By Brian Jewell
Bob O’Connor is more than just a destination salesperson at the Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau in West Virginia. If you bring a group to visit his area, O’Connor might also be your tour guide.
Step-on guides have long been a fixture of the group travel business. These local destination experts join groups, “stepping” onto their motorcoaches and providing information and commentary during a tour of their cities or regions. Although many cities have numerous well-trained, professional guides, some convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) have begun to offer their staff members as step-on guides for tours.
In a business environment where hundreds of domestic destinations are competing for group tour business, many CVBs have come up with creative perks to entice group leaders to bring visitors their way. At some of these bureaus, especially in smaller destinations, the staff members play the part of step-on guides themselves.
CVBs that offer step-on service save group travelers money and can make travel planning easy for group leaders. They can also give travelers a one-of-a-kind overview of their destinations.
Civil War expert
Jefferson County is the home of Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, a site that played an important role in the run-up to the Civil War. Most groups that visit the area want a tour of the site, but many can’t work around the park service’s rigid public tour schedule.
“The step-on guide is really important in the national park,” O’Connor said. “If you want a guided tour, you’re going to have to get someone who will hop on your bus or meet you there.”
There are a number of professional step-on guides who work in the area, and the Jefferson County CVB often sets them up to guide groups that come to town. But if none of their go-to guides is available, or if the group wants in-depth Civil War history, the CVB dispatches O’Connor to host them during their visit.
“I get asked to guide, and I’ve done that many times,” he said. “I’m a Civil War author myself, so I can give the groups information on the history of our area, the history of Harpers Ferry or the Civil War.”
In addition to his part-time tourism work at the CVB, O’Connor travels the country giving historic presentations. He brings that talent to the tours he gives for visiting groups.
Some group leaders will book a tour with another guide and invite O’Connor to speak at one of their lunch or dinner stops. About 10 or15 times each year, he joins a group for a meal and educates them in his area of expertise.
“I try to connect to the group,” he said. “If it’s an African-American group, I can talk about the African-American history of the area. If it’s a student group, my subject is going to be a little different.”