Greater Greater Washington

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Life as a DC tour guide, part 1: Impossible schedules

Tourism, and the consequent presence of tourists, is a way of life in Washington, DC. But what does the perennial tourist swarm look like from the other side: the tour guide's point of view?


Photo by dctourism on Flickr.

One of the most persistent complaints, both from DC residents and visitors, are about tour buses and the accompanying congestion. A recent letter by Senator Webb (D-VA) criticized congestion caused in part by the buses, as well as the accompanied decrease in the quality of our visitors' experience.

The discussion on Greater Greater Washington revealed how the nuts and bolts of my daily experience as a tour guide, the little tricks and travails I take for granted, are not well known. Therefore, let's examine how the student tour of Washington works.

I don't do this to excuse the rough spots of my industry, but rather to explain where we are today. No one would like to see improvements in the system more than I, but we need to understand the landscape, if you will, before examining proposals for systematic improvement.

The lion's share of my business is the student group. Most often these are eighth graders, studying American History and tying it in with a trip to DC. It's easy to be cynical about them (and oh do they provide fodder for that!), but by and large these kids are enthusiastic to be here, interested in what they're seeing, and ready to learn things and have a good time. Don't worry, we beat that out of 'em.

Depending on how far they're coming from, and how much they can pay, the group will either fly in to a local airport or be driven in on a bus, er, excuse me, a "motor coach." Except for local schools coming on day trips, next to no groups use their own school buses. The coach is driven by a professional driver, with a Commercial Drivers License (CDL), and most of them know their way around DC and are well versed on the patchwork of rules and regulations in Washington.

While a handful of drivers are licensed guides, and a small number of groups get by without a guide, most groups hire a licensed DC guide to show them around town. The guide will either be a "step on," meeting the group in the morning and leaving at night, or an "over the road," staying with the group at the hotel for the duration of the stay.

While a guide is expected to provide commentary on the things we see in DC (I don't shut up for four days), the real utility of our work is dealing with the logistics of getting up to 55 kids, teachers, and chaperones into and out of DC attractions. Can you take bottled water into the Capitol? (No.) Can you take pictures at the Archives? (Not any more.) Where's the bathroom at the Holocaust Memorial Museum? (Downstairs.)

It's a thousand and one questions like this that keep me hopping. Visitors are impressed with the knowledge I display, but I imagine many readers here could match me on that. It's the little things that if I do my job properly a tour group will never notice that's the hard part of my job.

Back to our group. They have arrived in DC. I've jumped on board. They're pumped, I'm ready to show them the sights, what's next? This is where we hit up the most important tool we have: the itinerary. The itinerary is the spine of a tour. It provides structure and support yet allowing flexibility to allow free movement. Well, a good one is. Sadly, many (most?) of my itineraries are lacking in the flexibility department.

Tours aren't quite commodities, but companies have a hard time differentiating themselves. The buses and guides are largely independent contractors, so we're available for hire to anyone that wants us. While I do develop a relationship with a few companies, there isn't enough permanence to allow a company to use me (because I am awesome) and other good guides to differentiate themselves from other companies. And hey, everyone says they hire the best guides in their sales pitches.

Nor can they really break themselves out in the hotels and restaurants. How much a group is willing to spend is far more of a determining factor than which company they hire. And let's face it, there's only so many places to eat for a group in DC. I've eaten at Hard Rock, Buca di Beppo, and Pizzeria Uno more times than I can count (or want to). So what's left?

To make themselves different, tour companies promise groups the world. In your time in DC, you will see the Capitol, the White House, Arlington Cemetery, and all the Memorials. In the morning. Flipping through my itineraries from this season I found a few of these gems:

  • 11:00 lunch at Reagan Building, 12:15 Capitol appointment.
  • Or: 2:30 Capitol appointment, 5:00 dinner, 8:00 Sheer Madness at the Kennedy Center, return to the hotel (in Alexandria) before dinner.
  • And my personal favorite: 9:00 Holocaust Memorial Museum, 10: Visit the Smithsonian (guess what time the Holocaust opens).
Nothing brightens up a tour guides day than to compare notes and find you have the least realistic itinerary.

