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Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Lessons from our past

Well this week we've had an Underground strike so here is a story from nearly 20 years ago with a moral. I would welcome your comments.

In 1984 when I started London Pride Sightseeing we used to employ a crew of two - a driver and a guide.

London Transport's Sightseeing Tour had been completely unguided but you did get a helpful map. Cityrama ran in opposition with multilingual commentaries fed into headphones.

When the competition heated up LT also offered a guide on some, and then eventually all departures.

Our guides were sourced from ordinary people - we advertised, interviewed them, and trained them to tell a story about London as we made our way around town. It was live and the guides were in amongst the passengers interacting with and entertaining them. And it was broadcast through the vehicle speakers so everyone heard it together.

As a public body London Transport used 'Blue Badge' qualified guides who were already working on the more traditional coach tours in and around London.

We didn't - firstly they were extraordinarily expensive, and secondly all the best Blue Badge guides were working on full day London tours, going inside the major attractions, or going out to Windsor, Oxford and so on. We went around exactly the same streets three or four times a day and the view, and the story, was largely the same. The Blue Badge guides we heard on repetitive London circuits were awfully dull.

And lastly, at the time, a good many Blue Badge guides spoke in plum voices and gave, it appeared to us, a rather condescending and snooty commentary.

Our people were more ordinary - in several cases guiding was new to them but they were enthusiastic, cheerful, funny and generally gave good value. (The tour was £2.50 in those days). We had high standards, checked the quality regularly and we were generally pleased with what they did, even though they didn't have the coveted Blue Badge.

We made a start in getting at least a couple of them qualified but before we got very far something else happened.

One day the Guild of Guides and Lecturers turned up and picketed the boarding point. They handed out leaflets in which they warned potential passengers that their 'safety was at risk' as a result of not using a Blue Badge Guide. They were referring, of course, to driver guiding, where drivers were themselves speaking. We didn't do that. However the safety card was being played in what was really a protest against the use of non-qualified guides. (Does this remind you of anything?)

As a result our operation was more or less shut down for most of the day as potential passengers went elsewhere. We retired to a nearby cafe to discuss tactics.

One idea came forward quite strongly and soon we had made a tape of the tour and fitted a bus with a machine where the driver could stop and start it with a footswitch. It clearly wasn't as personal as the real live guide but it was consistent, it never made mistakes, and we could add some features that the live guide couldn't deliver. Thus Big Ben always chimed when you went around Parliament Square, there was always a concert to be heard at the Royal Albert Hall, and other famous sounds were always to be heard.

We got the script checked by a qualified guide (who wished, it has to be said, to remain anonymous).

So over time the buses were fitted with tape machines and before long the guides were let go.

Later technology allowed us to move from tapes to new technology and the direct descendent of our sightseeing business uses the latest today.

We ran more tours, the tape machines never got tired, grumpy or cross. The tapes cost us just a few pence in in due course there were numerous versions - daytime, nighttime, diversions etc. Best of all they were consistent. Everyone heard the same story, delivered in the same way, every time.

Not one Blue Badge Guide got a job with us, but sadly a good number of perfectly decent boys and girls were replaced by the new technology.

Surely not the intended consequence of the action taken against us that day and perhaps a lesson which has relevance today. We hadn't started out needing to replace the employees but by the end there was a very attractive alternative.

Having long since stepped away from this business I have no idea now of the policies and people involved in Blue Badge guiding. I hope that things have changed. If they or any member of that community would like to tell us I would be happy to include it here in the interests of fairness.

And DMS816 here in Coventry Street in 1984 in its all-over advertising for Beefeater Gin. We know the date as it is still awaiting destination blinds and our proper bus stop post is not yet in the ground!



  1. So perhaps companies should welcome such disruptions to their businesses as the impetus for change, to streamline and remain agile?