Do you think Charleston became Condé Nast Traveler‘s top tourist destination by hiring tour guides off the street? Chances are, most of us have a few friends who are fine to slug a beer with, but they’re not exactly the faces of our city that tourists should see.
After finishing up college in 2003, I migrated south from the Old North State. A history degree fresh under my belt, I marched down to the Market area and inquired about becoming a tour guide. Back then, you had to earn your salt giving ghost tours before you could move on to the Civil War stuff. I sat in the Unitarian graveyard and let the spirits move me, then I walked down a Queen Street alley and envisioned myself in a duel, channeling my inner Cryptkeeper all the while.
It wasn’t all fun and games. To pass my first test, a written assessment for a temporary guide license, I had to be able to place about 60 historic sites on a map of the peninsula and pass a short written exam. I succeeded, then immediately took a different job and never gave another thought to being a tour guide again.
Maybe I should have. In peak season, a good guide can make over $300 a day. Whether you want to lead walking history tours, ghost tours, or ride on a horse-drawn carriage in colonial attire, first you’ve got to pass the City of Charleston’s official tour guide examination. Here’s how to get started.
1. Get Sponsored
It’s a cart-before-the-horse question, but it can be beneficial to find a tour company tentatively willing to hire you before taking any tests. Most hire guides as freelancers, so you may start out without much guaranteed work, but a foot in the door is all you need at this point. A sponsor is required to take the temporary test, but individuals can take the official Tour Guide Exam on their own. Independent guides with their own three-year license (the standard issue) are the most hirable, says Julian Buxton, owner of Tour Charleston.
2. Start Studying
The City’s test is based on a 492-page guide detailing everything from Charleston’s architecture to wars to botany to African-American history. It can be purchased at the Tourism Management Office at 32 Ann Street for $45. A CD can be purchased for $15. Tour guides are expected to know all of it. “It’s not a difficult test, except that there is so much memorization that’s got to happen,” Buxton says.
3. (Optional) Take the
Charleston’s Tourism Commission offers the official tour guide test four times each year. However, guides eager to get started can take the temporary test, a much easier version that consists of a map and fill-in-the-blank questions. The temp license is only valid until the date of the City’s next official test.
4. Study Some More
Several local tour bus companies let prospective guides ride on tours for free if seating is available. Study up on several guides’ different styles and you’ll be well prepared for step six when you get there.
5. Take the Official Written Test
For a $50 registration fee, prospective guides can attempt to pass this test twice. Dates for the quarterly exam are posted at charleston-sc.gov/tourism. The 200 question written exam starts at 9 a.m. at the Gaillard Auditorium and takes two hours to complete. Anything less than 80 percent fails. About 25 people take the test each quarter, with an average 70 percent pass rate. “I’ve met many smart people that did well in academia but were not able to pass the tour guide test,” says John LaVerne, owner of Bulldog Tours on Market Street. “I’ve taken it three times, and it’s still a lot of information.”
6. Take the Oral Examination
The city won’t check your dental hygiene, although the tourists who will follow you around if you pass this part of the test might appreciate your pearly whites. Test takers depart from the Charleston Visitor Center on Meeting Street on a bus, and names are called at random to stand and act as a guide for three minutes as the vehicle moves between the Citadel and the Battery.
7. Get to Guiding
There are approximately 550 registered tour guides in Charleston, so finding steady enough work to make this your profession can be a challenge. Bulldog Tours’ LaVerne says he gets between five and 20 inquiries a week during the peak spring season, when he’ll have as many as 50 seasonal freelance guides on call. As people come and go, he adds about five new guides each year. “Once you tell them what’s involved, that weeds some of them out,” says LaVerne. “A small handful of guides really master the whole scene, from plantations to gardens to architecture, and those are the ones that really do well. There are a lot of great stories out there, and it’s an excellent way to be an expert in your hometown.”
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