But tour companies aren't just the only complicit ones here. The customer often judges the quality of their visit with how much they can see in their time here. I'm certainly not going to tell them they're wrong; everyone places value as they see fit. Sometimes, especially in the last few years, you have groups trying to save money by reducing a four day trip to three or such. And sadly, all to often, you find the "these kids will never come back to DC" reasoning from well-meaning teachers of underprivileged kids.

But whoever is at fault, and I'm not interested in laying blame, the end result is more often than not a packed itinerary that leaves little time to relax. It's not unusual to be at breakfast at 7 am and be returning to the hotel at 10:30 pm. We keep these kids hopping and wear them out. We also have no room for delay. This means while I sympathize with my fellow residents, I'm on a mission.

I will push my visitors like a driver on a runaway stagecoach to get them in line at, say, the Archives, trampling women and small children to get there. I will overwhelm the food courts of DC with my herd because I only have thirty minutes for lunch. And yes, I will do things with a bus that will leave commuters fuming in rage for miles back.

But let me confess my bus sins in another post...

Cross-posted at DC Like a Local.

Among his many non-paying gigs, Tim Krepp is a a tour guide, conducting tours mainly in DC and New York. He also runs his own blog, DC Like a Local, which attempts to make some sense of the DC trip for our wayward visitors, and as a Capitol Hill resident contributes regularly to The Hill is Home. All of these are mere distractions to his main job as a stay at home dad. 

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Could you comment a bit on what you're gonna be talking about in the future, before we start ranting on subjects that you haven't touched yet ;-)

Also, I'd like to see if you can discuss differences between DC and NY (if any) and make pushing tourists through an attraction better or worse in one place or the other.

Finally, I hope you will come up with some workable suggestions for improvement. How can DC "force" sensible schedules to tour operators? Does DC need more group restaurants? etc.

Thanks though for writing.

by Jasper on Jul 21, 2010 11:56 am • linkreport

Thank for sharing this.

This makes me appreciate even more how lucky we are to live here and get the opportunities to visit all that DC has to offer on our own timetable.

by Ward 1 Guy on Jul 21, 2010 12:10 pm • linkreport

Its interesting to hear from a professional DC tour guide. This past spring I interned in a Democratic House Member's office, and in April was tasked with helping a school group get into the Capitol Visitor Center and giving them gallery passes. As I stood in the rain, talking to the official tour guide, I mentioned that I was graduating soon from college and looking for work around DC. This "professional" then told me that I should send my resumes to GOP candidates because "all the Democrats" are going to lose this year. Here I was, standing in the rain with this giant group, and the guy was bringing his politics into the situation. Clearly very rude and unprofessional of him.

by Max on Jul 21, 2010 12:13 pm • linkreport

Max,
How is that different from anyone (i.e. everyone) else in this town injecting politics into every situation?

by spookiness on Jul 21, 2010 12:43 pm • linkreport

@spookiness: It is sorta different because I was the unpaid intern helping his group (which was late, btw) in the rain, making small talk, and instead of being polite, he did that.

by Max on Jul 21, 2010 12:45 pm • linkreport

Max,

Still, it isn't bad advice. Most likely, most incoming congress members will be GOP, so they will be the ones looking for staff.

by RJ on Jul 21, 2010 12:59 pm • linkreport

Yeah, but it just seemed like something that a professional tour guide shouldn't say to someone helping them out.

by Max on Jul 21, 2010 1:02 pm • linkreport

@spookiness - Max was working for free, in the rain, helping late tour guide and tour guide disses Max's boss (or boss's party), essentially saying, "you're working for a loser". i see the rudeness.

by Bianchi on Jul 21, 2010 1:10 pm • linkreport

Jasper, I plan to hit up bus and all things bus related next post (parking, drop off/pick up, why and how we use them, etc.).

I like the idea in your second paragraph. I'm putting together some thoughts on what works and what doesn't in moving large groups through attractions and a comparative analysis with other cities practices would be useful (good and bad).

But, by all means, don't let me get in the way of a good rant if you have one!

by TimK on Jul 21, 2010 1:35 pm • linkreport

Max,

Somedays, "professional" simply means "getting paid to do a job". Sadly, I can probably guess which of my colleagues you ran into.

