15 Secrets of Genealogists

iStock
iStock

Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States and a billion-dollar industry, but few people know what actually goes into tracking down ancestors—let alone putting information about them into any kind of context. Mental Floss talked to three professional genealogists to learn more about their increasingly in-demand profession, and discovered why they love weird last names, why they’re indebted to the Mormons and the Quakers, and how television is making their job more difficult.

1. MOST OF THEM DON’T HAVE DEGREES IN THE FIELD.

There’s only one accredited four-year genealogy degree program in the U.S.—a bachelors at Brigham Young University in Utah. Those who can't make it to Utah can enroll in certificate programs, such as the one offered at Boston University, where Melinde Byrne teaches. “A lot of people sign up [at certificate programs] thinking it’ll be simple,” she says. Unfortunately, lots of people then fail when they discover how much work the program really is. Learning how to use databases, evaluate evidence, document research, locate and search public records, and define genealogical terms is essential knowledge for genealogists-in-training. Other course offerings may teach about ethics in DNA testing, how to read historical documents in multiple languages, and the best methods for writing historical narratives.

But those who don't want to commit to a whole certificate can take advantage of other, less formal options, such as classes in conjunction with library science programs, lectures offered by historical and other societies, and week-long intensives at institutes around the country.

2. THEY'RE BOUND BY PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS TO CONDUCT "EXHAUSTIVE" RESEARCH.

Unlike, say, doctors or lawyers, genealogists don't need a specific qualification to practice. But they're still guided by professional standards—including the five Genealogical Proof Standards developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, a non-profit in D.C. The five standards are considered best practices for coming "as close as possible to what actually happened in history," and include 1) "reasonably exhaustive research," 2) "complete and accurate source citations," 3) "thorough analysis and correlation," 4) "resolution of conflicting evidence," and 5) a "soundly written conclusion based on the strongest evidence."

Professional researchers may have differing opinions about what constitutes “reasonably exhaustive” research, but most agree that it means visiting archives and making sure to cover all the bases—for example, looking at not just a death certificate to confirm a name and age, but census, birth, and burial records as well, to build a fuller picture and to corroborate it. "If you don’t do all the steps in the genealogical proof standard, then the conclusions aren’t convincing," Byrne says.

3. THEY OFTEN DISCOVER THEY HAVE A KNACK FOR GENEALOGY WHEN THEY'RE INVESTIGATING THEIR OWN FAMILIES FOR FUN.

Byrne, for example, looked into her family’s history and discovered that “my own father and mother would never have met if my great grandmother in Alsace-Lorraine hadn’t had a goiter.” This medical condition led her to circumvent Ellis Island’s rigorous physical exam in favor of entering the country via Boston, setting a whole new family history—and her parents’ eventual meeting—in motion.

Genealogists will often continue to use their research tools on their own families later in their careers, too. Lee Arnold, who oversees the collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), has used them to research his family’s past. “One of my ancestors fought with the South Carolina militia during the Revolutionary War,” he says, and service records indicated that he’d “lost his horse.” To Arnold, who grew up on a horse farm, “That meant, I fell off my horse and he beat me back to the barn.” He later learned that the phrase actually meant that a person’s horse had been shot out from under him. These are the kinds of details that get people hooked on genealogy, according to the experts—“how their lives compare to mine, how … the things they did and didn’t do helped to form me,” Byrne says.

4. SOME OF THEM CHARGE MORE THAN $100 AN HOUR.

Genealogists in archive examining archival materials
iStock

Genealogists are often hired by families who are curious about their past or hoping to join lineage societies such as the Colonial Dames; by specific libraries or archives; or by companies such as ancestry.com, who have genealogists on staff. Fees generally vary by experience and project, although they tend to start around $20/hour (for simple record searches) and go over $100/hour, with a mid-range of around $55 per hour.

Arnold says there are three levels of genealogical research he’ll personally take on: research limited to HSP’s holdings; research that takes him anywhere in the Philadelphia area; and “our Cadillac version, where we’ll get nana to talk to us about her life in the shtetl.”

5. THEIR RESEARCH SOMETIMES UNCOVERS FAMILY SECRETS.

Be careful what you wish for when you decide to go deep: “I always tell prospective clients, ‘This can be life-changing,'" Byrne says. "'You may find half-siblings and other relatives you never imagined existed.’”

