able to come here so I'll be able to see my son again. However, in the meantime how to fill my time?
I continue to teach and arrange online assessments for my wonderful Blue Badge linguist guide colleagues on the course to enable them to guide in Wales seeing things through Welsh eyes. I also try to stop my Green Badge students getting frustrated as the only thing between them and the qualification is the Coach Guiding module and assessment which cannot be done online or socially distanced.
With my colleagues in Wales Best Guides we launch a social enterprise arm to generate some income both for the association and for guides and win a contract from Visit Wales to help produce factsheets for the travel trade. This is welcome, both for the income boost and for a chance to update our knowledge on the tourism product in Wales as we root out new experiences and produce suggested tours and factual on-the-ground knowledge for use by overseas and home tour operators sending clients to Wales.
My main development for my own business is work on a downloadable GPS linked audio commentary tour. The vehicle for this is the very professional voicemap platform who gave me lots of help both in timing - as the commentary has to be the right length for a leisurely stroll around the town without the listener having to stand still for too long, give good location information for what the guide is talking about and of course be of a certain quality both of sound and for the content. This tour is now launched and available https://voicemap.me/tour/conwy .
I am planning to add details to my posters and leaflets and enable the tours to be sold through the Tourist Information and at the hotels and accommodation when they are allowed to reopen.
Also, we Welsh Guides are a really co-operative bunch so I sought to share my discoveries and the folk from Voicemap ran a session in our digital Upskilling course for Wales Tourist Guides.
Always though the quiet winter months I have concentrated not only on reviewing my business but also on using my knowledge of Wales and tourism for casting around for consultancy projects. I am also a licensed Federation of European Tourist Guides trainer.
I had already been working on training new tourist guides for North Wales when the pandemic hit and we had been ducking and diving around the access restrictions. Everyone knows a tour guide needs knowledge. This knowledge falls into two categories one is background knowledge - of history, geology, art, architecture which enables painting a verbal picture to put what the visitor is seeing into context of both time and space. This type of teaching was easy to move online though I (and almost everyone else in the country!) had to learn Zoom and Google Meet skills. Not just the technology but adapting to a more lecturing style with less eliciting knowledge through question asking for example.
Another sort of knowledge is of the geography of the sites to be visited from the practical constraints (can you get a coach there, where are the nearest toilets, what are hazards moving a group around? etc.) to the very positioning of the sites for when a client wants to say, visit neolithic sites in an afternoon from Caernarfon - what is feasible. Nothing beats actually visiting places to gain this type of knowledge.
But as well as knowledge the guide needs skills. These range from using your voice so it can be heard, pitching for variety and emotion and clarity - especially essential for non-native language speakers and the hard of hearing to learning to use body language to, say, gently move a group along.
These type of skills are incredibly difficult to teach online. As, of course, are coach microphone techniques - spotting things from the front window and describing where to look for passengers behind with only side views and doing so quickly before they have passed by and feel they've missed something.
We have always had a scarcity of linguists guides in Wales and, as the country was garnering more interest from overseas groups, this fact was hampering growth. A chance conversation from the chair of the Welsh Guides to an Italian guide prompted the idea of training already skilled, practically-experienced qualified Blue Badge Guides and I became Course Manager on this new Endorsement course. 18 participants attended 15 2-hour lectures on Welsh language culture, history, geography etc. all given from the Welsh perspective. They will be sitting an exam in April and handing in two tour planning projects. I have made a lot of new friends and learned about what inbound overseas groups like to see and hear about in Wales.
The town - indeed the whole country was locked down throughout January as the brief Christmas get together had caused a soaring of coronavirus cases. The good news was vaccination had begun. I carried on thinking of ways to get work. Luckily, I am a qualified Federation of European Tourist Guides trainer so got a paid post as course director running an online course for already qualified Blue Badge Guides from other UK nations who were linguists to learn about Wales and the Welsh as we do not have many guides qualified in other languages but I missed guiding and was still getting enquiries about town tours and one started me thinking.
