Free tours: You’ll find them in every major tourist destination on the planet nowadays, and plenty of minor ones, too. Because they’re not technically free—tips are expected (though not forced)—these types of outings have actually become a big business, and they have spawned a few large companies competing alongside the lone operators.
To find out how one of the biggest of these operations works, I sat down with Stephanie Taylor-Carillo, the chief communications officer for Sandemans New Europe Tours. If that name isn’t familiar, it likely will be soon. The company currently works with some 600 guides in 17 European cities, New York City, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv, and it is still expanding. In 2018, it guided some 2 million guests.
Pauline Frommer: So I’ve long wondered: How does it work for the guides? I heard that they have to pay a percentage of the tips they make on each tour to the company they work for? Is that true?
Stephanie Taylor-Carillo: Oh no, that’s not the way it operates, at least not for us. All of our guides pay a per-head marketing fee to us. That fee doesn’t change by how much they make on an individual tour.
Frommer: Interesting. But you don’t allow just anyone who pays the fee to work with Sandemans, do you? I would think that to keep up the reputation of the company, and thus make working with your valuable, you’d have to vet the guides.
Taylor-Carillo: We actually have a very stringent process for bringing on new guides. In the past six months, only 2% of the people who have applied to work with us as tour guides have been accepted. We had over 2,000 applications in the past six months. After initial phone screenings, only 350 were invited to an in-person meeting and of that, less than half, 132, went on to pass the written exam [from our two staff historians]. Of those 132, only 42 ended up passing the audition and becoming guide partners of Sandemans. The audition is as important as the test, because a lot of people know history, but if you’re not entertaining, if you don’t know how to tell a good story, you won’t work as a tour guide.
Frommer: I took a Sandemans tour recently [in Lisbon], and so many people showed up that the guides had to divide up the group, and seemed to try and do so in a very even way, which surprised me. I would think that, because each guide is working for tips, they’d each try and get a really large group.
Taylor-Carillo: No, it doesn’t really work well with crowds. Usually 23 to 27 people on a tour is the sweet spot for the guest experience. After that, the group becomes too big, people might wander away and the per-tip amount is often much lower.
Frommer: Why do you think these types of tours are getting to be as popular, or perhaps more popular, than the tours one books and pays for ahead of time?
Taylor-Carillo: Well, we actually do both free tours and book-ahead tours. [Author’s note: the latter often involve culinary experiences or transportation to the touring area]. But for the free tours: There is no risk involved. People can decide at the last minute that this is what they want to do. They don’t have to risk booking and then the weather being bad. And if they’re bored, they can wander away without wasting any money.
Frommer: How have your tours changed over the years?
Taylor-Carillo: Our original tours were primarily for backpackers, people staying in hostels. We did a lot of pub tours, and while we still do those, they’re not the majority of what we offer. And now we get people of all ages: seniors, families, honeymooners. This is not just for backpackers anymore.