The Metropolitan ‘school’ of guiding
By Lucho Maldonado Robles
To bolster its receptive tourism services in Ecuador, in the mid-1960’s, Metropolitan Touring realized the vital necessity of having qualified tourism guides to conduct the diverse tours and programmes which the company was promoting internationally: It required appropriate and trained personnel to accompany the visitors it was successfully attracting to the country. Until then, tours were conducted by self-educated people who had some knowledge of the country’s history, geography and culture and a reasonable proficiency in foreign languages, mainly English.
The story begins under the leadership of Paco Salazar, himself a self-taught guide. He had an ample knowledge of the country and a special passion for Ecuador, and had joined the company initially as a guide and later as the official in charge of Inbound Operations. The first formal selection of candidates took place then, with a basic profile in mind: a good command of the English language, to ensure a good communication with the foreign visitors which, at that time were mainly North Americans and English speakers in general; and, additionally, a basic but sound knowledge of the main elements about the country’s general culture. As Quito was the centerpiece of many of the tours, some knowledge about the city’s rich colonial art was also sought. It didn’t take too long to find a group of predominantly young men and women who fulfilled those requisites and, in some cases, contributed with an extra language (such as French, for instance) or who had some extra studies or knowledge about Quito’s famous “Quiteño School of Art”. From a half dozen individuals to begin with, the group then doubled and continued to grow.
In order to be accepted, candidates first had to undergo a fairly strict interview, conducted personally by Mr. Salazar, plus pass some written and oral tests. The selection was deliberately strict. Once accepted, the would-be guides received an intensive General Introduction to the Company, to learn about its philosophy, values, practices, structure and other relevant administrative and operational matters, which would provide them with a sound feeling of identity and sense of belonging to the company.
Then, a second phase would initiate with general training lessons about the most relevant topics which guides would need to impart to visitors. What followed was a period of one or two weeks of practical training. With the cooperation of the friars in charge of the most emblematic churches, convents and museums of the city, which were the core highlights of Quito tours in particular, practical lessons were given, on-location, to provide the guiding candidates with extensive information, frequently complemented by amazing stories and legends, which would enhance the explanations.
The first years went by under that scheme. When the Directors of Metropolitan Touring began to feel the rapid growth in the number of visitors, largely a result of their own promotional efforts, they conceived the need to implement, on a regular and periodic basis, formal Courses for the Training and Certification of Touristic Guides. These courses started to take place in the mid-1970’s, on a yearly basis. Of course, it was once again Mr. Salazar who was commissioned to design, structure, organize and direct these courses. The duration varied between one and two months in total, with intensive classroom hours during the week and field tours for practical coaching, especially on weekends.
Forty years ago, Ecuador’s universities and institutes of higher learning, with the odd exception, did not offer degree courses in tourism – and even less courses designed for future tour guides. Moreover, there was no Ministry of Tourism at the time and the public body which was beginning to formulate the policies, regulations and control of tourism activities was also far from being able to undertake the specialized formation of the Guides. Except for the particular case of Galapagos, where the National Park had undertaken the training and certification of specialized naturalist guides for the Islands, there were no formation centers for guides in Ecuador. Hence, with its customary vision of the future, the private sector Metropolitan Touring took up the important responsibility of generating this necessary source of training and development and thus the courses for tourism guides began.
To implement the idea, the experience acquired over the previous years, with a less formal yet structured selection and training procedures, served as a basic guideline. First, a Profile was sketched of the future guides, one that would combine demanding requirements while trying not to exclude potential candidates with other virtues. The main conditions remained the same: proficient management of the English language (and preferably and additional one); college level studies (or equivalent); a good level of general culture – not only regarding Ecuador but the world at large.
To give you an idea of how this actually worked, Paco Salazar would interrogate the guides or aspiring guides first thing in the morning about the most important national and international events of the moment. If they failed to respond adequately, they would have to read the day’s newspaper from cover to cover, do some investigation homework, and present their findings, orally or in writing, within the next 24 hours.
The profile filtering was followed by the actual Selection Process, which was based on a battery of tests and examinations, oral and/or written, as well as interviews with the company’s officials and experts on specialized topics.
Simultaneously, the Course’s Curricula was also structured. The classroom part would include intensive seminars and special conferences and lectures, with the very best experts of the time. These included some of the most respected historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnologists, geographers, colonial art experts, architects, ornithologists, botanists, museum experts, etc. Most of them were Ecuadorian but also some foreign specialists would participate as “teachers” or lecturers. To these topics, other subjects were added such as human relations; communications and interpretation techniques; basic principles of tourism; realities of the tourism sector at local, national and international level; etiquette and manners; the handling of conflicts, emergencies and problem-solving. The courses were indeed very complete and would also include economic realities of Ecuador and the world; geopolitics, sociology, psychology, first aid and more…..
The venues which housed these courses, which began to gain prestige and ever-greater demand, not only in Quito but across Ecuador, were rooms especially adapted within the company’s own installations or in conference rooms of the emblematic Hotels Quito and Colón, in the capital.
The classroom teaching was complemented by field outings, under a well-planned program and always in the company of the best experts. Extensive visits were made, for example, to the most important churches and convents, such as La Compañia, San Francisco, La Merced and Santo Domingo. In each case, the renowned specialists would provide with hands-on facts, figures and stories about the architecture, history, construction dates, materials, styles and many more details of these splendid temples which became, along with all of Quito’s Historic Center, the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Special access was provided to many areas, normally not open to the public, to enhance the formation of the aspiring guides. The field visits were not limited just to Quito. They also included special tours of the “Middle of the World” complex; the Otavalo indigenous market and other sights within the region.
At the course’s end, it was necessary, of course, to pass a series of practical and theoretical exams. Those that passed were formally awarded Certificates as Tourist Guides during special ceremonies. The practical exams would usually be an exercise of guiding a group of “examiners” at a given location.
Metropolitan Touring therefore created a very real Guide’s Training School, of the highest quality. These courses were directed and conducted in the last years by one of Ecuador’s most recognized mountaineers, geographers, naturalists, cultural experts and photographers, Marco Cruz who also boasted a huge knowledge about Ecuador and a great deal of love for his country.
Like Paco Salazar in the earlier years, Marco also led the path for several generations of new guides to learn a wealth of information about the country and impart a special mystique, showing the country with pride and cheerfulness to national and international visitors.
In the beginning the participants on these Courses were predominantly from Quito. Progressively, candidates from Guayaquil, Riobamba, Imbabura, Cuenca and other cities and regions of the country joined the “School”.
These Courses took place from the mid-70’s through to the mid 90’s, when the Ministry of Tourism, together with several universities and institutes of higher learning, which by then had implemented the Tourism degrees including specializations such as Tour Guiding, took over the formal authority to prepare the future guides.
By then, the company had already trained a staggering two or three hundred tour guides, imbued with a special spirit which made them into great ambassadors of Ecuador in the eyes of the thousands of visitors who came to the country to receive their teachings. Many of them made successful careers as tourism professionals and entrepreneurs; others still continue guiding travelers around Ecuador: all bearing the unique seal of the “Metropolitan Touring School”.
The training and formation of human talent of great quality and capacity is one more of Metropolitan Touring’s most important legacies in the development of tourism in Ecuador. As the company celebrates sixty years dedicated to promoting and contributing positively to the consolidation of Ecuador as a world-class tourism destination, this effort is remembered, with legitimate satisfaction and pride.
Metropolitan Touring celebrates 60 years in Travel
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