HSP’s director of research services, David Haugaard, says that clients can be stunned to learn about family members who were deliberately kept hidden. "Within so many families there are people who are written off ... somebody might have [had] a mentally ill sibling who was kept secret. It's less common today than it was, so when people are doing genealogy, it's not uncommon to learn about people in fairly recent history [who were ignored]. You start to learn that the family was more complex than realized."

6. BIBLES CAN BE UNEXPECTEDLY USEFUL.

Genealogists use plenty of sources you might not suspect would be helpful. Family bibles, in particular, can offer a wealth of relevant tidbits, since they were once often used to record births, deaths, and marriages. Scrapbooks, tax and church records, land deeds, and the 1870 Census (the first to list African Americans after emancipation) can also be goldmines. So can letters, whether provided by the family or found in manuscript collections, which might causally mention a family member’s birthday or offer snippets about day-to-day existence. “You can gather lots of information from them in a real-life kind of way," Byrne says.

7. THEY OFTEN FIND MISTAKES IN ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS.

List of 19th century births used for genealogy
iStock

Genealogists know it’s key to consult paper sources—and to give a critical eye to the “facts” they offer. Arnold recalls a colleague becoming confused when an ancestry site listed her grandfather as white and from North Carolina, when she knew he was black and from Louisiana. “I was able to go into the original documents and see that they had been transcribed wrong,” Arnold says—a common occurrence for sites outsourcing work to other countries. (Another common transcription error: mistaking a florid handwritten 17th century S for an F.)

That doesn’t mean paper sources are error-free, of course. Sometimes mistakes were made in the original documents themselves: Census workers may have misspelled names or miscounted children; priests may have mis-marked birth dates on baptismal certificates. Pros know how to cross-reference all that, too … with more documents!

8. THE WEIRDER YOUR LAST NAME, THE MORE THEY LIKE IT.

“I often tell people we’re like private investigators looking for dead people—we know your ancestors have to be there; you didn’t just hatch from an egg,” Arnold says. “The problem is, it’s so labor-intensive for a common name; you could spend hours looking at the wrong Smith. It’s better if you have an obscure last name.” Names like Brown, White, Jones, and Johnson are especially tough—although matters can be made easier if family members had a distinctive first name ("Napoleon Jones" will be easier than "John Jones," for example).

9. THERE'S A WHOLE FIELD THAT DEALS WITH LEGAL CASES.

Forensic genealogists—like Byrne—apply genealogical tools and principles to cases with legal ramifications. In the process, they often solve mysteries. Byrne might track down a next of kin for someone seeking the heir to a family fortune, or to repatriate the remains of a soldier killed in action. One of Byrne’s colleagues helped a woman prove that the man who kidnapped her as a girl was not her father—and was in fact a grisly serial killer. Another forensic genealogist discredited a woman who claimed she was raised by wolves and that she killed Nazis while hiding out in the woods. Sometimes, Byrne says, the tip-off comes just from talking to relatives; in the wolf case, for example, “Her first cousin was still living and he basically said, ‘Misha always had such an incredible imagination.’”

The man thought to be the Golden State Killer and East Area Rapist was also caught using forensic genealogy strategies. Police compared DNA found at the killer's crime scenes with DNA test results from an unidentified genealogy site, and found a match with a user of the site. The user wasn't the killer himself, but by going through their family tree for potential suspect who matched clues in the case, police found their man. "The techniques used to find the Golden State Killer combined solid police work with genetic genealogists’ principles," Byrne says. "This is done routinely to reunite children and birth families, to identify the remains of KIA or MIA soldiers, and increasingly to identify John Does, Jane Does, and Baby Does."

10. THEY’RE GRATEFUL TO THE MORMONS …

Person with hand on marriage records
iStock

A good number of online records exist thanks to the efforts of Mormons. For years, they’ve been sending missionaries to HSP and other archives to scan hundreds of thousands of family histories, usually in exchange for a royalty and free access to the scans for the society’s patrons. What’s their interest? Posthumous baptisms for the family members who weren't Mormon—so they can stay together in heaven. Genealogists agree the scans are a tremendous asset to researchers, with a caveat: Not even close to everything is scanned, and mistakes are also common. “You still need to use as many different paper sources as you can,” Haugaard advises.

11. … AND THE QUAKERS.