One lady wanted to surprise her husband on their anniversary with a private town tour. I started to think. I had not been able to run food tours during the whole of 2020 because part of the raison d'être of Conwy food tours was the small artisan food producers but, because they were so small social distancing was not possible.
What if I ran special Romantic Conwy tours with a walk on the walls and trips around town and, during the tour we visited our nationally famous chocolatiers to select the chocolates, our gorgeous family owned florist for a personally selected bouquet or corsage and, of course finish at the award-winning private off-licence for some Welsh fizz. I am working on this project now and have contacted all the local hotels and glamping sites about incorporating this in their special break offers for when - and it will - hospitality opens up again
We remained locked down through December - except for Christmas Day and not allowed out except for exercise and that had to be from one's door. No driving and only allowed out for food shopping or other essentials.
i had hoped to get some Christmas tours away. Many families meet extended clan members on the run up to the festive day to exchange presents and have a catch up. Restaurants were still closed so once I again I thought to tailor something which could be outside and socially distanced and offered a family tour. I even got bookings but the rules remained strict and there was no way a history walking tour was essential so the bookings got cancelled.
Lots of tourist guides have used the lockdown to create virtual tours but, as you know, I like to be out and about so had ignored all the training for this and concentrated on getting my real live tours off the ground.
However, during the second lockdown I received a call from a Midlands-based Society filling their speakers diary for the Winter and they offered a good rate for a talk and virtual tour. I decided to see this as a potential new source of demand.
I decided it was time to expand my horizons further. There are so many platforms and formats for sharing tours virtually. I knew one of my friends was suffering Covid issues with her wedding video business so https://www.kimritterfilms.co.uk had time to come and film some clips of me around town which I can mix and match for several types of jobs. However, that involved more skills and training via free webinars run by VIsit Britain and other partners. However, once I can edit I can mix and match clips for broadcast and for talks.
Another skill involves keeping your temper when registering with behemoths such as Amazon Explore - platforms which are designed to work with say, identity proving documents from around the world and that kept rejecting my ID.!
I have discovered that you can have pre-recorded video tours on Youtube or Vimeo broadcast live at a set time accessed behind a paywall of, say Eventbrite, or you can have tailor-made tours provided on a private basis through organisations such as Amazon Explorer, ToursbyLocals.com or AirBandB experiences etc. I am learning movie making and registering with these various platforms. Watch for links in later chapters of this blog. None are yet ready to be published.
There are also audio tours linked to gps locations which can be downloaded from sites such as the excellent www.voicemap.com which I am working on now
I was still successfully running tours throughout September. Even after the children had returned to school and families were replaced by couples on short breaks. However, a second wave of Covid loomed on the horizon and Conwy County was closed to visitors. "O Well", I thought "There are still plenty of local residents up for listening to a good story", so I began to work on Ghost Tours building up to Halloween.
I started desk research on stories of local hauntings and there was a wealth of quality material. A tour began to take shape. I also put out feelers on the community Facebook pages to find out if the demand was for a child-friendly tour or a scarier adult-focused one. The response was amazing. All the lockdown restraints of events being cancelled were beginning to bubble up. Folk volunteered to dress up as ghosts to haunt the town towers etc. In fact, the response was so positive, it was pretty obvious that I wouldn't be able to ensure social distancing in the dark and could not ensure Covid security. Once again I had to rethink.
Other communities were doing pumpkin hunts etc. for families to go round as individuals so I decided to turn my tour into a self-guided one and provide a downloadable treasure hunt free of charge on this website.
I visited the local businesses who were incredibly supportive and enthusiastically agreed to put clues in their windows from cats in the cheese shop to bats in the toy shop; a carved swede in the flower shop and skeletons dressed as the resident ghosts in a pub, the Post Office and the Knight Shop. It was a fantastic opportunity to get to know local businesses and be known in the community even if I was going to make no money.
I began writing the worksheet and involved myself in more lockdown self-education learning to master a computer drawing programme for the illustrations. Then another blow - the Welsh Government announced a firebreak two week total lockdown. I would have to cease work on even the free self-guided treasure hunt since it was neither of the permitted reasons for leaving home - work or exercise.