I'm with Bianchi, it's pretty rude to insult a guy helping you out.

by TimK on Jul 21, 2010 1:40 pm • linkreport

"Nor can they really break themselves out in the hotels and restaurants. How much a group is willing to spend is far more of a determining factor than which company they hire. And let's face it, there's only so many places to eat for a group in DC. I've eaten at Hard Rock, Buca di Beppo, and Pizzeria Uno more times than I can count (or want to). So what's left?"

Does nobody eat boxed meals anymore? Is there a reason lunch must take place in a restaurant or a food court? Heck, most places will even cater for large groups... Surely, if these school tours are on such tight budgets they would find a cheaper, faster option to lunching out.

by Adam L on Jul 21, 2010 2:01 pm • linkreport

We do have a fair number of box lunches, and I think this is slowly growing as a trend. It has the obvious advantage of not requiring us to go to a food court, which in the case of Reagan or OPO slow us down with security.

A few things work against them:
1. How do you get the food to the group? This is hardly insurmountable, but it almost always involves me spending a fair amount of time on a cell phone with the vendor vectoring them to where we are going to be. We normally have a plan (on the Mall at noon for example), but that's lightly etched in pencil.
2. Kids don't like them. For that matter, there's only so much dry turkey sandwiches I can take.
3. Trash. Where do I put it? The majority of places I can put a group to eat won't allow a bus to park. So I end up piling my trash around the few receptacles I can find. And that assumes the bus driver would let me bring trash on it. Some won't.
4. It's not really any cheaper, especially for lunch.

That's not to say this isn't an option for some groups, and properly managed there's real potential here. But the overwhelming problem is the lack of places to do it with legal bus parking, bathrooms, and trash facilities.

by TimK on Jul 21, 2010 2:29 pm • linkreport

Have cell phone made your work easier? Are there mobile applications can that can developed that make things smoother (book rez, find bathrooms, traffic, etc)

Fond memories of my HS trip. I'd be curious what percentage of DC residents were first introduced to the city that way. I know in that trip, at least 3 of us ended up living here.

And isn't metrorail an attraction as well -- at least I remember it as such.

by charlie on Jul 21, 2010 2:50 pm • linkreport

TimK, in your next post on buses, please explain the rationale behind tour buses parking for hours in clearly marked Metrobus zones on H Street NW (the north side of Lafayette Park). Numerous Metrobus lines have stops there (the very busy X2 starts its eastbound run there), and on most summer days passengers are dangerously forced into the road to board buses because tour buses are illegally parked in Metrobus zones.

by anon on Jul 21, 2010 3:01 pm • linkreport

I dunno... maybe I'm just curmudgeonly, but couldn't the meals be purchased beforehand and then just brought along on the bus? Is this really so difficult?

And as for the trash, take it back with you. You've got me on bathrooms, however. Can never have too many of those.

by Adam L on Jul 21, 2010 3:01 pm • linkreport

charlie,

I have only done this in the cell phone era, but it would be much more difficult to do without them. I can say, that when I switched to an i-phone a few years ago I started leaving my "bag o'info" on the bus or at home. This had the latest brochure for every attraction within thirty miles of DC, lists of opening/closings, etc. It's now all saved on my phone and the various sites are bookmarked.

I use google maps pretty often, especially to check for traffic. Twitter has made life a lot easier, as most places will tweet if they are closing early for an event (National Zoo, want to get on board?!?!?). Facebook has proved to be fairly helpful in filling in the blanks for events I see I don't know about, especially Arlington National Cemetery. We're often diverted for wreath layings, and I can now tell my group that it was the Defense Secretary from Fredonia or whomever.

It's not uncommon to have folks share that experience. It's so easy for me to get into just herding and pushing kids that I forget that this is a special event for my customers. Frankly, it's one of the reasons I love my job: the chance to see the things I've grown used to as new again in their eyes.

