World's most experienced tour directors reveal best destinations for tours and most unusual tour guest requests

Where on earth would we be without the tour director, one of the true unsung heroes of travel. Directionless, no doubt, denied their experience, knowledge and poise that make an escorted journey so much easier an undertaking than an independent holiday.

A great tour director can make it right when all goes wrong and keep smiling the whole time, too. They're always in tune no matter the nature of the group they're leading and they tailor their guiding accordingly.

They know how to find that balance and are mindful of connecting their group with their surrounds and each other. An exceptional tour director is one who will go the extra distance.

"[Tour directors] are the public face of the [tour] company and they are the glue that binds the group together for the duration of the tour," says Dennis Bunnik, managing director of Bunnik Tours and chair of the Council of Australian Tour Operators (CATO).

"As opposed to a tour guide, tour directors are there with you for the long haul. They're the ones organising, corralling, and making sure everyone is having the best possible time.

"And should something go wrong? On holiday sometimes the logistics don't go to plan – this is when good tour directors come into their own – they can quickly find an alternative, move something around and ensure that the group still has a great time."

In some cases the tour director can even be the undisputed leader in their field, such as World Expeditions Tim Macartney-Snape, AM, Australia's best known mountaineer.

Macartney-Snape takes small groups of trekkers on expeditions but while his strengths are well-known other tour directors can sometimes surprise, and pleasantly so, with their own hidden talents, Bunnik says.

"I was with a small group in France recently and we were inside an old wine vat. Our tour director began singing Ave Maria – it turns out he was a trained opera singer," he says.

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Traveller, to mark this special escorted journeys edition, speaks with some of the world's most experienced tour directors to find out why everyone should take an escorted tour, where they should go and some of their most challenging and unusual requests from their tour guests.

THE TOUR DIRECTOR

Kassie Jones, Trafalgar

SPECIALIST DESTINATIONS

Western Europe Discovery trips including The Balkans, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, and Bohemia, Imperial Europe.

A GOOD TOUR DIRECTOR IS SOMEONE WHO ... Listens to, engages and responds to their travellers. It would be easy for us to get up and deliver the same trip over and over, but what makes a trip special is when we get to know our guests and the general vibe of the group so we can personalise the trip for them.

MY BEST EVER TRIP WAS ... A 27-day Great European that I ran in 2016. The group gelled extremely quickly, which is always a good sign on a longer trip, and they also continued to be energetic and enthusiastic throughout the journey.

MY LAST GUIDED HOLIDAY WAS ... Balkan Delight – a 14-day trip through Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. We had many highlights, but guests really enjoyed our Be My Guest evening, where we visited the Muhoberac family in the tiny stone walled village of Osojnik, about 30 minutes outside of Dubrovnik.

WHERE TO NEXT? Our Best of Spain – 15 days tour covering all the highlights of Spain. I'm particularly looking forward to walking the cobblestoned streets of San Sebastian and enjoying some of the local pinxtos.

See trafalgar.com

THE TOUR DIRECTOR

Tim Pendlebury, Insight Vacations

SPECIALIST DESTINATIONS

I live in Southern Poland and direct journeys mostly through Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Balkans.

A GOOD TOUR DIRECTOR IS SOMEONE WHO ... Cares about their guests and is passionate about the destination. They should also be knowledgeable, very well organised, ready for any situation and always have a plan B!

MY BEST EVER TOUR WAS ... A 46-day journey through much of Western and Eastern Europe as well as Turkey and Egypt. It was an epic journey and by the end the travellers really were one big family.

MY LAST TOUR WAS ... In December, our Insight Vacations Christmas Markets of Poland, Prague & Germany.

WHERE TO NEXT? The World War I battlefields of Europe in April. I'll be joining Australian and New Zealand travellers for an in-depth trip visiting the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme and attending the Anzac Day commemorations for the centenary of the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux.

