AS a kid, she wanted to become a tour guide because of her love to travel the world.
Although she believed a lot of people could be sharing the same passion, being a tour guide is not just about wanderlust but actually far more challenging as she found out.
Christine Lau, a tour guide and entrepreneur with nearly 20 years’ experience under her belt, wants to change that free-to-travel misperception because it takes a lot of hard work and tons of patience to be a successful guide.
Lau had worked in the banking industry for 15 years before deciding to leave her high-paying corporate job for good.
“The merging of banks took a physical and emotional toll on those who were ‘technically’ safe from retrenchment. The working environment was no longer the same. So I decided that by leaving, I could do some good for myself,” she told thesundaypost.
While mulling early retirement to enjoy life a bit, Lau had a chance meeting with a friend who asked whether she wanted to work in the tourism industry as a tour agent.
“My friend told me there was a licence available and she recommended I gave it a shot. The offer was quite attractive, I thought, as it tied in with my love to travel. And since I had nothing to lose, I decided to give it a try,” she recalled.
First tour agency
After the necessary training, Lau opened her first tour agency in Sibu in 2001 – with one counter staff member.
“To be honest, it’s like starting all over again. The whole system is totally different from the usual ticket-purchasing site used by customers,” she said.
To stay on top of her new job, Lau took a diploma course with the International Air Transport Association-Universal Federation of Travel Agents’ Associations (IATA-UFTAA) and completed it in six months.
It’s a complete travel and tourism training programme, designed to help initiate a career in the travel and tourism industry, and is recognised worldwide.
“I was actually amazed how I managed to do it at the age of 40 – travelling every fortnight from Sibu to Kuching and back to attend the course,” she said.
After completing the course, Lau went on to obtain the licence under the Tourism Vehicles Licensing Act, requiring operators to register before starting any tourism-related business activities.
“I decided to take up the course and obtain the licence myself instead of hiring qualified people because I realised it was always possible for employees to leave for better jobs. With my qualification, I can renew my licence without any worries,” she added.
According to Lau, the hardest part of becoming a tour agent is memorising the three-letter codes, including for airports, cities, countries, currencies, and flight numbers.
“Everything is summarised in three-letter codes and since there is no other way, we have to memorise and make sure we remember to avoid mistakes.”
Lau noted that unlike today when everything was conveniently formulated and computerised, tour guides in the old days had their jobs cut out for them.
“They had to do everything manually. Calculations of flight schedules and fares must be precise because clients depended on us to plan their tours. The first several years were tough but I persevered and survived.”
Lau said she had been fortunate to have had the courage to take up the challenge 18 years ago when global tourism was booming.
“Back then, people’s lives were improving and travelling was one of the best ways to spend money. Now the economy is slower with inflation and a weak currency, and people are stretching their money.
“The present global tourism market is not as good. We do feel the impact and I think it’s up to the industry players to market their products with a variety of offers and services to boost clientele.”
Lau expanded her company by opening a new branch in Miri two years ago.
Her travel agency only deals with outbound travellers, mostly arranging group tours to foreign countries and collaborating with tour agents there.
“Every country has its own work culture. We have to be prepared for this. For example, there are many tour agencies offering different services. It’s always good to do some homework before purchasing any travel package to prevent the risk of getting cheated.
“A lot of travellers have to plan their budget and are, at times, attracted by cheap tour packages. Be reminded there is no such thing as a free lunch. There might be some hidden pricing agenda. It’s wise to study the tour (package) thoroughly before deciding,” she advised.
Lau’s tour agency has brought groups around the world and she personally has visited countries such as China, Eastern and Central Europe, Egypt, Great Britain, South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.
She reiterated it is crucial for tour agents to always be prepared for the unexpected, including difficult clients as well as different historical and cultural norms and the types of food found in the host countries.
“We take into account every detail that matters to our clients because as visitors to a foreign country, they need to be assured, especially of their wellbeing and safety.
“So it’s our responsibility to ensure our clients are as comfortable as possible and enjoying their tour. That includes taking care of their health and food. I usually pack dry food, snacks, and cup noodles in my suitcase just in case of emergency.”
Lau has encountered difficult clients but she takes it as a good learning experience.
“Typically, there are two types we deal with frequently – senior citizens and those with a professional background and shrewd attitude.
“The senior citizens would frequently step away from the tour group and ask to visit the restroom whereas the latter would usually demand for services for the price they pay.
“Either one, we need to be patient and diligent in dealing with various issues that may crop up,” Lau said, adding that to protect the agency and the tour group, clients would always be fully informed during registration that the agency would not be responsible for any incidents if the clients refused to cooperate with the tour group.
Despite the challenges, Lau gives high priority to clients’ satisfaction by ensuring her staff put customers first.
“For a tour leader, the safety, and wellbeing of tour members is top priority. I always tell my staff to be responsible by ensuring the safety aspects of tour are in place first before going for a tea or lunch break.”
Acting as interpreter
She pointed out that the job sometimes required the tour leader to act as interpreter, especially when the local tour guides were unable to communicate with the visitors.
“So, it’s important to read up – at least the night before – on the places the tour group is visiting. Leading a tour is like giving a history lesson to students of different ages.
“The ability to answer clients’ questions on the places they are visiting really put our knowledge to the test.”
Lau categorises her clients into three basic groups – teens and young adults who usually choose to travel to countries such as Korea, Japan and Thailand; the 50 and below who prefer going to European countries and the 50 and above who love travelling to China and Myanmar, to name a few of the preferred countries.
Beware of scammers
While news of online travel agencies scamming unwary travellers who ended up stranded at airports, is often highlighted by the media, awareness of such rip-offs is still very low.
“There’s a reason why only legitimate travel agencies with certain certification are allowed to obtain or renew their licence.
“Travellers who prefer freelance tour agents because of cheaper price need to realise the possibility of being deceived.
“It’s important to be alert and smart at all times. Always ask questions about the package and more importantly, do a background check on any online tour agent and the company to be on the safe side,” Lau advised.
She stressed it was very important to check the background of tour agencies for the necessary licence to verify their authenticity.
“Without licence, a tour agent cannot apply for visas (to countries like China and Australia) as well as other services.”
To aspiring tour agents, she said a combination of the love for travelling and the right attitude was important to be successful in the industry.
“It does require a lot of patience, a high sense of responsibility and an appreciation of beautiful places. Dealing with people is never easy but the job itself can be fun,” she said.