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More travelers are taking the ‘group’ out of ‘group tours’ by hiring private guides

Private guide Yvonne Kopmels helps visitors explore the heart of Amsterdam. Tours By Locals

MONTREAL — Ruby Roy seems to know everyone passing through the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel: the bellboys, the concierges, the regulars in the coffee shop, even one of the earpiece-wearing security men accompanying the visiting prime minister. Some get greetings in English, others in French, and several rate a “faire la bise” — a peck on each cheek.

Roy has been a fixture in this hotel since she was a little girl when, Eloise-like, she came here after school to watch the bustle in the lobby until the staff began to bring her milk and cookies and, ultimately, offered her a job.


Now she applies the exhaustive knowledge she acquired over all those years as one of a new breed of travel professionals: the personal
tour guide.

In the age of Spotify and Netflix, “People are used to being able to customize everything they do. They want to do be able to do it when they travel,” said Roy, just back from escorting some clients to the Marché Jean-Talon farmers’ market in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood.

“I meet them and I say, ‘What’s on your wish list?’ They’ll tell me, ‘I love food, I love art, I love this.’ Private guides are flexible. That’s what we do.”

Growing numbers of travelers are forgoing the group tour and the sightseeing bus and hiring private guides like Roy, and companies are cropping up to help them find one; a sort of guild, the Vienna-based World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations, or WFTGA — Roy is a past president — offers training and establishes professional standards. And legacy travel providers, not wanting to miss out, have started to design custom itineraries for couples, families, and groups of friends.

“It’s definitely a wave that we’re riding right now,” said Sara Cook, spokeswoman for Tours by Locals, a Canadian company that connects travelers with private guides worldwide.


What’s driving this, said Cook, “is people who have already done a lot of traveling; they’ve been on the big bus tours. They know what they like and what they don’t like. They want to go at their own pace: If the child is getting impatient, you move on. If Grandma can’t keep up, you slow down.”

The same desires are contributing to more requests for custom itineraries from established companies such as Austin Adventures, said Dan Austin, founder and director.

“It seems like the requests we’re getting [for custom tours] are doubling every year,” said Austin. “People want to do their own itinerary, their own dates, their own hotels. They want to control where they go, what they do, and who they do it with.”

That’s what attracted Clea Winneg to create a private African safari for herself, her husband, their small children, and another family with young kids through Audley Travel, which provides such trips exclusively and whose US headquarters is in Boston.

“It was about someone helping me plan the trip we wanted to go on, exactly the way we wanted to go on it,” she said. “I was not interested in trying to manage my children in bigger groups where, if they were done and the tour wasn’t done, we were trapped.”

An administrator at a Boston university, Winneg has also since used Marblehead-based private tour provider Homebase Abroad to rent a villa in Tuscany with two other couples and plan a vacation around it. The company arranged activities such as a truffle hunt and cooking classes and even made the party’s local dinner reservations.


The wealth of information and the reviews available about destinations worldwide has had the confounding effect of making independent travel more — not less — time-consuming to arrange, Winneg said. “For me it was about getting the trip we wanted and me not spending hours and hours on the Internet and on international phone calls organizing the trip.”

It’s not just planning that her clients don’t have time for, said Homebase director Mara Solomon. They lead lives so busy that they want their travels to allow them to connect. Customizing their vacations means they can maximize the value of those cooking classes and the dinners out, but don’t necessarily have to be “up and out every day at 9 and coming back exhausted at 6 until they collapse in a heap.”

That’s especially true for the growing numbers of baby-boomer grandparents traveling with children and grandchildren.

“The boomers have always been the generation, no matter what the service has been, that they want to be able to call the shots,” said Steve Born, vice president of marketing for Globus, which introduced a European private touring program in March. “That’s caused a trend in travel overall toward specialization, someone making things more easy for me but giving me control.”

Customers can pick existing Globus itineraries for a group as small as a couple or as large as two-dozen relatives or friends, with private guides and transportation.


Some families even take photographers and videographers with them, said Ian Swain, president and owner of the custom-tour operator Swain Destinations — to record not the scenery, but the people on the trip. “The family can just sit back and enjoy the trip and not worry about anything,” Swain said.

Other people just don’t like to be crowded into groups of strangers bustling from museum to gift shop on a schedule determined in advance.

“We’re just not those kinds of people who can hop on a bus with 50 other folks,” said Lisa McNellis, who, with her husband, took a private trip to Ireland to celebrate their 10th anniversary through CIE Tours.

With their own tour guide doubling as driver (“I sat up front and we became good friends,” McNellis said), “We could say, ‘We’re kind of done for today and you can leave us off at the top of town.’ We had a lot of flexibility.”

As private guides proliferate, travel experts advise consumers to ask for accreditations and references before they hire one. Tours by Locals guides are put through background and security checks, and only people who are certified to have been customers can leave reviews. Montreal is among the few cities that require guides to carry licenses, and Roy wears hers around her neck, along with her WFTGA membership card.

Scott Klimek hired Roy when he and his wife went to Montreal with another couple for their first vacation without their kids.


“We’re just not group people,” said Klimek, who works for a tech firm. “We wanted to go somewhere and not be tied to a schedule. We wanted to get up in the morning and decide what we wanted to do for ourselves.”

Roy took them on the subway to breweries and markets and recommended restaurants. “We got her undivided attention and all the food she got for us to sample. And she would say, ‘Oh, yeah, talk to this person while you’re there. Say hi for me.’”

They’re still in touch, he said.

“It’s like having not just a guide,” said Klimek, “but a friend.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at