Some things make genealogical research a snap—for example, if your ancestors were Quakers. According to Haugaard, that’s because the Quakers were always issuing certificates; when someone moved, say, to use as an introduction at the Quaker Meeting in a new town, and also when they were kicked out of the community. “Lots of [mid-18th century] Quakers got in trouble for fighting, or drinking, or marrying out of unity, then were disowned,” Haugaard says. What that means is, “Basically, they kept great records.”

12. GENEALOGY SHOWS DRIVE THEM NUTS.

Producers and participants of "Genealogy Roadshow" speaking onstage during a panel discussion in 2013
Producers and participants of Genealogy Roadshow speaking onstage during a panel discussion in 2013
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Grudgingly, Arnold admits that TV shows like Finding Your Roots and Genealogy Roadshow have “introduced people to genealogy and made it really hot—I mean, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an ancestry.com commercial.” But the shows have also given people unreasonable expectations about what genealogy can and cannot do. Byrne says, “People don’t understand that [the history] is not all laid out in front of you" as it typically is on TV. Arnold says he fields requests from patrons who ask him to “‘Tell me about my ancestors, just like that guy on TV did.’ They think it’s easy and quick.” In fact, what Arnold calls those “ta-da” moments offered by hosts like Henry Louis Gates Jr. are actually made possible by professional genealogists hired to painstakingly research ancestry over the course of days, weeks, months.

13. IT'S EASIER FOR THEM TO RESEARCH YOUR ANCESTORS IF THEY WERE RICH.

Ancestors with less money—who maybe didn’t own property or pay taxes—can be less likely to leave a paper trail. But employment agency, almshouse, prison, and orphanage records can get the research ball rolling, as can advertisements offering rewards for runaway indentured servants. Haugaard explains that charity society records also frequently provide details: Society workers would visit families and “make records indicating the woman of the household’s name, how many people were in the household, what religion they were, and what charity they received, like coal or groceries.”

14. PERSECUTED GROUPS CAN BE A MAJOR CHALLENGE.

Research files being used for genealogy
iStock

Three groups of people looking for their roots make Arnold steel himself for some rigorous research. If the case involves African Americans, Native Americans, or Jews, “I know this is going to be a tough one,” he says. That’s because their records are often scant or nonexistent. Slaves often weren't allowed to marry (or their marriages were never recorded); Native Americans didn’t traditionally write their histories down; and Jews fleeing Europe during World War II often had all family records destroyed as synagogues and villages were torched. Sometimes, their papers were falsified in order for people to survive.

These factors make picking up someone’s trail difficult, if not impossible. “I had one woman come in to a talk I was giving and say, ‘How do I start? All my ancestors were killed in the Holocaust,’” Arnold remembers. “And I said, ‘Alright, then your ancestry starts with you. Document your life for your [descendants].”

15. THEY MIGHT ENCOURAGE YOU TO THINK TWICE ABOUT DNA TESTING.

According to Arnold, DNA test results can be sketchy. His own experience with DNA tests from seven companies yielded seven different results, some of them “bizarre”: “One said my family was from Tuscany, but I’m paler than a Presbyterian. Another said I was 5 percent African American. Another said I was Swedish—and that probably means that they found a gene from some randy Viking pillaging the Scots Irish 1000 years ago.”

Part of the problem is that DNA test kits are dependent on data from other people who have taken the tests, which means they are more accurate for some well-represented groups than others. (For example, an American with Irish background taking the test may get a more reliable result than someone whose ancestors were of Middle Eastern descent, since people from the Middle East tend be less represented in the database.) Also, different companies are working with different data sets, and using different algorithms—which can produce different results.

Haugaard also says that DNA testing may tell you some things you don’t want to know. He recounts a story about a man who connected deeply with his Irish heritage, yet DNA testing undertaken by his family showed he was Jewish, switched at birth with an Irish-American baby. “He passed away before he could learn that,” Haugaard says.

13 Secrets of Obituary Writers

iStock
iStock

When Chicago Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell sits down to assess the lives of the recently departed, she feels less like a journalist and more like a historian. “I sometimes feel like I’m a frustrated history teacher,” she tells Mental Floss. “I get to teach a lesson every day and share it with readers.”

