What I Miss About Being a Tour Guide in San Francisco

View of San Francisco from Treasure Island (Photo by the author, August 2019)

It’s been a little over a year since the impact of the pandemic caused me to lose my good, Union-supported tour guide job in San Francisco. I’d been one of the tour guides who helped support our move to a Union contract in the summer of 2019. We successfully negotiated higher wages and better benefits. It meant that our intellectually stimulating and emotionally rewarding jobs were better compensated. But a Union contract is no competition with a pandemic if a company can barely operate, if at all, because the industry is essentially shut down. There is no tourism if a majority of the population is advised to stay at home to keep their friends and family safe. And San Francisco’s stay-at-home orders did prevent the company I worked for from operating for various periods over the last twelve months.

Despite living only 12-15 miles from San Francisco (depending on which part I want to visit), I haven’t stepped foot in the city since the last day I worked there, on March 9th, 2020. I love San Francisco. It’s one of the most amazing cities in the world, and I miss it deeply. You might think that crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge would get tiring if you’re doing it 4-6 times a day, but it never lost its majesty on me. I loved seeing my passengers’ different reactions every time. Whether it was the shock of how cold it was—despite my warnings in advance—or just their joy and awe at getting to have that experience for the first time.

When I applied to be a tour guide in 2018, I’d initially been fearful. The main tour I’d be commentating typically ran for two and a half hours, and though I’d had experience with acting and improvisation, I wasn’t sure I was capable of memorising and sharing that much information with guests, especially not in the short amount of time I was given to train before leading my own tours without assistance. I was wrong, and I’m glad other people believed in me even when I initially didn’t.

One of the things I loved about the company I worked for—and specifically my supervisor, as she encouraged it directly—is that we had the freedom to make our tours our own. We were rewarded for doing our own outside research so we could give our own unique perspective about the city. It meant that I had guests who lived locally who still managed to learn new things about their city from me. I loved watching movies set in San Francisco and adding movie references to my tours. It gave me an excuse to watch the movies, and gave my tour a unique perspective for movie-lovers. Sure, I’d mention movies that sometimes not many passengers would have seen, but sometimes that would inspire people to go home and watch them so they could spot something I’d pointed out on the tour. Other times, I’d see someone’s face light up because I referenced a movie they loved.

I miss reading the reviews on TripAdvisor from people who loved my tour so much they felt compelled to say something positive about them. I didn’t often take screenshots of them, so when I thought about writing this blog post, I decided to search for them so I could add a few to share. That’s a challenge to do after the fact when not everyone knows how to spell your name, so you have to look for reviews with different spellings.

When you haven’t really worked in a year (Since I lost my tour guide job, I only very briefly worked as a Census Enumerator during the pandemic), it can sometimes be hard to remember the specifics of what other people enjoyed about what you did. Re-reading that my guests enjoyed my humour, trivia, information, and friendliness is a great reminder. It’s hard to sum all of that up in a way that is designed to sell myself to prospective employers who’ve never met me in a short resume when I’m applying for jobs in an entirely different career, though. My research, reviews, and willingness to take on new challenges is how I managed to get on the rotation of most versatile guides. I worked there less than two years, and I did charter tours, tours for cruise ship passengers, night tours (where we went to Treasure Island, which is where I took the cover image in this post), walking tours, and of course our main hop-on hop-off tour.

I really loved the challenges, too. You know, some days when we’d have incredibly busy summers—we hit a record passenger count on a summer day in 2019, and goodness knows how fast they were sending out buses to deal with the demand. It really taught me how capable I am at keeping my cool even in the face of that. Then there was the day that a car had exploded in the tunnel we usually went through on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge, so my driver had to take a detour through the Fillmore District to avoid it, adding a decent amount of time to the tour, and an opportunity to share information about San Francisco I wouldn’t normally get to share, since we pretty much never went through the Fillmore District. Other people might’ve opted to talk less during that time, but I impressed myself that I managed to have enough additional filler information. Those days with unplanned detours were rare, but I always saw them as an opportunity to give a different tour. There was another time when traffic was backed up heading back to the Golden Gate Bridge from the Northern Vista Point, and I’d already exhausted all my excess information about the bridge, so I started sharing some of the history of the Tenderloin District, which I’d just been reading about. Some of that information then made it into my tour when we hit traffic at other times, or on my charter tours when we didn’t have to stop at our usual stops.

View from Top of the Mark on Nob Hill (Photo by the author, July 2019)

One of my favourite unplanned detours was on a night tour, where, after making our way through Nob Hill, our usual route through the Financial District was blocked due to some filming of The Matrix 4. My driver had to detour around through an area that had previously been on our main day tour but had been removed about a month earlier because increased traffic in San Francisco had been adding too much time to the tours. I loved having the opportunity to bring back my knowledge from that tour that I’d had to drop. By the time we got to Treasure Island, my driver had even forgotten about the detour since my information had run so smoothly that the change wasn’t even noticed. It was also just cool to be able to acknowledge for my guests that the likely reason for the detour was because of The Matrix 4.

I know a common pervasive negative stereotype for autistic people is that we lack social skills, and whilst that had been true of me in the past, all my improv training had allowed me to develop those skills, and helped me excel in the customer service side of being a tour guide. Then, being autistic was an asset for me as a tour guide, because I treated San Francisco history and trivia as a special interest, and that allowed me to retain and recall the information I learned pretty easily. In fact, though I didn’t often mention being autistic on tour, one time that I did led to receiving a thank you note from a couple of my night tour guests, who mentioned they were mothers of “special needs” kids. Representation matters.

I miss my colleagues. Other tour guides, the drivers, customer service representatives, and managers. It felt like family. They kept me going and working smoothly even during the most difficult time of my life. Some of us tour guides have been having a weekly zoom call pretty much since we were all laid off about a year ago, but it’s not the same. And one of the tour guides who trained me passed away in January, so I’ll never get to see him again. I don’t think I had a single colleague who disliked me. I’m reminded of the single time I had a guest who strongly hated my tour—so much so that he complained in multiple ways that it seemed like he tried to get me fired, all because he thought I had too many movie references and didn’t have enough military history when we went to Treasure Island (to be honest I think he probably started hating me because I shared San Francisco’s LGBT history on that tour, but it would’ve been politically incorrect for him to have complained about that). All my colleagues gathered around me in support after that, reassuring me that he was just a bitter old man, and to not take his words to heart. I wasn’t punished. I didn’t take his negative words personally, but I did use some of his criticisms constructively. Though he was wrong about me having no military history on the tour, I wound up researching more of it and adding a some extra military history to the tour. You can’t please everyone, but there’s always room from improvement, and even the most negative of people can teach us something if we’re open to learning from the experience.

Though I’m now looking for work in an entirely different field (the last projection anyone suggested to me for when we might be offered our tour guide jobs back was sometime in 2022), I still worry about the future of tourism in San Francisco. How much of what I loved about the city is still there? When will it all come back? Theatre is still non-existent. Restaurants have closed down. Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away. Cable cars haven’t been running, but they are said to return at some point. Will I even recognise the city, whenever I do go back?

Golden Gate Bridge view from Fort Point (Photo by the author, March 2019)

One thought on “What I Miss About Being a Tour Guide in San Francisco

  1. It’s wonderful to hear how much the city meant to you, and that your passion could be so wonderfully conveyed! I was lucky enough to visit San Francisco a few years ago, and it was unlike any other I’d been to before. Travel has taken a major hit, and it will be the result of major effort if tourism is to be reignited (which I very much hope it will be)!

    Liked by 1 person

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