Excitement as the local lockdown ended as the school holidays started. The caravan parks and self-catering properties reopened and the town began to fill up - very strange after roaming the empty streets to see families with Liverpool accents crabbing on the quayside. The town walls and castle were still closed and the tiny nature of Conwy's specialised food shops precluded social distancing. So the only tour I was able to operate was The Trail with Tales from the Lady of Wales.
I had cycled around the local caravan parks distributing posters but many of them had their communal areas closed still. Local shops were very helpful in displaying the material and visiting them give me a chance to meet and chat with locals.
I had publicised the meeting point to be outside the local Tourist Information Centre where there was shelter and seats for those waiting. However, these had been closed off due to the crisis and, as the building was shared with the Post Office and social distancing queueing was in operation, I agreed to have my meeting point over the road.The tours started and, I had a chance to review how things were different from my original thoughts.
Considering we were in international lockdown, I was surprised that so many clients - well over half -were from overseas when I expected mostly Brits. On chatting to them I discovered most were working in Britain and usually spent their leave visiting family abroad and, when this became not possible, decided to explore more of the UK instead.
I was very lucky that two of the these early bookers were Ashley and Rotem from https://www.myisraelphotos.com who kindly let me use their very professional photographs.
Another thing I discovered was that people had never used and did not understand the receiver machines. They thought that they were for pre-recorded commentary or translations but nearly all found them useful allowing for freedom to spread out or find a shady or dry space. Once the town walls opened the sets particularly came into their own.
Other things I discovered working with real live clients, was the need for a quiz to motivate the younger audience. I prepared a multi-activity one that allowed them to run around to find things where it was safe to do so but to focus on what I was saying in areas with traffic or other hazards.
Feedback was really good including those all important reviews. from AirBandB experiences, and Tripadvisor reviews to date all have all been 5 star!
One of the differences between a professional and amateur guide is the mindset of the tour in both delivery and creation. An amateur guide will expand their personal interests into a tour and indeed there is a lot to be said for that as clients love a passion but, here is the rub, the guide must always be aware of the clients' needs and interests and moderate the structure and depth of the route, stops and commentary to take account of this. To a professional guide the tour is a product. That may sound derogatory but not at all! A good product puts quality, added value and customer needs first.
I already had the outline structure of each of the tours - Family with costumed guide, Wall walking and food tour. These would have to be made concrete both in terms of: routes, stops, facts, variety and getting to know the people of Conwy. It was a good way of giving purpose to my lockdown walks, wandering around and deciding positions for suitable stops - where clients would be sheltered from wind, rain or sun, where we would not inconvenience others and above all, where there was something interesting to talk about!
Clients come to a guide and trust a) the facts are correct and b) they would be imparted in a varied and entertaining manner but there would be some sort of sorting of relevance towards understanding the town. Of course this must not be just learned by rôte but sorted in one's internal memory file to mix and match and slotted in the narrative according to the clients`' leanings. The guide also has a role of host - i.e. to facilitate introductions to specialists or characters in a town so getting to know locals - especially experts and characters is pivotal.
Next the fun bit - the research! Obviously, being a resident with an interest in history and having studied for my qualification and taken tours around town over the preceding decades, I had a background knowledge. However, to give added value I needed to drill down deeper and find those stories that expanded understanding of the town and were entertaining. I asked for tales of local characters on the community Facebook page, chatted to locals and wandered around the graveyards. I also undertook desk research and found the excellent https://historypoints.org really useful.
My background long long ago (30 years!) was in marketing but so much has changed. When I worked in advertising Fleet Street still held the newspapers and we used Letraset for setting the ads and red star parcels to get proofs to clients via the railways! Wow like engraved printing blocks in museums.
However, the basic rules remain unchanged. Who are your clients? Where will they be most likely to hear about you? What is the most appealing quality of your product? What is your budget - time and money? Where are customers going to buy it?