See insightvacations.com

THE TOUR DIRECTOR

Pikul Santirodjanakulfor, Intrepid

SPECIALIST DESTINATIONS

Thailand, Laos and Malaysia

A GOOD TOUR DIRECTOR IS ... Someone who organises activities, accommodation, transport and even entertains kids on our family trips. Another big part of the role is to share my local knowledge about nature, food, culture and religion in the regions we visit. On my trips I always teach my groups a few Thai words so that they can communicate with locals – local interaction is the best way to truly experience a destination.

MY BEST EVER TOUR WAS ... All of the ones when I see the look on the kids' faces when they spot an elephant for the first time; that's pretty hard to beat.

MY LAST TOUR WAS ... In Thailand on Intrepid's Family Trip where we travelled from central Thailand to the north. This trip takes travellers to some of Thailand's most amazing coastal and jungle destinations including the beaches of Hua Hin and Erawan Water Falls.

WHERE TO NEXT? Our Thailand Family Trip with Teenagers. This is a really active trip packed with activities to keep teens entertained like kayaking, zip-lining and biking. We will also visit a homestay, which is a great way for teenagers to learn about the local culture.

See intrepidtravel.com/au

THE TOUR DIRECTOR

Pieter Reynolds, Globus

SPECIALIST DESTINATIONS

Central Europe – Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary

A GOOD TOUR DIRECTOR IS SOMEONE WHO … Marries the different aims and desires of the clients and the many different parts that make up a tour into a seamless experience for them.

MY BEST EVER TOUR WAS … A recent alpine tour where we had amazing weather making it absolutely perfect for all the many activities; taking pictures, walking on glaciers, horse rides and gondolas to the top of the mountains.

MY LAST TOUR WAS … Prague, Budapest and Vienna – some of the most beautiful and historic cities in Europe. There is something for everyone to explore, as well as unique experiences like the thermal baths in Budapest or walking across the Charles Bridge in Prague, while in Vienna art, food and music fill your senses.

WHERE TO NEXT? A tour of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Poland for me is one of the lesser well-known tourist destinations of those that I work in. It has a lot to offer; great people, fascinating history as well as beautiful cities like Krakow.

See globus.com.au

THE TOUR DIRECTOR

Daniel Boghen, Collette

SPECIALIST DESTINATIONS

Italy, France and the alpine countries (Austria, Switzerland, Germany). My summers are spent touring in Canada.

A GOOD TOUR DIRECTOR IS ... Someone who is passionate, and who truly wants their guests to come away thrilled with their experiences. I want to hear oohs and aahs and laughter every day.

MY BEST EVER TOUR WAS ... When I helped put together a unique culinary tour in the region of Emilia-Romagna in Italy. A cooking class in a family's apartment in Bologna, while the grandfather shared historical anecdotes of his native city and the grandmother critiqued her daughter's recipes, was priceless.

MY LAST TOUR WAS … Christmas on the Danube. We sailed from Vienna along the Danube and discovered some picturesque Bavarian towns.

WHERE TO NEXT? Our Southern Italy and Sicily trip. Sicily is a world of its own in terms of beauty and history. Some of the most spectacularly preserved Greek temples are there. I am always excited to introduce my guests to the families we meet (one on a farmstead, one at a winery) because of their authentic hospitality and the huge, delicious, homemade meals they prepare for us.

See gocollette.com.au

THE TOUR DIRECTOR

Scott Kent, Experience Japan Travel

SPECIALIST DESTINATION

Japan

A GOOD TOUR DIRECTOR IS SOMEONE WHO ... Loves travel themselves and is passionate about what they show the clients. They also must be trying to learn new things about the destination.

MY BEST EVER TOUR WAS ... Taking clients behind the scenes at a UNESCO World Heritage temple in Kyoto. Not just being able to go to areas of the temple that aren't open to the public, we also got to touch a Japanese national treasure which was a gold tea bowl that the ruler of Japan loved and used himself some 400 years ago.

