What I Learned From Being a Free Walking Tour Guide for 3 Years
…and running a successful travel business in a place I first knew nothing about
I came to the Netherlands over 3 years ago with no intention of staying longer than a month, and no longer than 3 months in mainland Europe. I ended up staying, settling in and, eventually, I started a small tour company by the name Frank Tours Rotterdam, which became one of the Top Listed Companies on Trip Advisor in the city.
In short, I arrived in a completely new city and, regardless of the fact that I was no architect or historian, not even a very-familiar-with-the-area local, I still managed to successfully open and grow a business in tourism.
At first, I started off working with a local hostel Ani & Haakien, where I volunteered as a tour guide and night-guard. I offered completely free walking tours, mainly to hostel guests but open to anyone interested, a few times a week.
Suddenly, in front me was standing a small group of curious travelers, ready to discover the city and learn something new; behind me, a city completely new to me, and only a handful of anecdotes and history bits to tell. However, with a lot of my own research, many museum visits, new weekly questions from tour attendees, and advice and stories from locals and friends, I was becoming more knowledgeable and professional by the week! The feedback from friends and guests reflected this as did my own self-confidence.
That’s why most people can do it regardless of their bank of knowledge, qualifications**, fears or insecurities. All you need is a story to tell and passion for the place you live in and you are almost ready to start!
If I can do it you can!
To clarify, I am not going to encourage you to start a tour company, but I would like to share the best experiences that I have had during this time and show you how you can benefit in a similar way & perhaps apply it to your business or field and give you some insight on starting a basic free walking tour wherever you are.
**Some European countries do require particular qualifications to be a tour guide. Check with your local government/authorities if there are any restrictions on offering a likewise service in your area!
What I Learned and Why You Should Join a Free Tour
New, interesting knowledge & great people
The people who attended my tours came from all over the world, many from the United States and large parts of Latin America, from all over Europe, including many interested locals, and also from Russia, India, China, South Korea and many more. In between the tour’s points of interests and the speeches I gave, I spent a lot of time talking to the guests. I really enjoyed hearing about where they came from and where they have traveled to. Even though I was the one that was supposed to educate and inform the guests on Rotterdam’s history, I always walked away from a completed tour with new cultural knowledge, insights, and ideas about how to live or to travel.
And not only that — many people who had attended me on the tours became acquaintances or friends in the city, and some had even blossomed into full-blown friendships. A few even attended my wedding, and many others frequented the birthday parties I organized and would invite me to theirs!
“Off the beaten path” stories and places
Frequently, on a free walking tour, the tour guide will tend to show you parts of the city you would likely not discover had you gone on a standard prepaid tour where you tend to get ready itineraries. It’s more adventurous and spontaneous as frequently you can join them at the last minute if you are close to the meeting point. Essentially, you just have to show up!
You are likely to still get an overview of the topic or key places you will visit, but you have no idea of the places you will see in-between them or the intricate stories you will hear. During a free tour in Venice with my partner in 2017, we were shown many artisanal shops and local food markets that really helped to make the most of the city. We also learned tips on local customs and things we must try before we leave, like the restaurant etiquette in Venice or the famous Spritz drink!
Here is an example of places I liked to show people in Rotterdam:
- The statue of once one of the world’s tallest men, Rigardus Rijnhout, a local Rotterdammer.
- A legendary bar of Hoboken situated “off the beaten path” behind a famous nightlife district, surrounded by great street art.
- A rooftop with a view over the city (actually an old car park, but people loved the skyline view, cool perspective on surrounding street art and once a year this rooftop had a month-long party on top of it!)
No money risk and service of a good standard
On a regular tour where you pay at least 20 £/$/€ per person, the tour guide is employed as part of the company and automatically expects compensation from his company for the work they carry out.
On Free Walking Tours, you generally are invited by the tour guide to leave a voluntary donation at the end, which hopefully reflects your satisfaction with the service. This means that every tour done in this way will be to the highest standard, as the guide has to create the same great experience every time in order to get paid. Of course, for you this is great: pay at the end, or if you don’t like it halfway through, say “thank you for your time, it wasn’t my cup of tea” and you’re free to go with no money spent.
I haven’t had many people ‘disappear’ from a tour, and I had some who completed the tour but were on a budget and had no money to offer. It was never a problem, but I always really appreciated when people mentioned this.
