15 Secrets of Fireworks Designers

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The Fourth of July just wouldn't be the same without the colorful peonies, waterfalls, and comets that burst across the night sky above wowed crowds. But designing fireworks and their choreographed displays is a labor-intensive, dangerous job that requires the imagination of an artist and the precision of an engineer. Mental Floss talked to two experts in the field to learn how fireworks designers plan their shows, the history and the chemistry behind their displays, and why you don't necessarily want more bang for your buck.

1. THE ROOTS OF THEIR PROFESSION GO BACK OVER A THOUSAND YEARS.

Humans have been adding bright, noisy explosions to their celebrations by setting fire to chemicals since at least 9th-century China. The very first fireworks were little more than quick orange bursts emanating from bamboo rods packed with charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate and tossed into bonfires. Slowly, these contraptions progressed into flares cannon-fired into the sky by “firemasters” in medieval England. By 1830s Italy, the use of metal salts such as strontium, barium, copper, and sodium added vivid reds, greens, and blues to firework displays—a precursor of the brilliant hues we see today.

2. THEY CONSIDER THEMSELVES ARTISTS.

“Fireworks are our paint or our clay, and our canvas is the night sky—or a building, or a bridge, or a waterway,” says fifth-generation fireworks designer Phil Grucci, CEO and creative director of the Bellport, New York-based Fireworks by Grucci. The company has created fireworks displays for seven consecutive U.S. presidential inaugurations, Olympic games in Beijing and Los Angeles, and commemorations such as the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, among other events. “Working with space, understanding color and the dynamics within the fireworks, what moves very quickly, what sounds very loud, what sounds very soft, what is subtle and elegant”—all of it takes an artist's touch, Grucci says.

Pyrotechnic designers “can visualize exactly how various fireworks devices will burst in the sky,” says Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. That means they know "how high [fireworks] will reach their apex and burst, how wide they will spread, and how long the effect will ‘hang,' or linger. They can then choose other fireworks to burst above, below, or on each side of an effect to create the image they wish to see across the sky."

Of course, "painting" with fireworks is a little trickier than using acrylics or oils, since the medium is explosive. "The difference [compared to painting] is that we’ve got something that’s dynamic, that moves, it’s constantly moving and it’s very temporary," Grucci explains.

3. THEY START WITH A PAPER SKETCH.

A red and green firework bursting in the night sky
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Old pros like Grucci may know from experience how certain fireworks will look together against a backdrop. But he still sketches out each segment of every show he designs with colored markers on paper. From there, he works with his team to set the show to music, then choreographs it using software called Visual Show Director. Next, his programmers create a script in SolidWorks and/or AutoCAD. “In the past,” Grucci explains, “we scripted it all on a piece of paper, and the pyrotechnicians installed the hardware from that same piece of paper." Now, he says, they can be "taking advantage of the computer age, to visualize [a show] to see whether the product works as you’ve designed it.” Finally, Grucci’s team generates the computer file that will electronically ignite the fireworks at showtime—much safer than the days when a human had to ignite the fuse.

But Heckman says that although the technology is useful, it's made fireworks performances a little more homogenous. "Before electrical firing, computer choreography and a reliance on imported product [mostly from China], I think fireworks companies' unique style was much more prevalent," she says. "Technology has somewhat leveled that out." A few companies do still have distinctive styles, she notes—even if those differences are usually only apparent to true fireworks aficionados.

4. SOME THINGS ARE STILL DONE BY HAND.

A fireworks cartridge contains a series of pellets called stars, which are cubes, spheres, or cylinders about an-inch-and-a-half long filled with explosive materials and color-producing chemicals and metals [PDF]. A star’s colors are formulated via computer, then pressed into a pellet shape by machine. But when it comes to arranging the stars in the casings that will be fired into the night sky, it's usually human hands doing the arranging. The pattern laid out inside the casing determines the pattern of the explosion—a heart-shaped firework blooms from stars arranged in a heart shape—and according to Grucci, automating the task to account for the enormous variety of available patterns would be too expensive. The task can be labor-intensive, since a single shell can contain hundreds of stars.

5. THE VENUE DETERMINES HOW THEIR SHOW WILL UNFOLD.

Fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge in 2018
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It's as true in fireworks as it is in real estate: It's all about location. That’s partly for reasons of safety—Heckman says that every show has to follow industry standards for “tables of distance,” which “mandate the size of the largest shell that can be fired safely from a standpoint of fallout distance to spectators, and also public highways, occupied buildings, and public roads.” She says there's a complex regulatory scheme that dictates the type of products that can be used per type of venue, as well as when shows can begin and end.