Unlike death notices, which only recite basic facts about the deceased, or funeral eulogies, which offer impassioned remembrances from loved ones, obituaries are a written memorial of a person’s legacy published for the world to see. Instead of dwelling on death they celebrate life, from the most recognizable celebrity to the quietest neighbor. They prove that almost everyone has a story to tell, and it’s sometimes only after a passing that people realize exactly how a person has left their mark in the world.

O’Donnell recalls a 2010 death notice for a Montana resident named Jim Cole, which mentioned his interest in photographing grizzly bears. Only after excavating details of his life did she realize Cole is the only person in North America to survive two grizzly attacks, 14 years apart. “They called him Grizzly Jim,” she says. “He wore an eyepatch because the second attack left him without an eye.” (Cole died of natural, not wildlife-related, causes at age 60.)

For more on how obituary writers approach the delicate art of human posterity, we asked several of them—including O’Donnell—to tell us about their work. Here’s what they had to say about a life spent covering death.

1. THEY LOOK FOR THE “ROSEBUD” MOMENT.

John Pope, who writes for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and assembled a book of obituaries, Getting Off at Elysian Fields, says that the goal of his work is to discover the “Rosebud” moment of an individual’s life. (That's a reference to the 1941 film Citizen Kane, and the desire of a reporter to define the mysterious dying word uttered by wealthy business magnate Kane.) “I look for ‘Rosebud,’ what makes a person tick,” he says. “When you talk to relatives, they talk about how he loved family, how he loved life, but you need to keep going and dig deeper.”

In 2009, Pope was tasked with profiling William Terral, a beloved pediatrician and gardening hobbyist. While the former was a noble career, Pope found his real jewel in the fact that Terral was once so struck by the bag of plasma separated from his blood during a medical procedure that he took it home, hung it from an IV hook, and pumped the liquid into the ground to see if it would help his garden grow. “His hibiscus flourished,” Pope says. So did his obituary.

2. IT’S ACTUALLY A PRETTY UPLIFTING JOB.

The stereotype of obituary writers toiling under the shadow of death, constantly aware of the fragile nature of life, isn’t exactly accurate. According to Pope, some family members have such fond memories of the deceased that talking to them can provoke a lot of amusement. “With Edward ‘Bud Rip’ Ripoll, a saloonkeeper, I had to ask his daughter to stop because I was laughing so hard and the stories were so good,” he says. (Ripoll was a Budweiser fan, and his urn was inscribed with the dedication, “This Bud’s for you.”)

O’Donnell describes it as “uplifting” work. “You’re frequently writing about people who made a difference in the world, large or small. The end of life is always sorrowful, but with someone like Mary White, who lived to be 93 and started the La Leche League [to normalize public breastfeeding] in her living room that now has tens of millions of members across the globe, that’s inspiring.”

3. THEY SOMETIMES KNOW WHEN DEATH IS IMMINENT.

Yellow flowers sit on top of a coffin
iStock

Obituary writers have all kinds of information channels when it comes to mortality. Funeral homes may call to notify them; death notices in their paper or in another might provide a clue that a lesser-known person’s life is worth investigating further. Or they may simply be tipped off that the end is near. “For Barbara Harris, who was a founding member of Second City, one of my co-workers heard she was ill,” O’Donnell says. “I was able to prepare the obituary in advance, so when the time came, there was something comprehensive for readers available.”

Other times, that information can be a little off. When an editor was sure a prominent celebrity was going to die, Pope was told to prepare a lengthy obituary. “It was Paul Prudhomme, a chef who a line editor was convinced was going to launch to glory at any moment," Pope says. “He died 27 years later.”

4. THEY NEED TO BE READY FOR AN EMOTIONAL DELUGE.

Mike Bodine, who writes for the Sheet in Mammoth Lakes, California, says that an obituary writer will often be the first person a relative of the deceased has spoken to in depth about a loved one’s passing. “They can be really distraught,” he says. “It’s a matter of waiting it out while people just let their heart out. You can’t always use what they’re saying, but just listening and being patient can help open people up. It can feel a little bit like handling the body itself. You don’t want to push people.”

5. THEY CAN GET CAUGHT UP IN FAMILY SQUABBLES.

Phoning family members to collect memories of the recently deceased can be a sobering experience. Bodine says that children of the deceased can sometimes try to use an obituary to vent about personal vendettas. “When someone has passed and a lot of money and kids are involved, it can turn into animosity,” he says. “Someone will say a sibling is screwing them over on money. It’s just distortion you have to wade through.”

