I still exchange Christmas cards and notes with a former (and fabulous) EF tour director I met on a British Isles tour in 1998. Kirsten and her husband are now the proud parents of nearly 11-month-old twins. Her 2010 Christmas card features a photo of these adorable babies. I wanted to request Kirsten for my 1999 tour, but she had accepted a new job in London. After I found out who my tour director was going to be for my 1999 tour, I let Kirsten know and she contacted him. Her introduction paved the way for a very long working relationship and friendship with my favorite tour director, Tony McGrath.
As a longtime EF group leader, I have worked with many different tour directors. I think they are the best advertisement for EF Educational Tours. More often than not, the tour directors are the only individuals associated with EF that the group leaders meet. I must be “living right” because I have rarely been disappointed with them. The best ones all possess similar qualities. They have good rapport with the group leaders and students. They know
how to work with tour participants of all ages and backgrounds. They know how to create a warm and friendly on-tour atmosphere. They provide lots of educational “content” without being boring or overbearing. They are both professional and personable. Trite but true, they all love to travel.
I have been on tour with Tony McGrath six times and I have requested him for my 2012 tour. Tony is very much in demand with other group leaders so I am only able to request him for tours in alternating years. His “dance card” stays filled all of the time! A “Tony tour” to any destination is sure to be a success. I cannot say enough good things about Tony. Well, his mother and his wife might be able to beat me at this. We’re all members of his fan club. Speaking of his many fans, on my first tour with him in 1999, my daughter, Ruth, and the other girls in the group used to tear off his signature at the bottom of the EF daily itinerary sheets Tony posted in the hotel lobbies. The signatures ended up in their tour scrapbooks. I was tempted to tear off his signature early one morning when I was doing wake-up calls, but I decided not to incur the wrath of those girls.
One hallmark of a “Tony tour” is the cultural and historical commentary he provides on the coach and off when we are touring. After all, he is an Oxford graduate with a degree in history. (Well, I’m impressed by this fact.) He also knows so much about British and American popular culture. As the tour director, he assumes the role as our teacher and he makes his “lessons” relevant, informative, and even entertaining. It can be quite a challenge to keep teenagers awake on the coach. Tony knows just how much information the teenaged brain can process when the students are sitting fully reclined in the comfortable coach seats. I remember one tour director reading aloud from what sounded like Encyclopedia Britannica on the coach. The guy went on and on so much that I even went into a coma along with the rest of my students.
Tony can make even bad poetry bearable and he can interest students in literary classics. On our customized Scotland tour in 2005 (“Kilts and Carolinians”), Tony recited a poem called “The Tay Bridge Disaster” (which occurred in 1879) by William McGonagal:
Beautiful railway bridge of the silvery Tay
Alas! I am sorry to say
That 90 lives have been taken away
Not surprisingly, McGonagal is regarded as the worst poet in British history. We were all laughing not because of the tragedy but because of the overly dramatic way Tony read that poem. Tony’s favorite novel is “Kidnapped” and he read aloud passages that highlighted the landscapes and scenery passing by us on the coach. Everyone paid attention. We even stopped at South Queensferry and went inside the Hawes Inn where Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired to write “Kidnapped.” That was pretty neat.
Back in 2001 in Ireland, Tony introduced us to the song, “Dirty Old Town.” He provided copies of the lyrics for everyone. We love the version performed by the Pogues.
“Dirty Old Town” has become our UK tour song and we request it every time Tony takes our group out for a musical evening. On the way to the airport in 2001, Tony played the song for a final time and we all wept! We did not want the tour to end. Several years ago, Tony went to a Pogues concert in Manchester and made a long distance call to me when the band played “our song.” It was in the middle of the night for me, but I was moved by his grand gesture.
