Making a New Connection


Great social skills are one of the characteristics that set incredible guides apart from OK ones. Guides are the up-front human element to any operation, and the impression they leave is often more impactful than the adventure itself. Social skills can make a world of difference. Even if you are an aerial course guru, have an encyclopedic knowledge of local biology, and are a powerful public speaker, you may still struggle as a guide if you cannot confidently connect with guests on a personal level.

So how do we up our game and ensure our guests have an incredible experience?

First of all, recognize that our attitude, language, and word choice all have a huge impact on our customers. Our job is to make guests feel comfortable, and there are several easy ways to do that.

The following are some simple techniques used by super-star guides.

1. Listen And Be Curious

Top conversationalists listen actively and carefully. Be attentive to what your guests are saying, acknowledge them with head nodding and participation, and be genuinely curious. As has been said, “It is always better to be interested than interesting.” Take that to heart.

A sure way to start a conversation is to simply ask questions. “The easiest way to start is ask, ‘Where are you guys from?’” says Drew Formalarie, director of operations at Alpine Adventures in New Hampshire. “That starts a connection, which is important because it’s all about rapport and building trust.”

It’s also calming for the guest to know you’re interested in them. Guides with great social skills are adept at finding their guests’ passions and interests, simply by paying attention. As any great conversationalist will tell you, find a topic that a person loves, and he or she will open up and share that passion with you. And if you have a common connection or share the same passion, say so, but don’t dominate the conversation. “This is about them, not you,” says Formalarie.

Korey Hampton, owner of French Broad Adventures in North Carolina, agrees. “It is great for a guide to be entertaining and informative, but a three-hour monologue is likely too much,” she says. “Better group dynamics will come when the guide can facilitate conversation topics that lead to the guests getting to know one another.”

In addition, by listening closely, you’ll be able to glean insights on the needs of your guests. If a mom shares with you that she is nervous about her youngest making it through the course, for example, this is an opportunity to shine by giving the youngest a little more attention and reassuring the mother that you’re keeping a close watch.

2. Let Your Personality Shine

If you don’t have much time with your guests, then make sure your first impression is a good one. Smile warmly and individually welcome each guest as they arrive. Even if you are speaking with other customers, a quick wave of acknowledgement goes a long way. Your individual personality should come through in how you present yourself, even if the only exposure you have to the guests is during ground school.

Whether you have 10 minutes or three hours with your guests, a robotic presentation is boring, and loses people’s attention. In other words—ditch the script, but don’t lose the message.

“Our guests didn’t come to see the same mascots, dressed and waving the same as they were the last time. They want characters who have their own personality,” says Formalarie.

At Alpine Adventures, guides are given a script for ground school, but Formalarie says it’s more of a guideline containing the important things to cover, and guides develop their own way of delivering the info. That delivery may vary depending on the crowd, but the message never changes: “All the information must be covered in a clear and concise manner and understood by everyone in the group.”

3. Speaking, With Style

Whenever possible, bring creativity, style, and a sense of fun to your presentations— and you’ll be rewarded with a more engaged audience. There are countless ways you can communicate the required information, so choose one that plays to your strengths.

For instance, as a zip tour guide approaches the first platform with his group, he says, “This cable is so strong we could hang a 10,000 pound bus from it. But let’s not, because that would take a bunch of time and I think we’d all rather zip, right?”

Here the guide creatively shares a safety feature in a way that is relatable to the average guest. We can all picture a bus hanging from a wire, but most of us aren’t familiar with things like tensile strength or kilo-newtons. And furthermore, it’s humorous and appropriate.

Transforming our beloved scripts does take a bit of work, but it is absolutely worth your time and energy. You’ll connect with your guests more effectively, they’ll be more engaged and attentive, and most of all, your tour will be that much more memorable.

4. Make Guests Feel Special

A simple technique to increase rapport with guests is to make them feel good about themselves. Experienced guides use this strategy everyday and are very generous with their praise.

Receiving compliments makes anyone feel great and generates good will. Saying to a stressed-out school group leader, “Wow, you guys certainly picked the perfect day to be up here in the mountains!” will help make the organizer feel good about his/her choices.

Also, be specific with your compliments. It will come across more genuine and shows you’re paying attention to everyone, which will also improve your guests’ confidence in you as a guide.

“Praise guests individually when they learn a new skill or execute your instructions,” says Hampton. “Making people feel proud of their ‘performance’ helps them feel more confident.” So, rather than just saying, “Great job,” to Sue when she lands perfectly on the platform, say, “That was a fantastic landing, Susan! Very graceful and under control!”

Hampton also suggests involving guests  in ground school. “On each trip, give one guest a ‘checklist’ of the topics you will cover in your briefing. It’s that guest’s job to help ‘ensure the safety of the trip’ by making sure the guides don’t forget anything. Nervous guests are the best candidates for this task, because they really want to make sure all the details are covered,” she says.

5. Be Helpful

Always look for ways to help your guests. Take a few minutes before and after the tour to offer tips on your favorite hike, or some sort of true locals’ experience, or even your favorite place to eat in town. This shows you’re looking out for them. Building a social connection with guests can be powerful—and also increase gratuities.

“Nothing makes guests feel important like a local giving them the place to go,” notes Formalarie. But it’s important to read the audience. Have some options in mind, and don’t give bad advice. “If they have a crappy meal, they may not remember exactly what they ate, but they will definitely remember who recommended the place,” he says.

6. Reassure Your Guests

This is something great guides do well. Aerial adventure activities can be scary, and guests will have anxieties about it. A great leader will take the time to acknowledge these concerns and put them to rest.

If a nervous guest is about to shut down or panic, both Formalarie and Hampton say to stop and talk to the guest one-on-one. “Take your sunglasses off, look them in the eye, and let them know you are there to support them,” says Hampton. “The only thing that guest needs to think about is you and him, and what we need to do together to complete the element,” Formalarie adds.

Often, other group members’ attempts to encourage a nervous guest create undue pressure and distract from the confidence you’re trying to build up. Formalarie says reading the guest is the key to making adjustments. “Are they being dramatic and basking in the attention? Are they just a little jittery and need some encouragement? Or are they on the verge of shutting down and we’ve got work to do?” he asks.

7. Humor

Humor is tricky. It can work really well or fail miserably. By all means use humor, especially if it is part of your personality. Just know that what you and your friends think is funny may not be something to joke about when standing on a platform 50 feet in the air.

Case in point: safety. A dry comment that is meant to be funny has the potential to greatly upset anxious guests.

For example, when you and your group are approaching the first element on the adventure course, don’t say, “Man, I hope these harnesses work today!”

Still, there are plenty of situations in which humor can ease anxieties and take their mind off any apprehensions. Just use it cautiously.

Formalarie and Hampton encourage guides to use humor, as long as it’s G-rated and appropriate. Read your guests to gauge what will work and what won’t. Even then, humor might not go over well because you either misread the guests, or had bad timing. “It’s happened to all of us,” says Formalarie. “The most important thing is to immediately recognize it and fix it.” An apology and explanation of what you meant will usually suffice. If not, you may have to remove yourself and have another guide take over.

Practice Makes Perfect

Using the above tips, anyone can develop social skills and effectively communicate with guests. The more practice you have connecting with other people in a quick and genuine fashion, the more comfortable and skilled you become as a guide.

As a sage once said: “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

Take the time to connect with your guests, and good luck this season.


About Author

Kelsey Tonner is the founder of Be a Better Guide, a company that specializes in helping tour businesses all over the world create, sell, and market their experiences. Be a Better Guide also provides training resources for tour leaders and guides to become more engaging and inspiring while speaking to their group.

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