6. FAMILIES CAN GET UPSET AT THEM.

While an obituary writer’s job is to celebrate life, that doesn't mean they exclude the less-flattering components. When he was writing about a local politician, Pope discovered that he had once been to prison for misappropriating campaign funds. When he mentioned that in the obituary, the man’s daughter phoned in an uproar. “She asked why we were doing that. I told her it was because it was the truth.”

O’Donnell has had similar experiences. “Unfortunately, in Chicago, a lot of politicians have been investigated and convicted of corruption," she says. "It gets reported at the time it happened and readers would have known about it. It would be a disingenuous, fraud obituary if you didn’t include it.”

7. OTHER TIMES, PEOPLE LIE.

Family members may also omit certain facts. Because obituaries are perceived as the last word on many people, relatives and friends sometimes lean into the idea it should be a hagiography. “With [socialite] Mickey Easterling, no one was going to tell me her age,” Pope says. “I had to cite public records, which I’ve never had to do before.” On another occasion, the deceased’s loved ones refused to inform Pope that a suicide had occurred. He found out the truth months later, after listing the cause of death as “undetermined” in the obituary.

8. IT’S BETTER TO DIE ON CERTAIN DAYS THAN OTHERS.

A death certificate sits on top of a table
iStock

If you want a well-read obituary, try to die on a Friday. According to Pope, people who expire that day of the week are more likely to be targeted for inclusion in the Sunday edition of the paper, which affords more space and more time for the obituary writer to do a thorough job. “Dying on a Friday will get you more play on a Sunday,” he says. Holidays are also ill-advised times to make an exit, as reporters with dedicated beats (politics, movies, sports) aren’t usually around to assist in reporting notable deaths in those fields, and readership is down.

While you'd think the dying and their associates would have more pressing issues, sometimes they prioritize that recognition: In 1936, King George V's physician injected the monarch with enough morphine and cocaine to hasten his death in time for the next morning's papers, rather than the less-desirable evening editions.

9. PEOPLE CAN BE A LITTLE NERVOUS AROUND THEM.

When an obituary writer becomes well-known in the community, their very presence can portend bad news. If Pope needs to phone someone for any reason other than someone’s passing, he’ll sometimes begin the call by saying, “It’s Pope. No one died.”

That slight unease can work both ways. Once, Pope walked into a social gathering where three people whose obituaries he had already written and banked for future use were standing. “I just kind of stopped,” he says.

10. THEY GET INVITED TO FUNERALS.

Obituaries are often treasured by families who appreciate how a writer has summarized and memorialized the deceased. Sometimes, that gratitude can extend to invitations to come to the funeral. “That happens with some frequency,” O’Donnell says. “I went to the services for a rock concert roadie, who I didn’t know, but he worked a lot of rock concerts I went to the in 1970s. I met a lot of people there who went to the same concerts.”

Other times, they’ll be dispatched to cover the funeral for the purposes of writing a piece. “I went to Al Copeland’s funeral, the founder of Popeyes Chicken,” Pope says. “There were 24 white Bentleys, a horse-drawn hearse, and a band playing ‘My Way.’” The solemn music continued until the procession reached the grave, at which point they broke into “Love That Chicken From Popeyes.”

11. CERTAIN PHRASES CAN ANNOY THEM.

Work the death beat long enough and certain recurring phrases begin to wear on a writer’s patience. Pope dislikes using the term the late to precede a decedent’s name. “What’s the point?” he says. “Can we get over that?” He also dislikes funeral service because “it’s redundant,” and avoids using “natural causes” as the reason for a death whenever possible, because it's non-specific. "Always get the cause of death," he says.

12. SOME PEOPLE USE OBITS TO TAKE REVENGE.

A highlighter is run over the word 'revenge'
iStock

O’Donnell says she's struck by the more contemporary practice of “revenge” obituaries, which are penned by family members and tend to criticize their departed relative for allegations relating to abuse or other personal reasons that have prompted a vendetta. Pope recalls a time when a widow sent in a death notice to his paper claiming her late husband’s law firm had sent him to an early grave. “We spent a day with lawyers de-fanging it,” he says.

13. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN AWARDS SHOW CALLED “THE GRIMMYS.”

