Wonders of the world open up to a woman willing to lead the way

Retirement was prelude to new career as a tour guide

Health & Fitness

Life After 50

April 11, 2004|By Korky Vann | Korky Vann,The Hartford Courant

Joanne Connors has had travel experiences most of us just dream about. In fact, it's hard to name a place she hasn't been.

The former retiree has walked the Great Wall of China, watched the sun rise over Ayers Rock in Australia, floated down the Nile in a barge, gone ballooning over the Serengeti and more.

But it's not only where she's been that's unusual, it's also how she got there.

Connors wasn't a tour participant on any of these adventures -- she was the tour director. For 16 years, the retired office manager has been leading groups of enthusiastic wanderers around the globe, and loving every minute.

The inspiration for her second career, she says, came during a trip she and her husband took to the Grand Canyon.

"I'd always loved to travel, but with a husband, three children and a job, there really wasn't much opportunity," says Connors, who lives in Hull, Mass. "Finally, as the kids grew up, we were able to schedule a trip to the Grand Canyon. When I saw a woman my age at the front of the bus with a microphone, I thought: 'She gets paid for this? This is the job for me.' "

It turned out that it was. After a four-week tour-guide training course, Connors signed on with a local company, leading tours throughout New England and Canada. Within a year, she was working for a company offering international vacations. Since then, she's explored Africa, India, Tibet and the former Soviet Union and has been to Europe more times than she can remember.

"This is a job market where your age doesn't work against you," says Connors. "If anything, in many aspects, it is an advantage. You've got maturity; you've got life skills and a range of experiences, all of which are necessary when you're responsible for a group of people dealing with an unfamiliar environment."

Experts say more and more people are working after retirement. For many, it's a necessity. For others, it's an opportunity to try something different.

According to Ted Bravos, director and founder of the International Tour Manage-ment Institute in San Francisco, tour directing, which many people do part-time, can be an ideal job for retirees. Many tour directors and guides, he says, are people in their 60s and older.

But before you dust off your suitcase and apply, there are a few things you should consider.

While tour directors can make upward of $100 a day in addition to their all-expenses-paid travel, they also handle all arrangements for the 30 or so passengers on each tour and act as business agents for the tour company. They coordinate schedules, handle delays, deal with customs, track down lost luggage, organize side trips, research destinations, prepare commentary, generate enthusiasm, troubleshoot problems, juggle a myriad additional details and keep smiling. Most tour companies prefer to hire guides who have had career training in the field.

"Tour directors and guides help people enjoy their vacation and motivate them to do things that they might not otherwise do, like try new foods, learn a few words of a new language and participate in a different culture," says Bravos. "You're also always ready for the unexpected, and you can't let it flap you. Things are going to go wrong."

Connors learned that first-hand when her group had to abandon ship on the Amazon River. The boat hit a sunken barge and began to tip over. Luckily, a passing ferry rescued everyone, but many passengers lost all their belongings.

Once ashore, Connors calmly got the group to a hotel, raced out to purchase necessities, then set up local excursions to keep everyone occupied until she could arrange for a charter flight home.

"During an emergency, you do what you have to do," says Connors. "That night in the shower, my knees buckled. But while it was happening, I had to stay calm. The tour guide sets the tempo for everything. If you can't turn lemons into lemonade, this is definitely not the work for you."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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