Confessions of ... a Tour Guide
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Our anonymous Confessor led private walking tours of Rome's museums, ruins, and churches from 2006 to 2008, and again in 2010.
Your tour company is "top-rated"? Ha!
A high TripAdvisor ranking translates into fat profits, and tour companies will do almost anything for glowing reviews—besides run great tours. The first company I worked for pressured its employees to solicit raves from its customers. Guides who were frequently praised by name were rewarded with better pay, but one of my colleagues was axed because she hadn't been mentioned on TripAdvisor enough. Then she sent her résumé to a rival tour company, which contacted her with an unusual business proposition: She'd get paid for every phony, positive review she planted about their tours. Given such underhanded tricks, praise for brand-new operations by online reviewers is especially dubious.
First rule of tour guides: Never say, "I don't know"
I always strive to maintain my integrity. But I know of tour guides in Rome who pull facts out of thin air whenever they're stumped by a question. Travelers seldom check, for instance, whether Vatican City has only 232 residents as their guide says. They simply nod. (In case you were wondering, Vatican City has 829 residents.) Myths and authoritative-sounding details are often more entertaining anyway. One classic ditty passed along by guides has it that the tyrannical emperor Nero played a fiddle while Rome burned in 64 A.D. But the fiddle wasn't actually invented until centuries later.
"What luck! We've stumbled upon a store that sells authentic crafts!"
Tourists sometimes wind up paying for a lot more than the fee and a tip. A former colleague of mine was a master of the swindle, bringing retired couples to lunch at an "authentic" restaurant—so authentic there weren't any menus or listed prices. The restaurant just happened to be owned by the guide's friend, who gave him kickbacks. After a two-hour feast, the guide excused himself to the bathroom just before the €500 ($660) check hit the table. Another colleague mysteriously morphed her tours of the Vatican Museums to include stops in a nearby fashion district to visit boutiques she knew all too well. Every time I complimented her on the new purse in her arms or a new pair of heels on her feet, she winked and said, "Compliments of the client!"
We get back at obnoxious travelers in ways they're not even aware of
Occasionally, we mislead clients or make fun of them behind their backs—but we do this only to the few who are rude. One woman hijacked my tour with painful stories about her energy-drink business. When the Arch of Constantine came into view, she took a break from her ramblings to say, "Oh! The Arc de Triomphe." I happily let her think she was seeing the famous Paris landmark. "Indeed it is," I breezed, before she started yet another longwinded anecdote. My least favorite clients are the loudmouths who feel compelled to make lewd commentary. To that annoying couple from L.A, if you're reading this: Please don't joke about "defrocking" priests the next time you're touring Roman churches. It's disrespectful. Likewise, I never want to overhear another joke about the pop celebrity Madonna while guiding travelers through a gallery of artistic representations of the Virgin Mary.