Acting as a kind of unofficial trade organization, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers invites devotees of the dead to exchange information on their work and attend functions like ObitCon. Each year, awards—known as the Grimmys—are awarded for best long- and short-form obituaries, as well as for lifetime achievement. The trophy resembles a tombstone. “I was nominated last year,” Pope says.

11 Secrets of Tour Directors

iStock
iStock

Tour directors get paid to travel the world, dine at incredible restaurants, and sleep in comfy hotel beds. Of course, there’s a lot more to the job than merely hoisting a brightly colored flag and rattling off pertinent facts. Some would even describe the work as exhausting, both physically and mentally. Unlike tour guides—who provide local expertise about a city or attraction and generally don't have to travel far—tour directors book gigs across the country or abroad via tour operation companies, handle the pre-trip planning, and conduct the tour, all while fixing the problems that pop up along the way. To find out what their day-to-day work is really like, Mental Floss spoke with three tour directors (or managers, as they're also known). Here’s what they had to say about an occupation that many label a “dream job.”

1. FORMAL TRAINING IN TOURISM ISN’T REQUIRED.

While some tour directors hold certificates in tourism and hospitality management, this isn’t a strict requirement, and professional directors come from a range of educational backgrounds. Kimberly Fields-McArthur, an American tour director based in Australia, has a degree in biblical studies and archaeology, and Anne Marie Brooks, a former tour director turned cruise ship worker in Orlando, has a background in musical theater.

More important than education or training: their skills. Tour directors must be highly organized, adept at speaking in front of large groups, and people-oriented. "A lot of it is a personality thing versus a training thing," Brooks says. "You can’t train someone to have a personality to work with people.”

2. WHEN THEY’RE ON A TOUR, THEY’RE ON CALL 24/7.

While they might get to spend the night in a nice hotel, the sleep of a tour director is often interrupted. Brooks, who used to lead city tours for high school performance groups, recalled a time when a large group of rowdy, drunk men stayed on the same floor of a hotel as the girls in her group. Although she was staying on a different floor, she received word around 3 a.m. that the boozed-up bros were making some of the girls—and adult chaperones—uncomfortable, so she went down to the front desk to sort it out. No other rooms were available, but the hotel agreed to hire a security guard to sit in the hallway for the duration of their stay.

Similarly, Fields-McArthur says she’s been forced to respond to issues in the middle of the night quite a few times. “One of them was a gentleman who made a very bad decision about what height he could jump into the pool from and ended up breaking his foot,” she says. “That was 2 o’clock in the morning.”

3. THEY HATE IT WHEN YOU CALL THEIR JOB A “FREE VACATION.”

“There’s nothing about what I’m doing right now that is me on vacation,” Fields-McArthur says. “If I am on vacation, it means I am not doing my job and you are probably not having a good time.”

Kathi Thompson Cullin, a tour director based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, adds: "I was up at 6 o’clock this morning and didn’t go to bed until midnight doing my paperwork.” When they're not traveling, they're handling all the pre-trip arrangements: crafting the itinerary, ordering tickets for activities, taking care of transportation and lodging, and following up with venues to make sure they haven't forgotten about their reservations (a common problem). Plus, there's the added challenge of shepherding dozens of people around a city that's unfamiliar to them, which isn't exactly a walk in the park, either.

4. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF SHOES ... AND LUGGAGE.

If you’re looking for a job that forces you to stay active, tour directing might be the profession for you. Thompson Cullin and Brooks say they walk so much they burn through three or four pairs of sneakers per year. (Pro tip: If you’re looking for comfy travel shoes, they both swear by their Skechers.) Suitcases tend to be another casualty of the job. Thompson Cullin says she stopped buying expensive luggage because it would just end up “beat up and broken with the wheels off” by the end of the year.

5. THEY’RE TRAINED TO ANTICIPATE THE WORST ...

People get lost. Accidents happen. Natural disasters strike. Tour directors have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. “If I’m leading a trip to Indonesia, I need to know volcanoes might be part of the process of being there, and earthquakes might be part of the process,” Fields-McArthur says. So educating herself about potential disasters—and how to deal with them—is part of her pre-trip research.