Who were my clients? It was obvious for walking tours not less than half a day, folk were not going to travel far so the market would be locals looking for things to do and holiday makers staying in local self-catering accommodation since hotels were not yet opening. Couples would enjoy the food tours with pointers about where to eat that evening and families would be looking for a mixture of learning about history but tempting the teenagers along with promises of ghost tales.
I would need a website and again, like the costume project, I rubbed my hands with glee at the idea of another lockdown constructive project and after quite a bit of teeth-gnashing and a little bit of swearing I mastered www.weebly.com and this website is built by me on that. I needed to take bookings and payments so learned about weird sounding things like widgets and subscribed to www.appointedd.com for managing my bookings so I didn't have too many pax or clash tours and www.stripe.com to take payments
a My first expenditure on physical marketing was some business cards as I went around the food shops and local businesses telling them what I planned. I knew I wanted an A board or banner where the tours started and I also decided to print some posters for the caravan parks where families from the North West had holiday lodges. The Welsh Lady would be the attention grabber and selfies were not good enough - time to rope in that family. We were still only allowed to meet one household outdoors and social distancing had to be maintained so my daughter and son-in-law agreed to be a model client and photographer at the low price of fish and chips on the quay! I used www.canva.com for producing the artwork for the A board and posters and the next stage is cycling to the caravan parks for distribution.
During the time of Covid health of myself and my clients could only be assured by implementing several measures. Some are fairly easy such as cleanliness and sanitising. As the tours I am running are in the open air with room for social distancing, I opted not to use a mask unless clients requested. Not only would it ruin the traditional costume effect but would impede lip reading and communication of my expressions.
However, the most important measure maintaining social distancing- brings extra challenges. I teach tour guides and I am always stressing the fact that in the days of apps and recordings we have to use the advantage of being real people - show our personality, read our audience's mood, use eye contact and body language. This gets more difficult the further away our clients are - as does another important role of a guide keeping clients both safe, away from traffic etc. and comfortable out of sun, rain wind whilst also doing our best to not disturb businesses and other members of the public.
At the time of writing, in Wales we are only able to guide one other household but I hope that soon this will be lifted as, after all there are more than one household in the shops at anyone time and that is inside. I planned for when we can have many households but every household in the group will have to be two metres away from every other so my first measure was to limit the number in a tour to 8. Also, though I have a loud voice, it is not fair on people outside the tour if they have to endure a loud commentary ruining their quiet enjoyment of the streets.
I also have to be heard and know from previous experience clients generally like the technology of listening devices where the guide speaks into a microphone and clients have ear pieces and can hang back to walk slowly or take a photograph without missing the commentary. It also means a commentary can take place whilst moving.
However, this technology does require guides to change their techniques. For instance we can't do our usual "on your right.." as you don't know which way they are looking and you have to be extra careful with safety advice to ensure clients come to no harm if they are guided, while walking, to look up at say, a rooftop. I have also had clients lose me as they hang well back reassured by my voice and then find in a crowded place or roads with lots of alleyways they don't know which way I've gone if directions are not spelled out.
My first decision was to decide between apps on phones or self-sufficient machines. There are quite a few apps that work between the guide's phone and the clients. Some use blue tooth, some data and some wi-fi - locally if available or via the guide carrying a portable router. There are disadvantages and advantages in all of them. Overseas clients would find data expensive and in parts of Wales you cannot even get 3G. The apps are evolving quickly with add-on such as "find me" if clients get lost or the ability to download images such as "what this ruin looked like" However the main disadvantage I could see was the time and complications for clients who would have to download an app. My tours are short generally less than two hours and I didn't want a large portion of that time to be wasted setting up the technology. Also, my primary reason for using them being constant social distancing and the variety of ages and operating systems on clients' phones meant that I wouldn't be able to just say "give me your phone and I'll sort it" So I decided to purchase "play and go" hardware.
The main disadvantage of this - for me - was cost and thereafter maintaintance. I then had a techie friend look at specifications and bit the bullet, swallowing the cost of several hundred pounds and ordering a set from China.They took two months to arrive.Testing will be awkward as again, i am only allowed to meet one other household. How will it go? I'll let you know!