The barrage began at 6:45 p.m. sharp. Two dozen members of the Professional Tour Guides Association of Houston (PTGAH) flooded into the hulking Anheuser-Busch Houston Brewery for their monthly social outing. In front of the pack stood the woman who’d been given the daunting task of guiding the guides, a twenty-something with a Budweiser ball cap and concern in her eyes. As she’d soon learn, docents are talkative by nature, and reluctant to cede the floor. “Put 25 tour guides in a room,” one veteran told us, “and you try getting them to shut up!”
And so it was, on this recent Thursday evening at the east Houston brewery, which, we were told, is now entering its 50th year of operation. With cushioned walking shoes on their feet and notepads in their hands, the graying attendees stood in the plant’s entryway, around the corner from a bronze Clydesdale, lobbing questions at their guide with abandon. These ranged from the practical (“Can we take photos?”) to the esoteric (“When was ownership transferred?”). Curiosity motivated the pack, as did the possibility that a gathered detail, no matter how random, could be used to inform a tour of their own one day.
Of course, the typical tour audience isn’t guides but out-of-towners, which brings its own set of challenges. Guides must dispel the stubborn myth that all locals, as PTGAH president Phil Stewart puts it, “wear cowboy hats, have belt buckles, listen to country music and drive trucks.” And it often falls to them—full- and part-timers from across the city, who shepherd tours of all sizes and varieties—to convince customers of the Bayou City’s cultural merit.
That’s part of the reason the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau recently boosted funding for leisure-travel promotion, from $5.1 million to $8.8 million, says A.J. Mistretta, senior PR manager for the bureau. Smart, friendly guides are a crucial ally in the war to win over tourists. “The tour guides are the front line,” Mistretta says. “Let’s face it.”
Stewart and his colleagues at the 16-year-old organization—the city’s only such group devoted to the largely unregulated tour-guide industry—take that responsibility seriously. To join, prospective members must take classes, pass written exams, and successfully lead mock tours of notable Houston landmarks, from Minute Maid Park (formerly Enron Field, they’ll note) to Chase Tower (formerly Texas Commerce Tower, and the tallest building in Texas, they’ll say—as well as the tallest five-sided structure in the world).
Former PTGAH president Andrew Groocock likened the experience of being a tour guide to acting, admitting: “I always have those pre-show nerves when I’m on the bus. The last two minutes before you set off are the worst.” That ability to pull off a performance is just one quality any successful guide must have. “You’ve got to have the gift of gab,” said Stewart. “You’ve got to be people-oriented.” A sense of humor doesn’t hurt either. Richard Cook, a large man with gravitas to spare, said he workshops jokes like a road comic; there are five in his current routine he knows will kill.
Though the Anheuser-Busch campus reopened its steel doors to the public last year, few PTGAH participants had seen the inside until our Thursday-evening tour. They ambled under industrial pipes and around lengthy conveyor belts, shooting videos on their phones and sharing endearing dad jokes. (In a freight elevator: “Are we going up? Do we get a room with a view?”)
The young, baseball-capped beer guide was knowledgeable, to be sure, but she hadn’t quite mastered the soft art of the sell. She worked a little too quickly off a script, and without the aid of a microphone. The din of running machinery drowned out half of her factoids. Afterward, Stewart and his friends were too polite to offer their own critique. As with any performance, they all know, sometimes you just have a rough night.