But the site is also an integral part of the beauty and impact of the show itself. "We’re very aggressive in looking at structures, and trying to highlight their key features," Grucci says. “Whether it’s a tower, whether it’s a bridge, we will be [scouting from] the very highest point of that. If [a structure] is horizontal, I know that we are going to capitalize on the entire width of it. I could be easy and say, 'put some fireworks to the left and right side of a bridge.' But that’s not good enough. We have to take advantage of the undercarriage of a bridge, the steel cables that hold its towers together, and highlight the entire structure.” Grucci says he'll often calculate the entire surface area of a structure, so he can make sure he's taking advantage of every square inch.

6. THEY MATCH THE FIREWORKS TO THE MUSIC.

Not all fireworks displays have music, but when they do, the score and the effects should complement each other—not clash. A delicate classical piece may call for smaller, quieter fireworks, while a piece like the "1812 Overture" might fit bigger, louder bangs.

"So many of the [effects] we’re working with, they may have a baroque feel to them," Grucci says. "They’re very bold and strong and very in-your-face, but then you have that very elegant feel to some of the fireworks, that you would never put onto the canvas when there’s a rock-n-roll sequence on. When the product is so simple or so elegant, it would not match that tempo or that thematic."

7. THEY HAVE HIGH-TECH TESTING FACILITIES.

An assortment of colorful fireworks bursting in the sky
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Say you want to create a streaking green comet with a silver twinkling tail. “We’ll make that on a small scale, then we’ll test it at one of our two test sites, in upstate New York or in Virginia,” Grucci says. “Our pyrotechnicians are in protective bunkers and we have high-speed video cameras, wind meters, and dB [decibel] meters for noise. We record everything that we’re testing, so that we can look back on that and analyze it. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve failed. But we failed at the test site—never on the performance stage.”

8. THEY DON'T REPEAT THEMSELVES.

“My desire is to always make something that’s different,” Grucci says. He tries not to repeat a particular scene more than once in a performance, let alone repeat a whole show—although he notes that it helps that the "canvas" is always changing: “Even though we may use a particular beautiful color scheme with a metallic glitter, putting that on the Washington Monument as opposed to [over] an open baseball field—those are two completely different visuals.” One of his newest innovations turned up in the presidential inauguration in January 2017: a 600-foot by 700-foot display behind the Lincoln Memorial, made up of a series of 800 fireworks shells that burst in sequence into an American flag. “The color red [we used] is from a formula that is probably a few hundred years old," he says. "But delivering these little red dots on the sky at these [different] heights is what [allowed us to create the flag].”

9. LESS CAN BE MORE.

Fireworks at the opening of the New York, New York hotel in Las Vegas
JOHN GURZINSKI/AFP/Getty Images

"Sometimes people get caught in the trap of thinking that more is better," Grucci says, but when it comes to the number of fireworks in a performance, it can be exactly the opposite: More shells equals more smoke, which can white-out the night sky. "When you put too much in the sky ... you’re not really allowing the medium to display the beauty of what the product is about," Grucci says. (Plus, the metallic particles in fireworks smoke can pose a health risk for people with asthma or other health problems, which means it's wise to limit smoke where possible.)

10. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN LINGO.

Fireworks designers love to borrow from nature for the names of their displays. In addition to peonies and chrysanthemums, which both burst into circles (chrysanthemums have longer tails), there are willows (bursts with trails of gold or silver stars), falling leaves (glowing embers that flicker as they tumble to earth), fish (which leave little squiggles of light), spiders (a hard burst with straight, flat legs), and palms (which bursts up and out in a shape like its namesake tree). But there are also fountains (showers of sparks, sometimes also called gerbs), comets (several long trails of sparks), crossettes (a comet that breaks into other comets, usually creating a cross shape), dragon eggs (a delayed crackle effect), salutes (a loud noise without a display), and strobes (which burst with a blinking effect).

While creating their show, fireworks designers may work with cake (a single fuse that lights several fireworks in a sequence), whistle mixes (a combination of potassium and sodium benzoate that burns noisily), and dark fire, which is used to allow a star to change from one color to another (it gives off no light as it burns, allowing the new color layer to ignite below it). They hope to avoid flowerpots (which burst prematurely) and stars that are blown blind—or fail to ignite at all.