MY LAST TOUR WAS ... To Tokyo, Kyoto and a location called Izu Peninsula, which included a Relais & Chateaux-affiliated Japanese traditional inn. Kyoto offered several hands-on experiences like dyeing cloth in a traditional Japanese way along with visiting some amazing temples and Japanese gardens.

WHERE TO NEXT? Tokyo and Kyoto but the main objective is to see the snow monkeys; the monkeys that soak in the hot springs themselves which is surrounded by snow. And, speaking of hot springs I often have to help our [human] clients out with the large communal baths at some of the ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) they stay in. Of course people want to try the baths, but don't know how to use them. The Japanese bath culture is a great one to experience.

See experiencejapantravel.com

THE TOUR DIRECTOR

Tim Macartney-Snape, World Expeditions

SPECIALIST DESTINATIONS

Mountain areas of Nepal, India, China, Pakistan, East Africa and Australia

A GOOD TOUR DIRECTOR IS SOMEONE WHO … Takes care of everyone's needs – not just his or her tour group but also the local staff. Good communication is paramount, along with sensitivity to the subtleties that can enhance the experience and also those that can detract from it.

MY BEST EVER TOUR WAS … To the Kumaon region of Uttaranchal state in the Indian Himalaya. As we set out, I spotted some lovely looking small peaks on an outlying ridge of the higher range. Getting there involved building a bridge over a glacial torrent, traversing a very steep, jungle clad gorge, and finding an intricate path through a glacial amphitheatre that delivered us to a magical snow-bound basin that no one had ever been to.

MY LAST TOUR WAS ... an uncharacteristically short trek I devised culminating in climbing a small peak in Nepal's Annapurna range. It was a wonderful trip because we saw some fantastic natural scenery – like a stupendous ice-fall that plummeted 3000 metres down a gorge at the base of which a glacier joined the rainforest.

WHERE TO NEXT? To the Gorakh and Changla Himal region in the far west of Nepal which is an area no one seems to visit. There are mountains that reach close to 7000 metres, so there'll be plenty of interesting terrain to explore.

See worldexpeditions.com

THE TOUR DIRECTOR

Bas Bosschieter, Captain's Choice

SPECIALIST DESTINATIONS

I'm based in Melbourne but have travelled and worked in more than 90 countries.

A GOOD TOUR DIRECTOR IS SOMEONE WHO ... Understands the guests' needs, has a genuine concern for their comfort and shares a sense of adventure.

MY BEST EVER TOUR WAS ... Going to the North Pole (90 degrees North – top of the world) on a Russian nuclear-powered Icebreaker is certainly right up there. If nothing else, 10 days without any mobile communication was very liberating.

MY LAST TOUR WAS ... Luxury Lodges by Private Jet. A combination of truly spectacular accommodation at Saffire Freycinet, Southern Ocean Lodge and Longitude 131, all connected with direct flights aboard our private jet.

WHERE TO NEXT? Our Equatorial Explorer tour. Over 21 days we will discover Bermuda, Cuba, Guatemala, Colombia, the Amazon, Atacama Desert, Easter Island and Tahiti. An itinerary like this is simply not possible without the comfort and convenience of your own 50-seat (lie flat bed) 757 aircraft.

See captainschoice.com.au

THE TOUR DIRECTOR

Tina Music, Bunnik Tours

SPECIALIST DESTINATIONS

Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland; and further areas of Europe.

A GOOD TOUR DIRECTOR IS SOMEONE WHO ... Is passionate about what they are doing and the area that they're showing. You must also be well prepared, constantly willing to learn, have good local knowledge and be able to anticipate what books/internet sites the clients might have read before the trip.

MY BEST EVER TOUR WAS ... Last May's Norway and the Baltics tour was a highlight. It felt like everything went wrong because of a sudden, abundant snow fall, but I improvised using my local knowledge and made up new itineraries as we went along. We had a whale of a time – one of the best tours ever.

