In so many industries, jobs traditionally done by people are fast becoming redundant as they are being replaced by machines and computers. Where does this trend leave the guide? Are the days numbered for this profession or does the future offer guides more opportunities than ever?
Automation is a word bandied around a lot these days and a concept we need to take note of in the tourism industry. Employment in the tourism sector remains a strong contributor to the Southern African economy, and indeed the global economy, and automation will impact this. As far-fetched as it might sound, robots will replace humans on a much larger scale as automotive technologies continue to evolve at breakneck speed. The driverless car is all but a reality, with the UK trialling driverless trucks as early as next year and everyone from Ford to Tesla and Apple to Uber involved in this space. This is, however, just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to automation impacting on employment. Manufacturing, retail, healthcare - all these industries and many more will suffer at the hands of algorithms and automation. So what has this got to do with guiding, you may well ask?
On a very simple level, if one thinks of the ‘red sightseeing bus’ experience in all major cities around the world, here the guide has long since been replaced by automated, timed recordings that spurt out largely emotionless information captured to coincide with the next stop on the route. One can't be sure what the likes of Cape Town traffic is doing to the timing of that automated regurgitation but, rest assured, the microphone-wielding bus guide is a goner.
The smartphone too has become your guide, with a plethora of podcasts and apps offering guided tours of everywhere from the Louvre to London. Uncertain of a bird call from a distant bush or curious about a track indented in the path on your way to breakfast whilst on safari? Well there is an app for all of that. The gestation period of Dassie? Just ask Google. No need to bother the guide for that titbit (although interestingly a baby Dassie is called a pup and will gestate for eight months - one quick search will give you all that information and much more).
Videos and the channels that support that content, such as YouTube and Facebook Live, not only offer great opportunities to grow your guiding business but could also be equally damaging. They will as quickly support your telling of a sidesplittingly hilarious fireside joke as they will send your comically flawed interpretations of the nutritional values of thatching grass viral.
This leaves the guide in a tricky position, knowing that not only can technology replace a lot of what they do but can also scupper their attempts at getting it right. Fear not, though. I believe there is much more opportunity for guides in this fast evolving space than there ever was. Firstly, technology will definitely help separate that chaff from the wheat and we should see the better guides proliferate and the lesser guide replaced by an audio file or a video clip.
Good guides will never be replaced by technology, because guiding, at its very essence, cannot be replicated by a machine. As much as machines are becoming more intuitive, there is a level of intuition and responsiveness that guiding will always need a warm body to achieve. It is that constant awareness to the needs of a person or a group of persons, it is knowing when to stop and enjoy a view, or when to push on to find the shade, when to offer water and when to stop for a sundowner. It is knowing when to speak and when to keep quiet, but more than anything it is about authenticity and about story. Machines can't offer personal stories and access to an authentic connection with place.
Guiding will continue to become more professional, more regulated and more restricted in some ways, and the challenge for the contemporary and future guide is to deliver an interpretive experience that tells stories and translates experiences over and above the inexhaustible amount of information that a smart phone can deliver. It is about embracing new technologies but at the same time remaining very connected to the guest and the environment - not always an easy task. The key to successful guiding into the future lies in authenticity. Today’s guests are well informed and technology will continue to evolve to ensure that information is increasingly easy to access. The onus is on the guide to authentically connect the guests to the place, to fill the experience with so much more than facts, but to enliven a journey with unforgettable moments of human connection - something a machine will (hopefully) never get right. So to all the guides out there, stay sharp, stay aware and remember your authenticity and then you should still have a job long after your GP has been replaced by a talking water cooler.