How Tour Directors Stayed Ahead When the Pandemic Threatened the Travel Industry

On any given group travel excursion, whether by motor coach, ferry, train, or plane, there are scores of excited faces staring out the windows—watching every hill or ancient ruin pass them by. And it never fails that elsewhere on that vehicle, there is someone hunched over a notepad or phone, ignoring the scenery they’ve seen countless times before and thinking only about what happens next—that ferry ride or museum visit that’s three days away. They are likely simultaneously requesting a non-feather pillow for a traveler with an allergy and a stash of Diet Cokes (hard to come by in lots of places) for someone else.

This is your tour director, or “TD” as they are known in the biz. They are the person on the ground responsible for all the logistics of group travel—everything from getting your bags where they need to be to arranging something special for a golden anniversary. Every Flying Longhorns trip has at least one. They are always sensibly dressed, arrive many minutes earlier than everyone else, and are full of answers to every question that could be lobbed their way. With travel facing so many fits and starts these past months, and 2022 looking like the year when everyone plans to make up for lost time, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to catch up with two seasoned TDs. Being the super detail-oriented, observant, and obliging people they are, each was delighted to share their notes.

Sherif Attia is a tour director based in Egypt who often works with AHI Travel. Shelley Norton is the director of travel for the Flying Longhorns and, before coming to the Texas Exes, was a tour director for three different alumni tour companies over 10 years.

How did you get your start as a TD?

Shelley Norton: I worked in Hawaii as a junior youth counselor when I was still in high school and during summer breaks in college. After graduating, I leveraged my cruise ship experience to start working as a cruise director on small expedition ships. That same company ran an international travel company, so after a few years it was an easy jump over to being a travel director!

Sherif Attia: I got my start in 2006, so it’s been 15 years now. I had just graduated with a degree in tourism and guidance and had a big passion to be part of the travel industry in Egypt.

What’s the most fun aspect of a career in travel?

SN: Every day is different. When I’m traveling you never know what will happen on the trip. Even now in the Flying Longhorns office, each day I talk to Longhorns about various countries and get to relive my memories. It just gets you excited about your next adventure.

You’ve both led tours in Egypt, which is on a lot of bucket lists. What is your favorite stop on an itinerary there?

SA: The highlights of our trips are often the Abu Simbel Temples and the pyramids. I think very soon the Grand Egyptian Museum will open its gates to visitors and that will be at the top as well.

SN: During the Nile River cruise, you stop at a place called Kom Ombo, which has a very unique double temple dedicated to the falcon god, Horus, and the crocodile god, Sobek. The visit is often in the late afternoon, so the temperature is pleasant and the sunlight is warm and golden. It is walking distance from the riverboat, so everyone is typically relaxed. There is also a museum showcasing the mummified crocodiles that were found in the area, and a little riverfront café where you can have a tea and smoke a shisha pipe. It’s all just unforgettable.

What do you love most about showing people this part of the world?

SA: I love to show them my beloved country and give them the full picture of what it has to offer. I want them to have exceptional memories to take home with them.

SN: I fell in love with Egypt on my very first visit. It was more than just being amazed by the sites and history—I was enchanted by the smell of wood smoke in the dawn air as the call to prayer echoed over the city of Cairo. It thrilled my heart. I also just took great joy in making it fun and comfortable for my travelers by handling all the logistical details behind the scenes.

Is there something Flying Longhorn travelers seem to have in common? You’ve hosted a lot of them.

SA: I’ve noticed the groups from Texas are typically big-hearted and have a great sense of humor. They are like one big, nice family. They are also really focused and excited about learning the history of my country. I’ve kept up with a lot of them and have developed lasting friendships.

What makes someone a great TD?

SN: You need to be like Sherif! I remember his welcoming smile just beaming at us wherever we went. Seriously, he is so detailed and thinks of everything. In Egypt, you may feel a little out of your comfort zone. The country operates differently. Traffic is hectic; the currency is unfamiliar. Sherif comes at everything with a cheerful, “No problem; we will fix it.” And he is never too busy for anyone. A great TD is like a duck: calm on the surface but paddling quickly under the water.

What do you think travel will be like in the next few years?

SA: It’s hard to know anything right now. But I do know that people are thirsty for travel and want to experience something new. It may take a while to get back to what it was like before, but I’m optimistic that when more people get vaccinated, COVID-19 won’t be keeping us grounded anymore. We are super careful with our guidelines and protocols. There is a lot we can do to keep people safe and keep these trips of a lifetime operating.

What is one item you never leave home without?

SN: These days, it’s pretty easy. As long as you have your passport, smartphone, and credit card, you can find anything else you need. But I actually would never leave home without my Kindle. I love to read and it’s so wonderful to have dozens of books queued up for airplane rides and long layovers!

SA: I never leave my mobile phone. Traveling is even more fulfilling when I can stay connected to my family, and share it with them as it all unfolds.

Credit: Courtesy Shelley Norton


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