11. DANGER IS (UNFORTUNATELY) THEIR MIDDLE NAME.

Fireworks manufacturing presents an enormous danger. In 2016, Slate reported on a preponderance of deadly fireworks-making accidents in China—with an average of 400 workers in fireworks production plants dying every year between 1986 and 2005. Elsewhere, fewer accidents seem to happen than one might expect from the mixing and storing of combustible chemicals. According to Heckman, in the U.S. at least, that’s because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) “stringently regulates the manufacturing process, including personal protective gear, and employers must train their personnel on the hazards and the [kind of gear that’s] required.”

“We’re mixing powders to create explosive compositions that have to be handled very delicately," Grucci says. The work has to be done in a non-sparking environment (one with special tools and materials that reduce the risk of sparks), and in a room that has plenty of exits. "[You don’t want to be in a] big, giant room filled with fireworks and there’s only one door to get out," Grucci says. Workers in their factory wear conductive shoes, which conduct static electricity through the footwear and into the ground, "because the environment is very dry and you wouldn’t want to walk across the floor and touch something and have an arc spark that goes to a box of open powder and explodes on you.”

Safety is paramount for Grucci, who lost his father, James, in a massive industrial accident in 1983 at the family fireworks plant on Long Island. He says that the secret to safety, from manufacturing through installation, is to “be consistent and never cut a corner.” He says his grandfather always told him, "As soon as you think you know it all, or you want to start cutting corners, [that's] when potentially you’re increasing your odds of getting injured or possibly killed."

12. SOMETIMES THEIR FAVORITE WAY TO WORK IS SMALL.

Yes, it’s a challenge to produce a 30-minute fireworks show off five barges in the middle of Manhattan’s East River—but intimate shows present their own set of hurdles. Grucci mentions a Dolce & Gabbana fashion event held around Lincoln Center’s fountain that he created pyrotechnics for this spring. The flaming bits were a mere 15 feet from the audience and the clothing that was showcased in Lucite boxes. In that kind of scenario, “You can’t afford to have the hard outer casing or the inner paper wrappings” you’d use at an aerial fireworks event over the river, Grucci says. “The last thing you want is debris falling on the audience.” The solution: stationary fireworks comprised of titanium and aluminum particles of a sub-micron size, which burn quickly and don’t sustain heat for more than a few milliseconds—sort of like a sparkler.

13. THEY BREAK RECORDS.

World fireworks records include the largest fireworks display: 810,904 of them, fired off on January 1, 2016 in Manila, Philippines. And the most shells launched per minute: 479,651 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2013. And the longest fireworks waterfall (a long, glittering shower of embers): 11,539 feet, 5 inches, at a fireworks festival in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2008. On New Year’s Eve 2018, the Gruccis broke the world record for the world’s largest single aerial shell at a show they produced on Al Marjan Island in UAE. Weighing 2397 pounds, it was the culmination of almost 40 years of Grucci family trial and effort. “My father attempted the world record for the largest firework back in 1979 [with] a 42-inch-diameter white magnesium cascading flower that we displayed down in Titusville, Florida," he says. "Guinness gave him the world record, but it didn’t launch to the height or break to the size that he wanted it to. He always wanted to retry that and I had the opportunity this past New Year’s Eve to give my family another crack.”

14. THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT (OR PASTEL).

Research is underway on fireworks that are quieter—which could cause less stress to animals, children, and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—as well as fireworks that are kinder to the environment by using cleaner, nitrogen-based fuel.

But those aren't the only innovations shaping the future of fireworks. Shapes are changing, too; look for letters and corporate logos. Designers now also have a host of softer and more diverse colors at their disposal. “In the early ‘80s we started developing colors in between ROYGBIV, the basic colors, so now we can produce lemon and tangerine and chartreuse and aqua and every color within the spectrum,” Grucci says. They do so by fiddling with the purity of the metals used and the size of their particles—which also change other parts of their overall effect. Large particles of metals like titanium, iron, and aluminum result in large “splinters” and a glittery effect, Grucci says, while smaller particles lead to fewer splinters and “a very bright light.” He notes that at this point, they can "get pretty much any Pantone color" in a fireworks composition.

15. THEY LOVE TO SEE AMAZEMENT ON THE FACES OF AUDIENCES.

People watch the Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks from outside Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2015
Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

“I think a crowd, in general, appreciates a lot of action—variations in colors and noise; and pattern shells such as smiley faces, hearts, and dice are always pleasers,” Heckman says. According to Grucci, “This is a very serious business. But it’s colorful and it’s beautiful and it has great, great energy. When we go to a performance, we can see an 80-year-old man and a 5-year-old granddaughter watching the show and their expressions are pretty much the same.” In that moment, “They both [become] children.”

13 Secrets of Obituary Writers

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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
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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
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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'
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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

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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.”

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