Eight years ago, Lorraine O’Dwyer sat in tears at her kitchen table in Co Wexford. The shower had broken upstairs and was spraying water around her, but that wasn’t the only reason she was crying.
I’d gone through a very difficult break-up with my now ex-husband. I also found out that I had cancer… I thought, how can life get any worse than this? My mother said to me, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. And I said, what the hell is coming that I need to be this strong for?”
But 2020 had an answer. O’Dwyer, who set up her tour and experience business Gallivanting (gallivanting.ie) after that low point, began the year with a busy diary.
By the end of March, it was empty. Watching bookings disappear was devastating, she says, and uncertainty has reigned ever since. But life (“I had a hysterectomy; I nearly died”) has taught her not to be afraid, she tells me.
“I thought, if the business dies, it dies. I will just have to pick up and do something else. I very much trust the journey that I’m on… in a bizarre, weird way, I think this year has been really good!”
What? How has 2020 been good?
“It has brought people back to nature. I have just done a virtual walk with people from DocuSign, teaching them about the woods and hidden wisdom in the trees. I’d never have had that opportunity without Covid.”
In several rollercoaster months, O’Dwyer has also hosted local walking tours, sold natural soap and skincare products under a new brand, Bumbóg, and told stories online (this Halloween, I tuned in with my 10-year-old for a PG-rated scare-fest).
She’s trying things, seeing what sticks, figuring out ideas for the future. “If Irish people like them, maybe Americans and Canadians will too,” she adds.
Lorraine is one of almost 700 tour guides registered with Fáilte Ireland. Many of us only see people like her whizzing past in coaches or vans, microphones in hand, leading groups on walks, or dexetrously dipping into restaurants, galleries and museums.
To Ireland’s €6bn tourism industry, however, they are the glue that binds itineraries together, the meeters-and-greeters, storytellers, fixers and friendly faces of a country so many visit for its céad míle fáilte.
They work mostly with overseas visitors (members of ATGI, the Approved Tourist Guides of Ireland, speak 21 languages from Arabic to Slovak). But in spring of this year, the whole sector went up in smoke.
“I was like a barometer in a way,” says Suzanne Burns of Kinsale Food Tours (kinsalefoodtours.ie). “I link into so many businesses in the town; if I get cancelled it affects others too. I had something like 200 bookings by the time February rolled in, but then I started getting mass cancellations.”
She remembers sharing the news at a local meeting in Kinsale. “They were like, ‘What?’ We’d heard of Covid in the news, but thought it would never affect us… from there, it was an absolute wipeout.”
Suzanne didn’t get back on her feet until June, launching newly-adapted tours prepared over months in lockdown, when she survived on the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP).
She put her background in marine biology to use, learned about local plants and seaweeds, and developed a picnic and foraging tour that could keep groups safely outdoors, with local businesses providing goodies like seaweed chocolate and herbal tea.
The tour was “a bit of a life raft for me”, she says. Staycations and the Kinsale Comeback Campaign kept her busy over a short, surreal summer (“I think a lot of Irish people rediscovered Ireland”), and with international tourism unlikely to rebound quickly, Suzanne thinks domestic business will be key for 2021, too. “It hadn’t even dawned on me in the past to try and market to the Irish.”
It may not have dawned on us to use tour guides, either. On a city break or overseas holiday, you might gladly pay €60 for a food tour with oodles of tastings, but what about in your own back yard? It’s a common worry as tour guides used to dealing with overseas visitors now seek to attract home holidaymakers.
“They might perceive it as more expensive to do stuff on their doorstep or not worth their while,” Suzanne says.
Tours need to be booked ahead, particularly during a pandemic when distancing and hygiene are so important, but the Irish “like to fly by the seat of their pants” on holidays, she laughs. A mindshift may be required.
Other tour guides have pivoted entirely. Based out of Co Meath, Irish Luxury Tours normally spends the season taking visitors on chauffeur-driven tours of Dublin and the Wild Atlantic Way, for example.
It kept eight driver-guides on the road part-time this year by setting up Parcel Concierge, a “white glove delivery” service. Think designer clothes, Christmas hampers or jewellery — “things that, if you folded it up and threw it into a box, just wouldn’t present as well”, as MD Ciaran McBride says.
Others have tried virtual tours. Belfast’s DC Tours told me on Twitter that they had “learnt how much fun it is to make self-guided audio tours and create virtual experiences”, for example. In the Kingdom, Dingle Slea Head Tours created video tours of a peninsula whose summer soundtrack normally sings with foreign accents.
“If people can’t come to Ireland, then we thought we could take Ireland to them,” owner Rory Brosnan explains.
In Co Kildare, tour guide Mark Doherty began the year with a new business, Connect the Dots Tours of Ireland (connectthedotstoursofireland.com). After 10 years guiding for others, he had taken the plunge in October of 2019, investing €25,000 of his savings into a 16-seater minibus. It has been sitting in the driveway ever since.