MY LAST TOUR WAS ... Norway and Iceland. Ten days around the absolute highlights of Norway and then 10 days in Iceland; the land of ice and fire; a country like no other.

WHERE TO NEXT? Our Scandinavian Discovery tour, four countries in 20 days. I always look forward to each and every day of this tour.

See bunniktours.com.au

THE TOUR DIRECTOR

Kristy Power, Contiki

SPECIALIST DESTINATIONS

Central Europe and The Mediterranean.

A GOOD TOUR DIRECTOR IS SOMEONE WHO ... Always does their best to make sure everyone on the trip has the best time.

MY BEST EVER TOUR WAS ... A recent Road to Athens trip that included four days cruising around the Greek Islands. Like many Contikis, everyone got along great and by the end of the trip friendships were made for life.

MY LAST TOUR WAS ... Over the Christmas/ New Year's break I ran a two-week European Discovery trip that started in London and ended in Paris, passing through Central Europe and Italy along the way. December is by far the best month to travel to Europe; there are fewer crowds, fairy-tale Christmas markets appearing at almost every stop and everything is better with snow!

WHERE TO NEXT? Central America to sit on the other side of the microphone and be a traveller on a trip there.

See contiki.com 

AT YOUR SERVICE: THE MOST UNUSUAL REQUESTS FROM GUESTS

BAS BOSSCHIETER, CAPTAIN'S CHOICE

A 2am phone call from a guest insisting I go and purchase him a new pillow as he wasn't satisfied with the pillows supplied by the hotel. The next day a pillow was purchased.

PIKUL SANTIRODJANAKULFOR, INTREPID

One traveller was unable to eat rice, noodles, vegetables and fruits – which are the main types of food we have in Thailand. This was tricky but of course we worked around it and called restaurants ahead of time to ensure that the traveller would be catered for.

TIM PENDLEBURY, INSIGHT

On a 35-day journey through multiple countries a gentleman requested that he only be served well-cooked steak every day for lunch and dinner. We managed to do it.

KASSIE JONES, TRAFALGAR

It was from a lady who had lost touch with a friend who moved to Switzerland around 40 years before. I was able to find her in a village not too far from Lucerne where we were staying. She made the journey down and the two ladies had a lovely catch-up.

KRISTY POWER, CONTIKI

I once had a semi-pro skateboarder on a trip, and in every city, he wanted to know the best local skate spots so he could try them out. I loved the challenge.

TINA MUSIC, BUNNIK

I organised a wedding in Iceland, and acted as the bridesmaid. The bus driver was best man.

THE ULTIMATE TRIP FOR A TOUR DIRECTOR WHO'S BEEN EVERYWHERE

TIM MACARTNEY-SNAPE, WORLD EXPEDITIONS

I'd love to do an exploratory trek in Bhutan. I've never been because, so far, they don't allow anyone to deviate from a few designated trails and I don't like just sticking to the regular route.

BAS BOSSCHIETER, CAPTAIN'S CHOICE

My dream will come true in January 2019 with introduction of The Ultimate African Safari by Private Jet itinerary. Starting in Cairo and finishing in Cape Town, you can only imagine the spectacle in between, including a visit to the gorillas in Rwanda.

TINA MUSIC, BUNNIK

I dream about reaching "the end of the world", the final frontiers, so Antarctica would probably be my choice for glaciers, icebergs, and following the steps of the great explorers.

TIM PENDLEBURY, INSIGHT

I would love to join our own Spectacular Scandinavia and Its Fiords journey; cruising on stunning fiords, one of the world's most beautiful train journeys on the Flam Railway, and the Viking culture of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

PIKUL SANTIRODJANAKULFOR, INTREPID

My own dream tour for a holiday is to join an Intrepid trip in Tanzania to see the wildlife at Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater.

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