On an extremely cold February day in 1981, an intrepid, apprehensive but very enthusiastic group of people embarked on the very first training course for professional South East Blue Badge Tourist Guides (BBTG) organised by the, now superseded, South East England Tourist Board. Students came from all walks of life; some engaged already in tourism as Tour Managers or Tour Operators, plus there were a few (and highly revered) London Tourist Board BBGs but also we had teachers, stockbrokers, interpreters, a Naval Commander, a toastmaster and, just people, with huge life experience looking for a rewarding (if challenging) second career. Stiff examinations were to follow, and later, that same year, the South East England Tourist Guides Association (SEETGA) was launched to provide a forum for discussion, a marketing arm, and above all support and direction for continuing professional development and a membership association which, this year, celebrates its 40th birthday!
Times are very different now, and the awarding body for our qualifications is The Institute of Tourist Guiding, and the awards are not only for Blue Badge Guides (Regional Guides) but for Green Badge Tourist Guides who hold in depth qualifications for (in the south-east) cities like Chichester and Canterbury.
Throughout our 40 years we have welcomed new guides from various training courses; the last classes to graduate being in 2011 and 2015. Our members may live in Kent, Sussex, Surrey or London but the one thing we have in common is our passion, love and in depth knowledge for guiding our many visitors throughout our region. Walking tours in towns and cities, coach tours, and, these days we have virtual tours, talks and lectures. We enjoy looking after our cruise ship passengers and peeping behind the scenes to discover everyday life in our towns and villages. All of our members receive a high standard of training, and are examined in both practical and written assessments. The qualifications are the bench mark for tourist guiding in the United Kingdom, but we remain, friendly, entertaining and informative locals with a passion for sharing our region with all of our visitors. Those who never realised what was on their own doorstep or those who have come from afar with little pre-knowledge but who we want to go away with the best experience and the very best memories of all the wonderful treasures on offer.
Guides are drawn from all walks of life and the range of their interests is wide and varied which is reflected in the variety of themes offered. In Brighton, for example, there are tours which focus on gay culture, street art, women’s history. Others may focus on military history, architecture, gardens, smuggling, literature and even cemetery tours! Many of our guides offer tours and talks to Local History societies, U3A groups, family and student groups – including foreign students and, of course, other overseas visitors. A number offer bespoke tours and some are able to offer tours in a foreign language.
The COVID pandemic has impacted tourism particularly heavily and all guides have lost income as governments have severely restricted international travel and public gathering. Ever resourceful, some guides have adapted to the “new normal” adopting protective measures where required (such as visors and personal amplifiers) and conducting mainly walking tours with smaller, socially spaced groups, in accordance with limits in force at the time. A number of guides also offer online talks and “virtual tours”within the region.
What does the future hold? With more people opting for staycations, we are seeing a growth in the domestic demand for experiences of different kinds. Here in South East England these might include vineyard tours, specialist food tours, family experiences, hiking experiences, exploring gardens or seeking out history in our towns and stately homes – the possibilities are endless. So the focus of our market is changing with, in the short term at least, a greater focus on Covid-secure walking tours for smaller groups including families, and more bespoke work. Virtual tours and online talks will almost certainly continue to be offered by many guides.
So where are we now, 40 years on? We must admit that living under COVID restrictions is strange, but we constantly keep ourselves informed and make good use of our time, regularly keeping in touch with each other through the Zoom platform. We are actively planning for the future and are so looking forward to getting back to work and meeting our clients and colleagues face to face and sharing the best that The South East has to offer with our friends and visitors.
(The image was taken at the SEETGA AGM dinner in Nov 2019)