Metro is very much an attraction, and I'll go into it more later on. Time permitting, I try to take a group on there every chance I get. Relatively few of my groups are urban, and it's the first view many suburban and rural kids get to see a subway.

by TimK on Jul 21, 2010 3:03 pm • linkreport

Adam L, No more than I am! The problem is time. I just don't have time to make another stop on the way in and get the lunches.

That's not to say any of this impossible to achieve. It's just a level of complexity over and above dumping them at a food court. With more time, and customers who are into it, box lunches are a great option.

by TimK on Jul 21, 2010 3:07 pm • linkreport

anon,

That's the best (worst?) example of tour bus/metro bus confliction I have. It's absolutely going to be discussed when I go into more details on bus problems.

For now, the rationale is simple: it's the only place to drop off anywhere near the White House. Other options just take too much time to get there. That's why I do it, and risk the ticket.

by TimK on Jul 21, 2010 3:10 pm • linkreport

@TimK

Is there a reason you're the designated lunch purveyor? You're a guide, not a waiter. Is it too much to ask that the chaperons arrange for lunch so that the kids have it by the time they get on the bus? School trips are not vacations; there's supposed to be some level of work involved. Why anyone on a school trip should feel entitled to personalized, concierge service is beyond me.

by Adam L on Jul 21, 2010 3:19 pm • linkreport

@TimK; as much as we hate tourists we all used to be one, no? Keep up the good work. Sounds like you just leveraging existing mobile tools, but I think there is a good chance to use technology to solve some of problems we have with the dreaded tour bus.

One other question: I'm assuming the buses come in from the locality, but would there be a way to force them to use natural gas and/or better generators while idiling to lower summer pollution?

by charlie on Jul 21, 2010 3:23 pm • linkreport

Quite frankly, I find the question of where you let large groups have lunch more interesting that whether boxed lunches are possible. Getting fed is in itself a disaster on the Mall, and I can see how many restaurants are not equipped nor happy to suddenly see a group of 50 show up. Staggering is the name of the game in the food industry.

by Jasper on Jul 21, 2010 3:26 pm • linkreport

Adam L:

The short answer; that's what I get paid for. That's why groups hire a tour operator, who then hires me.

And I'm not sure how that would work. Where would a chaperone from, say Chicago know who to get food from? How would she know where to pick it up? How would she even get over there to pick it up? She doesn't have a car? Who would be watching the kids when she's off getting the food? If the food was to be delivered, how would she know where to direct the delivery to?

Keep in mind that these people are disoriented, they are far from home, and they feel the weight of responsibility for dozens of kids that are not theirs. Taking care of their logistical details is very much my job. Hell, my commentary you could probably read off of wikipedia...

by TimK on Jul 21, 2010 3:27 pm • linkreport

charlie,

Indeed, and I hope we all take the time to be tourists in DC when we get the chance, myself included. It's way to easy to be jaded.

Natural Gas would be an interesting option, but honestly, I'm not sure how to get there. There's also a lot of interesting things going on in reducing emissions from conventional gas engines that should be encouraged.

by TimK on Jul 21, 2010 3:31 pm • linkreport

@Jasper; maybe there is an opportunity to provide catered lunches on the mall for student groups. Although I'm sure they only want to pay $5 a head...

by charlie on Jul 21, 2010 3:34 pm • linkreport

As a former tour director in the student tour industry, I find the conversation here fabulous and a neat surprise.

It sounds as if TimK has a lot more experience than I did, but I ran tours as recently as the Obama Inauguration, so I'm basically familiar with the routine that he is describing.

Adam L asks about having the chaperones get lunches. I would have reacted with a horrified look on my face if anyone had ever proposed that to me on tour. You want to minimize the number of cooks in the kitchen, not invite more in. There are already plenty of balls to keep in the air - adults with their kids from out of town are not people you want in charge of logistics on tour.

In general, Tim is exactly right to say that the major issue with these tours is the expectations of the group to see everything in three/four days. And I would add a second issue - they all come to town at the same time. This places a major strain on the area hotels (cheap ones out of town), the restaurants capable of taking the large groups, the food courts, and of course the sites themselves. On the other hand, while it's a major pain in the rear to be caught up in it for those weeks out of the year, I think at least locals can come to count on it and realize that from August through February, we've got the town to ourselves and it may or may not be worth valuable political time and energy, not to mention money to dream up solutions like underground bus garages or what have you.