“It hasn’t done one tour. It was looking like a profitable first year. February was positive. The first week in March then, that’s when it kind of fell off a cliff. There came a point where there was no one left to email to cancel.”
“Initially, I was thinking it would be like when the volcano kicked off in Iceland, or even 9/11,” Mark says. “Kind of like a speed bump that we would have under control in a month or two. But by April or May, it became clear that this was going to be very serious.”
His solution has been to put together tours over Zoom, using Google Earth and Street View, along with slides, videos, polls and chatboxes to lead groups of up to 50 on online excursions around places like the Causeway Coast.
“As a guy who isn’t that comfortable in front of a computer, it was a sharp learning curve,” he admits. “Virtual tourism will never be as good as the real thing,” Mark adds, but it’s a good way to keep the brand alive, stay on top of the all-important TripAdvisor rankings and seed future bookings.
Plus, he sees potential earnings in virtual tours for groups like students from international colleges.
Tour guides like Mark are inherently sociable folk. They love the spark between guide and guests, the craic on coaches, the questions that force them to think on the hoof, the lifelong learning about Ireland. They build relationships with the places they return to, bantering with the people at restaurants, markets, shops and attractions on their itineraries (“More than the money, I miss interacting with people,” as one told me). The irony of guiding from a laptop isn’t lost on him.
“I was born and raised in tourism,” Mark laughs. “My earliest memories are of my mother getting breakfasts ready in the B&B, and she’d send me in to keep the guests entertained!” He’s nervous about 2021, but like most I spoke to, retains a surprising optimism, a basic faith in tourism.
“It’s a very positive industry,” he says.
Of course, some guides won’t be back. While many MacGyvered up new ways of working, or survived on the PUP using the time to re-skill, network or ramp up on digital marketing, others struggled with mortgages and families to support. Some of the self-employed fought to prove their eligibility for the payment.
Even if tours start to return this March, guides who haven’t gigged since the 2019 season wound up will have been 18 months without meaningful work. With 2021 desperately uncertain and vehicle, professional indemnity and public liability insurance bills a worry — “insurance is going to be the death of many businesses next year,”
Lorraine O’Dwyer believes. Staff retention is a ticking time bomb for hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions, all of whom are losing talented people to other careers during travel the pandemic, and tour guiding is no different.
It’s too early to say exactly how great the attrition will be, Mick Langan, honorary president of ATGI tells me, but the recession of 2007-2010 saw Irish tourism contract by 30pc, he points out. “We did lose members because of it”.
That may not sound like a lot of jobs. But tourism is a deeply inter-connected industry, and the effect will ripple outwards.
“We’re the oil that moves through the system, keeping everything going,” as Langan puts it. Tour guiding isn’t a role you simply slot into. It requires research, people skills, judgement and energy. “Tourism is an ecosystem, and every cog is important within it,” he says.
As a travel writer, one of the first things I book before a trip is a guided tour. Be it a foodie traipse around San Sebastian or Galway, a social history stroll in New York or Dublin, a cycling tour along the River Moy, or a bus tour of Iceland’s Golden Circle, they’re never cheap, but they give me my bearings, hook me up with insider tips and introduce me to like-minded people… with eats and drinks thrown in to boot.
If 2021 sees Irish guides tweak their tours for locals, will we return the favour by booking more tours, learning even more about the country we were so delighted to explore and rediscover this year?
Two new festivals for 2021, GuideFest and Galway’s Urban Walking Festival (dates to be confirmed due to Covid) have been dreamed up by out-of-work guides specifically for this reason. They hope to show what guides can do and inspire local bookings for the year ahead.
In a dark, depressing playout to the year, I think we could also learn from their optimism, good cheer and resilience at a time when it may have been easier to just give up.
“I’m lucky,” Suzanne Burns reflects in Kinsale. “Some people are never coming back; they have been financially ruined. I am one of the lucky ones. I see next year as year one again, a continuation of this year, and that’s actually ok. I’d rather be alive and small, than be gone.”
“Tourism will be back,” says Lorraine O’Dwyer, with total conviction.
“I know it will be back. And I think there will be a far greater appreciation of the outdoors. Who doesn’t love a bit of gallivanting, like? It’s a great job!”
Take three: tours to look forward to
1. GuideFest: Tour guide Jim Demspey had a bumper festival of free guided tours organised for October. It was cancelled, but will return in 2021… watch this space. guidefest.ie
2. Urban walks: Galway’s tour guides are planning an Urban Walking Festival for February, with tours for locals ranging from Barna Woods to the city at night. €10pp; galwaywalkingfestival.ie
3. Connect direct: The Association of Tours Guides in Ireland is overhauling its website, tourguides.ie. Next year, use it to connect and discuss possible tours with almost 500 guides.