There’s a movement spreading across Europe in which American expats and students are offering “free” walking tours of a city, and then hitting people up hard for tips at the end and cross-selling other tours that aren’t free. I’m a big supporter of small, independent guides throughout Europe, and these tours (almost impossible to compete with because they are promoted as “free”) are threatening them.
Trying to be impartial, I write up the “free” tours along with the expensive standard private guided options in my guidebooks. It’s a messy situation. For example, aggressive new companies promote “free tours” that start at the same time and place as standard, higher-class tours, and then fight turf wars right there with the professional guides while groups stand by helpless, waiting for their tour to start. There are legal battles, as free tours don’t think they need to be licensed because they are technically “free,” so threatened standard guides turn them in to local authorities.
And now I’m getting friends in Europe (who are part of the professional guide community) upset with me for advertising the “free tours.” Here’s a letter (heavily edited to disguise and protect the author and companies in it) for an insight into this issue. While there are many free tours with a similar business plan, most are run by one man, who I’ll call “Tom.”
Gilbert Jones here. I just saw the 2010 edition of the Rick Steves guide to my city. You write up Tom’s Free Tours, saying, “And best of all, they’re free.” Don’t you understand that company’s modus operandi? If not, you should.
I recently took a “Tom’s Free Tour” in Munich and talked later with the guide who explained to me their arrangement. Here’s the diary entry (word for word) I wrote minutes later. If my guide was telling the truth, the diary entry tells you all you need to know:
There were 38 people on the tour. The guide told the group at the start, “When we end the tour, if it was worth paying for, a tip would be most appreciated.” There was a Tom’s Free Tour handler there. The guide told me that he has to pay Tom €2.50 per head. The handler takes a group photo right at the start so Tom can’t be fiddled by his guides. While the group sees it as a fun group photo (available on the website), the real reason for the photo is so Tom’s guide knows that Tom knows how many were in the group.
Guides generally make enough in tips to cover the €2.50 per customer that they have to give to Tom. But sometimes they actually lose money, especially if it’s raining and people bail out before the end of the tour — i.e., before “tip time.” If people only tip €3, the guides don’t make very much.
Guides are generally native English-speakers — students from the U.S., N.Z., and Australia. I asked my guide how they get around the work permit problem. “Oh, that’s not a problem — on a student visa, you can work 20 hours a week.” She said they’re classed as “volunteers” — so technically they’re not working for Tom. So you’ve got a situation where you have to pay a “boss” to be a “volunteer.” Tom is now in 12 cities, and more every year.
Basically the deal appears to be this: Tom advertises to get a crowd of customers out on a tour for the guide, and the guide needs to hit everyone up for tips to cover the fee. And if you don’t want to be out of pocket, you damned well better get them to come across with at least €2.50 each, because that’s what you’re going to have to pay Tom to “volunteer” to do this.
In short, “free” is not free and “tips” are not tips. This is clearly a commercial operation. And local laws address this very matter — bosses cannot help themselves to their workers’ tips.
So, Rick, if you are promoting these tours, we want you to consider the ethics. Is Tom’s advertising misleading? Is it possible to attract — and keep — reputable, good, professional guides on that basis? Would a Rick Steves tour be entrusted to one of their guides? How much in-your-face breathing-down-your-neck-for-tips goes on with these tours? How fast does Tom “turn over” guides? Is he in breach of local, national, and European unfair competition directives? What’s the tax situation?
Rick, we go back a long way. We have endless amounts of admiration for you and your team and your operation. Endless amounts of admiration not least because you’re a straight shooter. As you straight up said to me a while back, “I take care of my credibility.”
This one needs to be revisited, Rick. There’s a lot going on in Europe about all of this. Tom’s operation will soon be in every country. Please reconsider promoting him in your guidebooks.
I’ve long struggled with letting business ethics interfere with my listings. (For example, many B&Bs in Scandinavia prefer cash because in the most highly taxed corner of Europe, unreported cash payments are essentially tax-free. Their prices are too good to be true — or legal.) And I myself have long given “free” talks intending to sell books and tours to attendees. These “free” tours have admittedly shady ethics, but provide nearly free entertainment. How should I handle these issues? And, what is your experience with “free” tours in Europe?