One traveler from Copenhagen, Kasper — who actually attended my wedding — arrived in the hostel five minutes before a tour started. I invited him and once we completed the tour he said, “Hey, I don’t have much money so I’ll just give you this 50 cent but if you want we can share a smoke together later” (from some goods he had acquired earlier that day in Amsterdam).
The tour was an evening Street Art Tour so we all ended up going for a drink anyway, and later on, I heard Kasper was looking to Couchsurf in Rotterdam and he ended up staying at my place for a few days instead. We had a great time, we still keep in touch, and we are seeing each other in less than three weeks from this moment.
Valuable lessons about myself
This will be more relevant to you if you end up organizing a tour or event by yourself. I learned something valuable about myself. I love storytelling and entertaining others. I had already felt this before but this belief really solidified itself after a few years of offering these tours.
Leading the same tour on a regular basis can get pretty monotonous. However, the people that attended were always new and made it exciting to tell them the same stories that I told the last group, time and time again.
Sometimes we get caught up in our own happiness or our job satisfaction but we forget why we really do it in the first place. The tour you are leading, or the dish you are cooking, or the project you are working on — whatever your job/product/service, even though you’ve done it over and over again, remember that for the person receiving might be experiencing it for the first time. It could make a big difference to their day, to their well-being and to their life.
Why You Should Run a Free Tour?
I will say that above is already a great list of reasons for organizing a tour yourself. But the #1 reasons to start a free walking tour in your city should be because you want to!
Of course, it may not even be for everyone, but if:
You are passionate about your city or where you live, its architecture, history, art, people, nature, culture, or you’re a great storyteller, you love entertaining others and meeting new people, you love to talk and listen and share travel experiences and be surrounded by travelers or an international crowd. The people who will join your tour will notice and appreciate this!
You should be motivated by the tips that you could make (as some guides make a lot of money. If you use tours as something you can get out of people or you want to promote another business and use this as a means to do so, it will not be hard to see through your intentions and you will gradually get bad reviews and less attendance.
The point is, there is nothing wrong with asking for tips for a well-done tour or benefiting from it somehow, but show that you have good intentions and aren’t purely motivated by money but do it out of love and passion. Give people the freedom to tip whatever they feel was an appropriate compensation.
To reiterate, you don’t have to start a company or a business. You can start a simple, once a week event that you promote on a few channels that you offer these tours. Try it a few times and see if you and the guests enjoy it. Of course, tour guiding may not be for everyone, but I would love to enable those who are passionate and suitable to it but haven’t given it a chance.
Perhaps you can draw your own conclusions from this and the upcoming articles relevant to your business or field of expertise. I tried to convey how using your abilities, your energy, and wits can help you beat the odds and make the most of what you are doing for yourself and your customers or the people you want to engage.
In my case, I have made multiple friendships over the last 3+ years, and I have a lot of memories of great nights and days out with guests whom I haven’t seen since. I’ve learned a lot about other countries and was constantly confronted with new points of view thanks to the diverse nature of the groups, learned something about myself. Sometimes learning by doing is one of the best ways to learn and sometimes you just have to make the first step and see where it might lead you to as you might surprise yourself and others!
Just because the tours are advertised as free tours it doesn’t mean that they are either free or of lesser quality (as for many people the price reflects the quality of a product). Yes, there will be some free tours you will or have already attended that haven’t satisfied your expectations and you will come across guides who almost bully you into leaving a ‘voluntary donation’. But, in reality, I have attended some great free tours in my time and look forward to many more. You tend to get a very sincere and passionate experience, meet great people and you don’t have to worry about spending 50 $/£/€ for a tour that you are not sure will live up to the hype!
Below I attach some snippets of reviews that people had previously left me, to give you an example of their experience of a free tour.
“Frank’s tours are super amazing! I didn’t expect much from a free tour that I signed up for but what I got was an experience I would have definitely found worth paying for. Frank takes you to super nice places around Rotterdam you wouldn’t have thought of visiting, you get to explore the town in the company of other like-minded travellers, and what really makes the difference is the amazingly friendly and chill vibe that Frank emits! It feels more like hanging around town with good friends rather than being on a sightseeing tour! It’s the kind of unforgettable tour experience I would recommend to anyone!“
To be honest, even though being a tour guide used to be my livelihood, reviews like this one really remind you how worthwhile what you’re working towards is — and that’s what makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, not the bigger payout or anything else.