Confessions of a tour leader: Free flight and accommodation, but looking after tour groups is hard work
People think his job is all about free vacations.
But as a tour leader accompanying Singaporean tour groups on their vacations abroad, Mr Vincent Ng, 50, has played roles from babysitter to bodyguard.
He may not have to pay for his airfare or accommodation, but he insists the job is hardly cushy. He has to think ahead constantly and foresee the unforeseen. Nasty surprises can unravel well-planned itineraries.
"There is a lot of pressure, there are a lot of things that can crop up.
"We work hard. When they (tour members) enjoy, we make sure everyone is well taken care of."
His work starts days before the tour, when he has to check the documents of tourists in his care to make sure the flight tickets are issued in the correct names. Any mistake means an administrative fee that comes out of his own pocket.
Besides making sure the local guides are aware of the tour members' special needs including dietary requirements, he is also in charge of ensuring everyone is accounted for when they visit and leave an attraction.
More often then not, he babysits the kids of parents who want a break from child-minding or a trip to the casino.
He says: "Sometimes you are stuck with the kids for hours. If the parents are on a winning streak, they can be at the casino the whole night.
"If they lose money, they will be back quickly," he quips.
Each night, he checks on the senior citizens, to make sure they are comfortable.
He teaches them how to use the room key card to turn on the lights and the air-conditioner, and changes the TV channels to those they prefer.
He says: "You cannot assume they know. By doing this, at least they get to enjoy a bit here and there."
When there is demand, he brings the group for "comfort food" on the final day of the trip.
He says: "When everybody gets sick of the foreign food, they love it when we take them to eat Chinese food."
Mr Ng, who has been in the job for about 20 years, says the industry has changed over the years.
Tour groups were popular in the past, especially in the late 1980s. These days, people prefer to travel on their own, he says.
In the past, he led big tour groups of 52 people but he gets only about 22 people in each group now.
As a result, his income has dipped about 50 per cent because part of his pay comes from tips - tour groups are asked to pay a "recommended amount".
To survive, he now has to work for several tour agencies at the same time. He was previously contracted to just one of the leading tour agencies here.
He says younger people don't opt for tours unless there is a language barrier. But senior citizens still love the experience.
"They feel safe being guided and taken care of by a tour leader. We handle everything, so they don't have to worry whether the bus will come or not."
Although it is clear that he cares greatly for his tour members, some of the experiences he relates are enough to make most flinch.
Once, he spent an hour searching for a missing tourist in Tokyo's Disneyland. She had forgotten about the one hour time difference and did not join the group on time. When he finally found her, she insisted she was not late.
On another trip, he had to stop "in the middle of nowhere" for a toilet stop during a 10-hour bus ride in Russia.
"Imagine 40 people from the bus relieving themselves - what would you see on the ground?"
Being a tour leader means flexibility to look after his elderly parents, especially when they need him to take them for medical appointments, says the bachelor.
He says the best part about his job is how he bonds with some tourists. Many become his good friends after their tours. He still keeps in touch with a couple who were on a tour he led more than 10 years ago.
He has since attended the weddings of the couple's children and even visits them during Chinese New Year.
He says: "Their son's name is also Vincent, so I jokingly call them daddy and mummy."
SECRETS OF THE TRADE
1. Have your Chinese New Year reunion dinner about a week or two in advance because Singaporeans love to travel during this period of time.
2. Make sure the tourists under your charge adjust their watches to local time to avoid delays.
3. Act excited, as though it is your first time at an attraction, even if you have been there many times so that the tourists will feel excited as well.
Related report: Singaporeans getting a bad rep abroad?