• The future of guiding. How technology offers opportunity for guides to excel.

    Text by Gareth Hardres-Williams

The future of guiding. How technology offers opportunity for guides to excel.

by Gareth Hardres-Williams, 14 October 2017

By Gareth Hardres-Williams

In so many industries, jobs traditionally done by people are fast becoming redundant as they are being replaced by machines and computers.  Where does this trend leave the guide – are the days numbered for this profession or does the future offer the guide more opportunity than ever?

robot guide

This is “Aggie” the robot tour guide.  Aggie was introduced to the Art Gallery of Western Australia in a bid to attract more people to the gallery.  Programmed in Perth, she can by all accounts sing, dance, leads tours and even tells the odd joke!

Automation is a word bandied around a lot these days and a concept we need to take note of in the tourism industry.  Employment in the tourism sector remains a strong contributor to the Southern African economy, and indeed the global economy and automation will impact this. As far fetched as it might sound, “robots” will be replacing humans on a much larger scale as automotive technologies continue to evolve at breakneck speed.  The driverless car is all but a reality, with the UK trialling driverless trucks as early as next year and everyone from Ford to Tesla and Apple to Uber (not to mention the tech giant Google) involved in this space.  This is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to automation impacting on employment however.  Manufacturing, retail, healthcare – all these industries and many more will “suffer” at the hands of algorithms and automation.  So what has this got to do with guiding you may well ask?

Driverless cars are no longer science fiction, they are a reality, and but the tip of the automation iceberg.  Automated icebergs!? Now there is an idea.

On a very simple level, if one thinks of the “red sightseeing bus” experience in all major cities around the world, here the guide has long since been replaced on many routes by automated, timed recordings that spurt out largely emotionless information captured to coincide with the next stop on the route.  One can’t  be sure what the likes of Cape Town traffic is doing to the timing of that automated regurgitation, but rest assured the microphone wielding bus guide is a goner here.

The bush presents unique challenges and opportunities for guides to excel, more so than in other areas, making their replacement here less likely.

The smartphone too has become your guide, with a plethora of podcasts and apps offering guided tours of everywhere from the Louvre to London.  Uncertain of a bird call from a distant bush or curious about a track indented in the path on your way to breakfast whilst on safari – well there is an app for all of that.  The gestation period of Dassie? – just ask Google.  No need to bother the guide for that titbit (although interestingly a baby Dassie is called a “pup” and will gestate for 8 months – one quick search will give you all that information and much more).

Smartphone applications have already replaced many of the traditional guide books and are increasingly doing away with your average “information-only” tour guide.

Videos and the various channels that support content such as “YouTube” and “Facebook Live” not only offer great opportunities to grow your guiding business but could also be equally damaging.  They will as quickly support your telling of a sidesplittingly hilarious fireside joke as they will send your comically flawed interpretations of the nutritional values of thatching grass viral.

Relationship – that irreplaceably human dynamic.  I can’t imagine robots forming life-long friendships and relationships that drive the authentic human connection intrinsic to guiding. Pictured: Alastair Kilpin, Josiah Mhlongo, Gavin Lautenbach.

This does leave the guide in a tricky position, knowing that not only can technology replace a lot of what it is that they do, but technology can also scupper their attempts at getting it right.  Fear not though, I believe there is much more opportunity for guides in this fast evolving space than there ever was.  Firstly, technology will definitely help separate that chaff from the wheat and we should see the better guides proliferate and the lesser guide replaced by an audio file or a video clip.

A welcoming smile and a friendly face – as yet, not something a robot is able to reproduce as a tour guide.

Good guides will never be replaced by technology because guiding is at its very essence that which a machine will not be able to replicate.  As much as machines are becoming more intuitive, there is a level of intuition and responsiveness that guiding will always need a warm body to achieve.  It is that constant awareness to the needs of a person or a group of persons, it is knowing when to stop and enjoy a view, or when to push on to find the shade, when to offer water and when to stop for a sundowner.  It is knowing when to speak and when to keep quiet, but more than anything it is about authenticity and about story.  Machines can’t offer personal stories and access to an authentic connection with place.

We’ve seen the “Terminator” blow up all sorts of things as a robot, but here’s hoping they don’t unleash armed robots into the bush anytime soon.

Guiding will continue to become more professional, more regulated and more restricted in some ways, and the challenge for the contemporary and future guide is to deliver an interpretive experience that tells stories and translates experiences over and above the inexhaustible amount of information that a smartphone can deliver.  It is about embracing new technologies, but at the same time remaining very connected to the guest and the environment – not always an easy task.  The key to successful guiding into the future lies in authenticity.  Today’s traveler is very well informed and technology will continue to evolve so as to ensure that information is only increasingly easy to access.   The onus is on the guide to authentically connect the travelers to the place, to fill the experience with so much more than facts, and also to enliven a journey with unforgettable moments of human connection – something a machine will (hopefully) never get right.  So to all the guides out there, stay sharp, stay aware and remember your authenticity and then you should still have a job long after your GP has been replaced by a talking water cooler.

A guided experience is as much about being present and available as it is about allowing the traveler the space to do their own thing.  Technology will struggle to replace the nuanced understanding of when to step back…

How to arrange the private guided safari of a lifetime…
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