Things can go wrong with the guests, too. "I’ve had trips where people have gotten very sick," she says. "I had one trip where I had seven people end up in the hospital at different times for completely different reasons. I’ve seen broken bones and illnesses and hospital stays for days on end, where we ended up having the trip continue on to a different country and we had to leave them behind.” (In those instances, the tour director notifies the tour company, which follows up with anyone injured and left behind to ensure they have travel arrangements once they recover.)

6. ... BUT IF SOMETHING LESS SERIOUS GOES WRONG, YOU PROBABLY WON’T KNOW ABOUT IT.

Problems arise more often than you’d expect. A misspelled name could result in the hotel not having any record of a 50-plus person reservation—this once happened to Thompson Cullin—and businesses often forget that large groups are scheduled to come in on any given day. “So many things go wrong on a day-to-day basis that our guests will never know about,” Brooks says. One time, a restaurant she took her group to was understaffed, so she stepped in, grabbed a pitcher of soda and plates of food, and started refilling their glasses and serving them—all while playing it off like she was merely mingling with the group.

The job is hard work, but tour directors never let it show. Fortunately, Thompson Cullin was able to fix the hotel reservation error before her guests ever found out about it. “Think of me as a duck floating on the water,” she says. “To the human eye I’m looking very peaceful floating along, not a care in the world, but underneath my feet are paddling like crazy just to stay afloat.”

7. THEY REALLY LIKE TALL PEOPLE.

While guests do get separated from the group from time to time, tour directors do their best to avoid it. In addition to holding a flag or umbrella at the front of the line to help guests find their way, they have another trick up their sleeve: “What I usually do is try to make friends with somebody who’s very tall in the group,” Fields-McArthur says. She'll ask if they'd mind being the last person in line; that way, when she looks back and sees their head bobbing above the others, she knows that the group didn’t get split up. (Of course, this doesn’t stop the occasional straggler from ditching the group any time they get distracted by a gelato shop or chic boutique.)

8. SOMETIMES THEY HAVE TO BREAK UP FIGHTS.

When you take a big group of strangers from diverse backgrounds and send them on a trip together, it doesn’t always end well. Thompson Cullin said part of her job involves playing mediator and preventing disagreements from escalating. The most extreme example of this is the time when she had to physically break up a fight in the hotel lobby between two women who weren't getting along on her tour. When tensions reached a boiling point, one woman raised her arm to hit the other, but Thompson Cullin arrived in the nick of time. “I grabbed both of their arms and said, ‘Come with me now,’” she says. They did cooperate, but only after they received a warning that they’d be kicked off the tour if they continued to quibble.

9. THEY OFTEN DEPEND ON TIPS.

The median wage for travel guides—those who "plan, organize, and conduct long distance travel, tours, and expeditions for individuals and groups"—is $25,770 annually or $12.39 hourly, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor. However, Fields-McArthur says many U.S. tour companies pay directors by the day, and wages range from $100 to $300 per day (on the lower end of the scale) to roughly $400 per day for higher-paying jobs. For directors in the former camp, tips are essential. “On some of the older adult tours, sometimes they give you $5 in an envelope and say, ‘That was the best trip of my life,’ and you’re like, ‘Great, I can’t pay my bills now,’” Fields-McArthur says with a laugh. If you’re on a tour and you're unsure how much to tip, check the information packet provided by the company. They usually include tipping guidelines.

10. THEY MEET SOME INTERESTING CHARACTERS.

Tour directors see a steady stream of fascinating people from around the world. One of the most memorable characters that Thompson Cullin ever encountered was a “sweet little old man” from New Jersey on a tour of Sedona, Arizona, who happened to be an ex-con and “retired” member of the Mafia. “He said to me at lunch, ‘You know what Kathi, I like you. You got moxie. Here’s my card. Anybody ever gives you trouble, you call me and I’ll take care of them,'” she says. She thought he was joking at first. He wasn’t.

11. THEY NEVER GET TIRED OF THE AMAZING SIGHTS.

Sure, they may get sick of certain activities—Brooks, for example, has had her fill of Radio City Music Hall—but awe-inspiring sights like the Grand Canyon become no less impressive with repeated viewings. “I never get tired of it. That’s probably the one question I get asked all the time,” Thompson Cullin says. She also enjoys witnessing how her guests react to the sights they’re seeing. “My biggest perk is to see people’s faces transform into childlike wonder when they see things for the very first time—things that they have always wanted to see.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER