Our guides are at the heart of our business. They are the gatekeepers to our destinations, the spellbinding storytellers that play host to your customers on arrival, helping them uncover the essence of a location, enjoy magical experiences, and make meaningful connections with local people.
They also play a vital role in ensuring a smooth experience for your customers on the ground, complementing the planning and preparation work of the sales, reservations and operations teams to ensure the best possible journeys and itineraries.
Since our guides are so essential to the operation of our business as a world-leading DMC, it has long been a principle for us to ensure we continually invest in their personal development. This recognises that they are a crucial asset to our service.
However, the ‘asset’ label seems impersonal – and this was brought home harshly during the pandemic when many of our guides found themselves without their primary source of income. These were people facing real challenges, and we needed to find ways of supporting them and remaining in contact.
So, what have we actually been doing? Have we remained in contact? How do we engage with our guides? To answer this, let’s take a step further back and look at our Guide Ambassador Programme, which started in Indonesia.
We recognise that it remains a challenge for people to access education and gain meaningful employment in many communities we work in. We saw an opportunity to share our industry knowledge and provide employment opportunities by introducing our Local Guide Ambassador Programme, inviting people from marginalised groups to apply. This reflects our commitment to a ‘local-first’ approach in which we, where possible, support and empower local communities.
The programme constitutes a six-month education scholarship split into an intensive 3-month curriculum of classes and 3-months of practical experience and specialised workshops. The classes cover English, History, and Geography basics, as well as the more specialised skills needed to become a guide.
Participants receive a monthly allowance, accommodation, insurance, and all materials needed for studying during the course. We commit to at least one year of paid work experience and official certification on completion. This hugely successful programme has seen dozens of guides get certification and go on to work with us, or alternatively move on to other employment within the tourism industry.
Inspired by the success of the Local Ambassador Programme in Indonesia, we wanted to expand the programme into other destinations, with plans in place for courses in Cambodia and elsewhere. We also introduced the notion of a Guide Academy led by former teacher and Siem Reap-resident Phen Phoy.
Phen has worked across many different departments with Discova before returning to his calling educating others as our Guide Academy Leader. He is passionate about helping our communities and improving the options afforded to his fellow Khmer within the tourism industry.
The Guide Academy consists of a course of self-improvement for our guides, with classes covering skills ranging from storytelling techniques to first aid, from ChildSafe training to leadership and management.
Phen has designed a thorough course for guides based on entry, bronze, silver, or gold levels – the level of each guide is determined by their years of experience and their NPS rating. Depending on where they are at, there is always a goal to aim for. This coincides with our company-wide policy for everybody to become lifelong learners, keen and eager to expand knowledge and skillsets where possible.
However, just as things were starting to progress and programmes were beginning to be rolled out –around January 2020 – the pandemic came along. It scuppered plans for in-person, face-to-face teaching, and with it came a whole host of other challenges.
The pandemic meant no travellers. Nobody in-destination meant nobody to guide. We recognised that our guides would have to find alternative employment to support themselves. In these circumstances, it felt inappropriate to expect guides to undergo monthly professional development courses when their newly stressful situations understandably put considerable pressure on their time.
However, we didn’t want to abandon our responsibility. We talk a lot about being a global family and wanted to come through on this idea at such a challenging time.
We decided to offer courses that may be useful to our guides outside of tourism.
Clubbing together the expertise of our Managing Director, Suyin Lee, our IT Team, and other experts from within our network, we compiled a Business Skills course. The idea was that this course could provide would-be entrepreneurs with the skills to start their own enterprises in their community, thus creating a source of income and hopefully alleviating the strain of their situation.
On completing the Business Skills course, guides are invited to complete a further in-depth Business Masterclass, should they wish, with access to additional expertise and one-to-one consultancy services.
27 of our guides have so far completed the Business Skills course, completing modules on the basics of business ownership, the art of managing people, and fundamental money matters. Feedback has been fantastic, as many of the guides have expressed gratitude for being involved with the course. There is also a real desire to implement their newly-acquired skills in future enterprises.
Alongside this professional help, we wanted to maintain the sense of a tight-knit community amongst our guides. Traditionally, our guides have met regularly – for training, for award ceremonies, and for other occasions to catch up and share stories, fostering a sense of companionship over time. The pandemic threatened this and raised the risk of isolation.
To combat this, from April 2021, we have held monthly Cultural Exchanges. Cultural Exchanges fulfil both functional and communicative purposes.
Each month, a group of guides gets to ‘present’ their country to their fellow guide community. They usually cover idiosyncratic aspects of their culture, including food, celebrations, religion, architecture, and other such things. They have complete ownership of what to focus on and how they divide their responsibilities, speaking duties, image sourcing etc.
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The functional purpose is that this keeps their presenting skills fresh; they get to share the narrative of their country in a meaningful and entertaining way. They also get the opportunity to speak English with each other across nationalities to ensure these skills do not get rusty.
The communicative aspect is that this is a way of keeping in touch with their colleagues and friends. Since our guides are, by nature, insatiably curious about all things travel, the Q & A sessions tend to go on and on.
They devolve into conversational, informal learning. Attendance at these monthly events is consistently high, reflecting the positive, fulfilling nature of these events – especially considering there is no obligation to turn up.
Speaking to some of our guides over the last few months, they have expressed gratitude for these cultural exchanges. The exchanges allow them to stay involved, stay in touch, and stay hopeful about returning to normality and guiding travellers soon.
With borders slowly opening up amid positive signs across the Southeast Asia region, Phen is preparing to restart the Guide Academy. With many guides expressing interest in the programme, the curriculum he has designed is full steam ahead as we prepare to build back even better after the travel break.
Ever-expanding, similar programmes are planned for our operations in the Americas, with Phen acting as advisor looking to replicate the Academy in our destinations there.
In the immediate term, we have exciting news regarding the Discova Enterprize programme.
Discova Enterprize aims to support these local entrepreneurs in creating sustainable and ethical enterprises that empower local communities through responsible tourism.
Building on the back of the successful implementation of our Business Skills and Masterclass courses, we encourage guides and employees to put forward their business ideas to us. In return, we want to provide business mentorship and ad-hoc consultancy services wherever they are on their entrepreneurial journey. In this way, this can be seen as an extension of those Business Skills courses as we invite guides to share their ideas so we can go on the business journey together.
With our network of skilled individuals to draw upon, whether it be finance professionals, marketing gurus, or sales superstars, we know we have the expertise to enable others to succeed.
Furthermore, we can commit to kickstarter funding – up to $25,000 – to those business plans that require some start-up costs. Applicants will simply have to go through an evaluation process to determine the concept’s potential. This will be a collaborative endeavour, and we’ll be looking for partners to get involved over the coming weeks and months, too. We’ll keep partners updated with what’s on going on with an announcement soon.
Through all these initiatives, we have aimed to foster a sense of connection and cooperation with our guides. This has been especially important to us through what has been an incredibly challenging time. In maintaining channels of communication, we hope we have shown how much we value our people in destination – the gatekeepers to the secrets of these beautiful places.
However, the Guide Academy, and educational initiatives more broadly, are founded upon a desire to build back better. We have taken an unfortunate pause in travel as an opportunity to improve our services, and upskilling our guides has been one facet of this drive.
If you’d like to hear more about our work with the Guide Academy, the Local Ambassador Programme, Discova Enterprize, or our responsible travel principles more broadly, our helpful teams will be more than willing to share more information.
Want to find out more about our guides and how we ensure they meet your and your customers’ standards? Reach out!
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