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Tour Guides

How to plan memorable off-site tours for your delegates

By Wendy Helfenbaum

Herding everyone onto a bus for the same-old-same-old city tour just doesn’t cut it anymore. Here’s how to organize these events to meet your group’s needs and wants.

Ask the right questions
Go beyond a quick online search for a tour company, suggests Don Finkbeiner, owner of Heartland International Travel & Tours in Winnipeg. Instead, approach the convention and visitors’ bureau and ask for recommendations.

“Even better, if you know other planners who had good results at their conference, talk to them,” he says. “Check how long a tour operator has been in business and how many people work there. Find out what kinds of tours their guides do and ask for references.”

Carole Brault, CMP, manager of events for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in Ottawa, offered two dozen study and companion tours within the organization’s Annual Conference and Trade Show, which welcomed 2,500 attendees to Halifax in May. Here’s what she asks before booking a guide:

  • Can we organize special or seasonal tours targeted to the group’s interests, and which ones are better to visit as individuals? “For example, is it worth having a group tour at a museum, or can delegates do that on their own?” she says.
  • Does the company offer bilingual guides? That’s always a fabulous asset, especially for national organizations,” says Brault. “You want to be able to offer tours all dele­gates will fully understand.”

Answer some questions, too
Be prepared to provide as much informa­tion about your attendees as possible, says Finkbeiner, including age range, interests and any mobility issues. “If it’s an international group, I like to know where they’re from, because tour guides compare their city to where the group is from,” he explains. “For example, if I say, ‘We’re going through the old part of Winnipeg, built in 1850,’ most Europeans own homes older than that.”

Negotiate a range of rates
Finkbeiner notes that a two- to three-hour city tour ranges from $30 to $50 per person. The trick is to have tours of various lengths so you cater to a variety of people, advises Brault. “We had a few full-day tours that were more expensive, because there’s a bus ride and lunch. For attendees that didn’t want to do eight hours, we had one- and two-hour versions, too,” she says.

Schedule and promote tours strategically
Pre-conference tours are always popular, says Finkbeiner, because they don’t conflict with conference sessions. “Also, it’s best to do a city tour early, so del­egates become oriented to where they are,” he explains.

Brault’s tours took place before, during and after the conference. She suggests planners make sure concurrent tours don’t offset atten­dance at the main event. “If we offer 10 tours, and 30 people per tour, that means 300 people are leaving the conven­tion; will that keep enough people in the work­shops or on the trade show floor?” she says. Brault launches conference registration and tour options together—most tours sell out long before the event.

Choose big-impact experiences
For Brault, the most memorable tours highlight something unique to the host city. “In Halifax, we did a Harbour Cruise on the Tall Ship Silva, which we couldn’t offer anywhere else,” she explains. “Planners should really take advantage of what’s exceptional in a city.”

Because every city features something special, ask your guide for their favourite spots, suggests Finkbeiner. “For example, architecture is huge in Winnipeg; our legislative building was built as a temple, and we do tours of that all the time,” he notes. “We also like to go out to Assiniboine Park to see the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden.”

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