Anyway, I look forward to the rest of it.

by Josh S on Jul 21, 2010 3:48 pm • linkreport

@ charlie: maybe there is an opportunity to provide catered lunches on the mall for student groups

Good idea. Except that the Mall is a National Park. And we all know that the NPS won't outsiders destroy the Mall by allowing bus stops, let alone caterers. The horror.

And even if they would, there would be plenty of locals fearing the trashification of the Mall by all the empty boxes. I mean, look at how these folks object to a few new power lines for transit, and then imagine how they'd react to a large number of (overflowing) trash cans: Aaaaah, gurgle, gurgle, drool, faint.

by Jasper on Jul 21, 2010 4:22 pm • linkreport

I would love to strap a video camera to you to record your whole day and then watch it in high speed. Seriously - I would love to do that. If you ever have the means to do it - get yourself a gopro video camera and something to mount it to your head or chest and let it run!

by Todd on Jul 21, 2010 4:37 pm • linkreport

Tim would love to hear some of the less visited places that are worth it. Since I've been working in DC I've gone to the Library of Congress 4 times (45 min each on lunch) and have just scratched the surface of that awesome place.

by Mike Donnelly on Jul 21, 2010 5:20 pm • linkreport

As a District resident for 8 years, I try to be as nice and as accommodating to the tourists I encounter as I can reasonably be as they bring millions of $ into the metro area (full disclosure - I don't work in a job that needs them to be here). I know lots of District residents love to complain about the tourists but we are the nation's capitol and we do contain lots of things that people really ought to see.

by ksu499 on Jul 21, 2010 10:41 pm • linkreport

From what you've said so far, it seems to me that there's no internal incentive to tour guides and drivers and such logistical people to be considerate of the community whose existence enables their livelihood. If so, then it would seem that external incentives might be necessary: i.e., regulation (although that would require enforcement so we know how well that would work in practice). I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on that.

by DrBubbles on Jul 22, 2010 9:11 am • linkreport

DrBubbles -

My own two cents - you're absolutely right there are no internal incentives to do anything other than speed around DC, park where convenient, etc. I found that most groups treated the place as if it were one giant theme park.

As far as external standards - there are various regulations about where buses can drive and park. As you mentioned, it's all about the enforcement. In some cases, however, enforcement makes life harder on everyone, including the general public. For example, bus parking near monuments is supposed to be for pickup and dropoff only. And there are very busy times when that's crucial so that all the groups can get in. But at other times, the buses would just have to go back out on the road and drive around the block (ha!) a few times, thus contributing to traffic, burning additional fuel, etc.

Here's a thought - reopen E street. You could even say no buses and trucks. But the closure of that street seriously complicates traffic right in the core of the city. Fewer cars on H street means fewer conflicts with city buses and tour buses visiting the White House. Etc. (And the increased "safety" to the White House is minimal, not worth the added inconvenience and cost to now millions of people since the street has been closed for almost nine years.)

by Josh S on Jul 22, 2010 9:25 am • linkreport

@ Josh H: How about tour operators work to change the Ellipse from being a parking lot for the White House to being a parking lot for tour buses. Oh wait, tour buses on the Mall, that would be sacrilege. Much better to have white House staffers desecrate a National Park "in the name of safety".

by Jasper on Jul 22, 2010 9:56 am • linkreport

DrBubbles,

Sure, there are internal incentives to behave like good neighbors, not least of which is that I live here too. However, the structural disincentives overwhelm the incentives.

I'll talk at greater length about this in the future, but largely guides and drivers are squeezed between companies and customers demanding more and residents and governments demanding less impact.

