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How Tour Guiding Showed One Traveler The World — And True Love

tour guide
Kelsey & Sarah in China

My readers often contact me for advice on how to get away from the 9-to-5 grind and see the world while also having an income. Along with travel blogging, tour guiding also allows for this experience — and sometimes more. Just ask tour guide Kelsey Tonner of The Be A Better Guide Project, who found a himself, the world and true love through his job. Here’s his story:

1. You’re currently shortlisted for the “2015 World Guide Awards.” How did you take your tour guide skills to that next level?

The truth is I got to see a lot of incredible guides in action. Almost every trip I led with Backroads Tours was with a different leader, many of whom had five to ten years experience in the field. These are the types of guides that inspire you, open your mind or push you to do incredible things. In other words, people that give you memories of a lifetime!

I wanted to give travelers those types of experiences and therefore studied exactly what these extraordinary guides were doing. You are not born an amazing leader, nor do you need some array of special gifts. It all comes down to how you treat people, how you solve problems, and a willingness to share your energy and enthusiasm with others.

2. You also recently launched the Be a Better Guide Project. What is this and how can aspiring and current guides benefit?

I believe that anyone, anywhere can be an extraordinary tour leader. That’s why I founded The Be a Better Guide Project and built a global online community of tour guides and tour operators. The concept is we can all learn from one another, share best practices and give people experiences of a lifetime.

I create short, free weekly training videos that highlight the important do’s and don’ts of being an amazing tour guide. In addition, I create and sell online courses for people who would like more of a step-by-step coaching program for leading extraordinary tours.

It’s an amazing community – and always full of surprises! We have guides in Oman sharing ideas with tour operators in Québec, and Australians comparing notes with New Yorkers! Never a dull moment.

If anyone is interested, I have a few free giveaways:

7 proven steps to becoming a World Class Tour Leader [a free cheat sheet]

How to Double your Tips and Gratuities: Professional Guide Secrets [a free video course]

3. On your first day of tour guide training you met your now-fiance, Sarah. What was that first meeting like? Was it love at first sight?

It was definitely not love at first sight. She was with another gentlemen during the first half of our training, and so while I thought she was beautiful, she was essentially off-limits. Much to my surprise this other fellow screwed everything up that very week, they broke up and we started seeing each other later that month. She also informs me that I was quite annoying that first week. Anyway, it’s now been five years of falling in love with her more and more everyday.

4. What has been the most rewarding part of working and traveling with your romantic partner?

The most rewarding part of living this “global tour guide” lifestyle was planning and then going on our dream trips together. We both love camping, hiking, biking and essentially any outdoor adventure – so we made a list of the top dream trips we could take.

We did a four-month bicycle tour through Central America and multi-week treks in Patagonia, the Himalayas, and the Haute Route in the Alps. We snorkeled in the Galapagos, swam in the Mediterranean, hiked in Southern China and went on wilderness safaris in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana. Any money we saved working as guides (as our expenses were almost nothing while working on tour) we channeled back into our experiences.

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Kelsey and Sarah skinny dipping in Antarctica

5. What challenges do you both face working and traveling together, and how do you overcome them?

One of the challenges for working for a large global tour company — Backroads Tours in our case — is that you hand over control of a large chunk of your life to schedule makers who work in the office. While your preferences are taken into consideration, the company’s needs definitely come first. On occasion Sarah and I would work far from one another, sometimes for even up to two months. That was tough, and part of the reason why we fought so hard for our time off together.

6. You recently proposed to Sarah, and she said yes! How did you do it?

Well, there was a canoe involved… 24 roses, 24 ‘I love you because’ notes hidden around a lake, a table, chairs and wine set up on an uninhabited island, some chocolate, a guitar and wooden ring box made out of a tree branch… I figured if I pulled out all of the stops for this proposal, she would feel too bad to say no. (and yes, it worked!)

7. For those hoping to turn a potential travel fling into something more, do you have any advice?

I think you should always be open with a person if you start to have feelings for them. I feel that there is pressure to “be cool” and keep everything very casual when starting out relationships these days. It is a way we protect ourselves, but it can come at a cost.

Sarah and I could have easy been a casual fling at our training, as we later found out we were working on opposite sides of the country; however, she told me she really liked me and offered to fly across Canada (on travel points) to visit me at my family cottage. I was so impressed and we had so much fun that first visit that I then decided to fly out to Western Canada to visit her family later that summer.

I guess my advice is to take a chance on love sometimes and do something a little scary every once and a while. You just never know.

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Kelsey and Sarah in Venice, Italy

8. What destinations have been your favorite/least favorite for romantic travel? Why?

Most romantic travel – Okay it’s cheesy, but it was actually 48 hours in Venice. Here’s the trick: Skip the gondola ride and touristy areas and set out on the town around 3:30/4:00pm. Your mission is to wander through the back streets, get hopelessly lost and soak up every quirky corner you can. Stop at espresso bars, picnic on olives, cheese and incredible breads. Bring two travel cups and keep them brimming with Prosecco (of course buying a new bottle whenever you need a re-fill). End the night with tipsy dancing in St Mark’s Square, jiving to the live music played late into the night.

Most Unromantic travel – Seedy, rural, Central American hotels. I am a negotiating aficionado and, when appropriate, I can hold my own in almost any dispute over a price. This would occasionally get us into trouble, say squaring off against a Honduran guest-house manager, where I would confidently say things like, “8 dollars for this room?? Loco. Come on Mama, what can you do for us?”

That’s usually when we would get led into some dimly lit, back corner room, where every inch of the wall, bathroom and bed was stained thoroughly with lord-knows-what, the entire space lit by a single 40-watt bulb, hazy in the cigarette smoke of the partying neighbors.

Saving face, I would nod approvingly, hand over the 7 dollars, and proceed, once again, to have the most unromantic night of our lives.

9. What is your wildest story from you and Sarah’s travels?

Well, we lucked into a last minute Antarctica expedition cruise when we were trekking in Southern Argentina. The tickets were about half-off and we both decided to spend the money. This led to some pretty amazing experiences, including camping overnight on the Antarctic Peninsula – surrounded by penguins and a pod of whales circling the small bay. We also went for an Antarctic skinny dip, because how often do you get to do that?

10. For those who think you need to “settle down” in the traditional manner to make a relationship work, what would you tell them?

You don’t! There are lots of ways to create the life you love. And honestly you will meet far more amazing people if you are doing amazing things. I don’t know what Sarah and I’s future will hold – but we are both positive that it will be based around travel, adventure and having new experiences as a family.

Are you a tour guide or traveler with a love story of your own? Please share in the comments below.

tour guide
Kelsey Tonner

About Kelsey

Kelsey Tonner is an experienced, global tour guide and founder of the Be a Better Guide Project, a movement that brings together tour guides and tour operators from around the world to learn from one another. His mission is to help anyone, anywhere, create extraordinary experiences for travelers. With over ten years experience in the industry he has led trips in over fifteen different countries from Europe to the Americas and from Asia to North Africa. He has been a wilderness trip leader, a dog-sledding guide, a volunteer coordinator in an Inuit community and spent four years leading hiking, biking and multi-sport trips with Backroads Canada. He has visited over sixty countries and set foot on all seven continents.

In 2015 Kelsey was chosen from thousands as one of eight shortlisted guides for the Wanderlust World Guide Awards. With practical yet wisecracking advice, Kelsey inspires a global community of professional tour leaders and businesses to give people memories of a lifetime, and helps them earn more money while doing it.

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1 Comment

  1. Nora Allen on at 1:58 am

    Thank you! this was an amazingly decent post…

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