Hook Lighthouse – a beacon for guided tours

Hook Lighthouse, which is black and white, next to a row of three white houses and a car park

Running really good guided tours at an attraction doesn’t happen by accident. It takes considerable time and attention to get it right. Like many things, when it is right, it looks so easy and effortless that most people will not see what is going on.

Hook lighthouse runs really good tours that demonstrate the value of years of practice and review. This bears fruit in the high level skills that the experienced guides practice almost unconsciously.

The tours are vital to how the attraction works within some pretty solid constraints. People can only get access to the lighthouse as part of of a guided tour in a group of up to 30 people.

Not your average lighthouse! Like many heritage sites the location presents both constraints and opportunities on developing an experience

Not your average lighthouse! Like many heritage sites the location presents both constraints and opportunities on developing an experience

When I visited in February, the site wasn’t packed out. In July and August it would have been. It then becomes a challenge to get as many people as possible through the lighthouse each day. Tours run on the hour every hour throughout the year and every half hour in peak season when visitors may have to wait for up to two hours to get on a tour. This timetable required a tight, finely-honed operation.

I talked with the guides about the guided tours and some possible changes they were considering. My first question was about those visitors who had waited so long for a tour – were they satisfied? Did the tour experience justify the wait? The answer was Yes, they love it. That was almost enough on its own to convince me that this tour is a success.

Trip Advisor reports confirm that the tours are enjoyable and that that is a key part of the enjoyment of the attraction. This tight operation is clearly working well.

Elaine is a really good guide at Hook lighthouse.

Elaine is a really good guide at Hook lighthouse.

Looking at the guides in action and listening to them talk about their work reminded me about what the best guides do well:

Letting the site speak – great guides want the site to make more impact than they do. The Hook guides build in pauses, even into their tight timetable (see below) for people just to take in the building, the views, the hidden rooms. The schedule allows for exploring and reflection as well as listening.

Timing – these guides know exactly how long the tour will take. They know where they can take questions and where they can’t. They know how long nervous or less mobile people will need to negotiate the stairs.

There is only one place in the tour where two groups of 30 can cross and the guides hit that every time. They do that by being aware not only of their own group but of the next group and the previous group too.

Positioning -The guides know where to stand on every floor and why they need to stand there. They have thought about the intricacies of performance ‘in the round’ and the need to make eye contact with all members of the group. They know what the visitors need to see and how and when to reveal it

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Group dynamics – The guides were aware of how the relationships change during the tour. At the start visitors are wary of talking, of answering and asking questions. That changes as the tour progresses and the timetabling allows for this.

Our review of the Hook tour found many more things to celebrate than to change. It was important to recognise them because the focus of our conversation became how to equip new guides to reach this high standard as quickly and securely as possible. That is a challenge that requires very clear recognition of exactly what makes the existing tour successful. The list above is only a small part of that.

Visiting Hook lighthouse reminded me of how many factors good guides deal with. When we talk about them in training I sometimes feel they sound difficult or abstract but embedded in the place, and in the hands of an expert, they merge into a well-delivered experience. Acquiring top flight guiding skills requires considerable practice.

Like many interpretive skills, leading great tours is a skill that is learned by combining good, well-thought out theory with on the ground (or up the tower practice). It needs both training and mentoring. We are hoping to provide this for other lighthouses attractions in Ireland. Hook Lighthouse will be a guiding light in that process.

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