I'll discuss more about why, and what I think might be able to be done about it. And by all means, chime in with your ideas.

by TimK on Jul 22, 2010 11:17 am • linkreport

I recently had family in town, driving around in their giant van. We took Metro and buses whenever possible, but for the times when we drove I was surprised by how bad some of the signage is for getting between DC and Virginia. And I also didn't realize we had so many "no left turn" intersections, which, when mixed with one-way streets, can make turning left a challange (we missed two streets this way: heading south on 14th hoping to turn left to find the 9th St highway exit, and in Georgetown, heading west on M trying to turn left to go to Water St - once you pass Wisc Ave, where you aren't allowed to turn left, you're screwed.)

by M.V. Jantzen on Jul 22, 2010 11:36 am • linkreport

Oh, and re the topic of "Impossible schedules" - yes, tourists want to do it all in a short period, because they think of DC as a single point, and for many "The Smithsonian" is a single building! But kudos to the Smithsonian for helping out by having moved the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum to later hours, 11:30 to 7:00 rather than 10:00 to 5:30, and especially for having summer hours for the major Mall museums (though the night I planned to take family to Air & Space they closed early for a private event, grrrr). Are most tourists even aware that many museums have late hours in the summer?

by M.V. Jantzen on Jul 22, 2010 11:41 am • linkreport

"We keep these kids hopping and wear them out."

Of course, that's part of the idea, right? Whenever I had a school trip that wasn't packed to the point of exhaustion, we'd get into a lot more mischief during our free time...

by Eric S. on Jul 22, 2010 3:16 pm • linkreport

I hope this series will be re-published in a teachers magazine or website. We really need teachers or whoever is planning these tours to understand the constraints. Perhaps the kids would learn more and enjoy it more if they saw fewer monuments and had a little more downtime or in depth discussion at the places they do see. If kids split into smaller groups they could see different things and share information upon return -- and maybe they could take metro to a few things, which would speed up their travel (and mine!).

If these teachers are rationalizing over-scheduled forced marches through DC b/c "these kids will never come back" they are probably making that statement a self-fulfilling prof Who would want to come back to Washington after spending 1/2 an hour in each of 10 museums, eating at the RR bldg. food court, going through 40 security lines, and spending hours on a stinky bus stuck in traffic.

There has to be a better way.

by lynn on Jul 23, 2010 12:47 pm • linkreport

That's why people would prefer private tour guide with a customised itinerary. It seems to be as well fit for the tour guide.

by Jean - Tour Guide OurExplorer on Jul 29, 2010 5:05 am • linkreport

I am also a licensed tour guide and can confirm that moving a group of 50 people on large bus through the city is one of the scariest adventures in my life. Luckily, most of my drivers are very familiar with the city and know the legal pick-up and drop-off points. We try very hard to do what we have to do without leaving a wake of pissed off local drivers.

This past couple of months it seemed like both the DC cops and the U.S. Park Police were competing with each other in issuing tickets.

Moving large groups (some groups could have as many as 150 people) through any transit system is challenging. But there are aspects to our dearly not-so-beloved Metro that makes it particularly difficult:

1. The paper tickets - Kids who come here on tours have usually never been on a subway system before. We carefully explain how the turnstiles work, but it still takes time to get each kid through. Possible solution: A group Smart Pass - valid for the duration of the group's trip to Washington and for a certain amount of people. Maybe it would have to be bought ahead of time or available at certain kiosks, but there has to be some way to make moving a group of kids through the turnstiles easier.

2. Better signage in the stations and in the Metro cars! Plenty has already been said on this subject but it never hurts to say it again. And how about a little more light?

3. Replace one-third of the escalators with staircases wherever possible. Staircases are less likely to break down and are easier to climb.

Regarding the problems finding food: I agree that the Mall should not be turned into a mall with a food court. However, it would be great to be able to walk to a nearby food court from one of the Smithsonians. I think a food court on the south side of Independence Avenue would be great. I'm sure this is easier said than done, but it would be worth the effort.

Finally, I need to add a very important point: Waterfountains. The number of waterfountains available on the two mile stretch from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial could probably be counted on one hand. At the U.S. National Park visitor center on the Elipse, the water fountains weren't even working. It was one of these heat-alert days and the only alternative was to buy plastic bottles of water. Some of my kids didn't have enough money to buy water so I grabbed some paper cups and sent them into the bathrooms to get water.

The lack of outdoor water fountains on the Mall is a serious health hazard during the summer.

by dcstateofmind on Aug 11, 2010 2:12 pm • linkreport

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