Tony’s tour is his “classroom” and he is the type of tour director who goes that extra mile to facilitate the learning of his tour participants and to help make the tour more meaningful. For our Scotland tour, Tony created a set of handouts for each person that contained the lyrics to many famous Scottish songs, including “Loch Lomond,” “Scotland the Brave,” and “Flower of Scotland.” When our group attended an evening of Scottish music at our hotel, we took the lyrics with us. A local singer, David Holt, performed most of the songs in Tony’s “songbook” and we were able to sing along.
I live in Cheraw, South Carolina, the birthplace of jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie, and a small town that takes pride in preserving its past by restoring and maintaining its historic buildings and homes. Unfortunately, the town does not have a movie theater or a bowling alley. My students look forward to the recreational activities Tony arranges for them after dinner. Tony often goes above and beyond the call of duty. I appreciate the extra time Tony spends to take the students to see a movie or to go bowling. On one evening in Scotland, Tony took us to see the world’s most elaborate water, light, and music production, “Waltzing Waters,” in Newtonmore. How can something so tacky be so entertaining?
In Scotland, we spent a fun afternoon at a sheepdog farm watching the border collies and the sheep perform a variety of routines and having the opportunity to hold puppies and lambs of all sizes. When Tony announced the dinner menu for that evening, he said the hotel would be serving “puppy pate” and lamb. The groans and jeers on the coach were tremendous. Most of the students actually ate lamb that evening. I opted for the salmon because I could not dine on “Mary’s little lamb.”
Tony organizes a quiz bowl contest for the final night to test everyone’s knowledge (and memory) of the tour. He even purchases a variety of gifts for the winners. The questions are created by all of the tour participants. We either compete as individuals or in teams. When the numbers permit, we will sometimes have a contest between the adults and students. The competition can be fierce because the adults can be so competitive. Maybe it’s a matter of pride for them. Unlike the students, the adults never sleep on the coach. They listen to every word uttered by Tony.
Tony tries to speak to each tour participant individually at the airport on the day of our departure. He is such a thoughtful person. (His mama raised him right.) He conveys a strong feeling that he will see them again one day. Of course, a few of them do see Tony again when they register for another “Tony tour.” Tony’s cheerfulness and sense of humor make him an outstanding tour director. I have never seen Tony in a bad mood. His diplomatic and communication skills are impressive, too. Tour directors have to deal with multiple groups and group leaders and sometimes on the very same consolidated tour. Thanks to Tony, I am a better group leader (and probably a better person).
Please keep this in mind. If you understand your own responsibilities as a group leader and you know what the tour director’s responsibilities are, then you are already well on your way towards having a successful tour. If you are a first-time group leader, be sure to attend one of the many EF international training tours before you go on tour.
Good communication with your tour director, especially if you are on a consolidated tour, is essential.
• Your tour director will try to contact you before your departure day by e-mail or by phone. You can exchange lots of information with each other before you even leave.
• You will usually have a meeting with your tour director and the other group leaders on your arrival day. You might sit in a café for a cup of tea or coffee in the afternoon while the students are enjoying some free time or in the hotel lobby after dinner. The size of your own group does not matter. Each group leader has an equal voice on the tour. Ask questions and share any concerns with each other during this meeting.
• Communicate in a polite way even if you are not pleased with something. Mind your tone. There are just some things that are beyond the control of any tour director. Deal with it and go with the flow. That’s the nature of travel.
• Be flexible with the EF tour itinerary. Your tour director will alert you to any changes or substitutions.
• Tour directors and teachers often face similar challenges. Not everything will go according to plan. When that happens, “monitor and adjust.” Let your tour director know that you understand this. You will become a more experienced traveler when you learn to deal with the unexpected.
You will meet your tour director at your final airport (or an EF representative if your tour director is busy working with the other groups on your tour). Don’t worry. As soon as you clear customs, you will see someone holding up an EF sign. If that person is someone like Tony, then you’re in for a great tour.
Merry Christmas, Kirsten and Tony! Thank you so very much for the wonderful tours and for your friendship. Thank you, EF Educational Tours, for introducing me to so many great tour directors.