The million dollar guide: How soft skills make a big impression
Updated: Oct 12
The images in this article were taken pre-COVID-19.
BY: Annie DuPre, FGASA NQF2 and Apprentice Trails Guide
When you’re training to become a field guide, you spend weeks memorising information, repeating facts and observations about animals, and learning how to interpret animal behaviour. But what about the soft skills of guiding that make a field guide dynamic and memorable?
What makes an excellent field guide?
To be a field guide, you need to love nature and the outdoors, and you need to be an animal person. But it’s also true that you need to be a people person. The guest-guide interaction is one of the most important aspects of a rewarding safari experience.
Soft skills – communication, leadership, creativity, flexibility, empathy, teamwork, stress and time management, and more – are just as important for guiding as the knowledge and insights you’ll gain from years of training.
Have you ever been on a guided tour? Think about what made that experience memorable. Sure, you learned a lot, but wasn’t it just as important to you that your guide was engaging, interesting, knowledgeable, and even fun? The kinds of guides that make impressions are the ones that can connect with their guests in a way that goes beyond simply sharing knowledge.
If you’re taken on a safari by a field guide who knows the bush like the back of their hand, but doesn’t show interest in their group or enjoy talking to people, you’re unlikely to enjoy that experience.
Of course, the same goes if your guide is really friendly but knows nothing about wildlife. It’s about finding the perfect combination of hard and soft skills!
Essential guiding soft skills
As the calendar year is nearing its end, so too is the current Bushwise Professional Field Guide Course. This is an exciting and significant time for students as they’re being assessed on all they’ve learned and gained throughout their training – including their soft skills. They’ve been able to showcase their knowledge through their theory exams and highlight their soft skills in their practical driving assessments.
There is a fine balance of hard and soft skills in guiding which Bushwise strives to teach through our online and in-person courses. Let’s take a look at the kinds of soft skills encompassed in Bushwise students and guides.
There are many levels of interaction between lodges and guests, but as a guide, you’re the main point of contact.
Guests are customers, and they’re paying for a service – which in this case is a guided experience. This means that as a guide, you’re responsible for making a guest’s experience something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives, and want to come back to enjoy again and again.
Imagine you’re driving guests and you come across an incredible sighting, perhaps a leopard in a tree or a pair of honey badgers playing. As the guide, no matter how tempting it may be to get an awesome photograph, you have to prioritise your guests and position the vehicle in a way that puts the guest in the best viewing spot!
Guides must always be aware of their guests’ interests and what they hope to achieve while on safari – this is part of excellent customer service.
Strong communication skills are critical in any kind of hospitality or tourism job. As a field guide, you act as the lead communicator between people and their natural surroundings.
You’ll interact with people of different backgrounds, ages, nationalities and personalities. You need to be able to communicate in a manner that all kinds of guests can understand, while getting valuable information across. This applies to both spoken and unspoken communication (i.e. body language).
You might have guests that are extremely enthusiastic about a sighting and want to stick around for a while, while other guests are feeling tired or uncomfortable. This is particularly relevant if you’re at a kill and predators are feeding on a prey animal. Feel the vibe of your group. Some people are more sensitive to this than others, and you’ll need to learn how to best communicate with everyone in the vehicle to feel out the energy and know when to move on.
Flexibility and adaptability
Animals don’t always play by the book. You could spend a large chunk of your game drive trying to find something exciting to show your guests, and find that the bush is dead quiet. This is where your skills of flexibility, adaptability and creativity come into play.
On a quiet game drive, you might take your knowledge of trees, grasses, soils, climate, and other elements, and incorporate these into an interactive guest experience. If you’ve gotten to know your guests a bit, you might find they have interests beyond the Big Five (a main attraction in Africa), which will allow you to be a bit more flexible on your game drive and perhaps focus on smaller animals like birds or insects for a little while.
When you’re guiding a group of guests, whether on foot or in a vehicle, you’re their leader. Being confident, encouraging respect, discouraging dangerous behaviour, and being firm by setting ground rules is extremely important to keep everyone (including the animals) safe.
Leadership also means knowing when to say no, which means knowing when you need to give an animal its space and take your guests elsewhere. This is an important part of safe and ethical guiding. If an animal is giving you the signal that you’ve entered its danger zone, do not try to push those boundaries.
Even if guests want the closest, most intimate experience possible, you must remember that your role is to share nature with guests while observing – not meddling. Recognising that distinction and keeping a safe distance is what makes a good guide and an even better leader.
Stress and time management
As much fun as it is to spend weeks in the bush among wildlife, it is still a job and all jobs can eventually cause stress. Learning how to manage your time and stress productively will be hugely important for your health and the quality of your guiding.
You’ll be working in an industry that requires early wake up calls and long, sometimes demanding, hours. Even the most enthusiastic extrovert can slow down or tire out if they don’t take care of themselves!
That’s why it’s so important to look after yourself and know how to decompress. Enjoy an extra cup of coffee or tea in the morning. Allow yourself some alone time between drives. Make calls back home and keep in touch with friends and family.
Know how to have fun
Beyond all of these skills, one of the most important ones is knowing how to enjoy yourself and share your joy with your guests. The people who join your drives or walks are on vacation, after all.
Share in their moments of discovery, as they experience the bush for, perhaps, the first time. Of course you must prioritise safety, security, and knowledge – but remember to have a good time while you’re at it!
Take the time to hone your soft skills
As a guide, you can have all the knowledge in the world, have memorised books and taken every course out there. But, without soft skills, you won’t be a top-performing guide. Lodges and ecotourism establishments look for these soft skills in their new hires. They want guides who are dynamic and know how to host and entertain guests.
Are you interested in becoming a top-performing field guide? There’s still time to apply for next year’s courses. Sign up and start your journey to your dream job today!