One of the great things about living in D.C. is that people always want to visit you. Most Washingtonians have taken friends and family on the Mall loop so many times they could do it in their sleep. So, why not take that expertise and make a few bucks?
That’s what Shannon Mikush, 50, did when she became a licensed tour guide 13 years ago. “My mother actually is a tour guide, and she said, ‘Why don’t you get your license, since you know everything anyway?’ I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’ve been everywhere. So, I did,” says Mikush, who earned her certification through the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, DC. She now works with several companies as in independent contractor.
Of course, professional tour guiding involves more than shepherding tourists around the Ellipse. Guides, who earn $35 to $45 per hour, need a license and major people skills (i.e., maintaining a constant smile while hanging out with 40 strangers for as long as 14 hours a day).
Mikush sets the record straight about the work in her class “Become a Washington DC Tour Guide.”
» The Basics: The class, open to 12 students, meets five times — twice in a classroom and three times on location at the Washington Monument, Capitol Hill and Arlington National Cemetery. Mikush begins by debunking common assumptions about guiding. “It sounds very romantic, but there are pros and there are cons to the whole thing,” she says, such as erratic hours and challenging tourists. “It’s not your regular 9-to-5 job in any respect.”
Since you can’t work legally without a license, Mikush also addresses studying for the Tour Guide License Exam, administered by the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
The test consists of 100 multiple-choice, true-and-false and fill-in-the-blank questions about public buildings and other points of interest in and around the District. Know the architects of famous sites and their dedication dates, she recommends.
» What You’ll Learn: On the three field trips, Mikush demonstrates where to stand while speaking, what to point out at each place and how to pace talks. She also explains how to gain access to famous sites and the logistics of managing large groups of people.
Students won’t walk out of the class ready to take the mic on a tour bus, Mikush says. “What my class is geared to is, ‘This is what you need to study to get your license, and this is what you need to know to be a successful guide,'” she says. “The rest is on you to learn.”
The best ways to prepare for the test and the work are by reading books on D.C. and American history, and through life experience, Mikush says. “I have lots of ways of describing the same situation,” she says.
“You’re with enough groups, you find out what’s interesting to people.” In other words, Mikush can tailor the history of a site to the particular interest of a group. For instance, if she takes adult American Indians on a tour, she can highlight aspects different from what she would highlight to a group of teens.
Although she covers the job search process in the class — join the tour guides guild and market yourself to tour companies — she encourages students to contact her after they get their licenses. “I help them get connected with others in the industry who are more willing to work with new guides,” Mikush says.
Her goal for her students is “to successfully get to the point where they can guide, because if this is right for you, it’s the best job in the world.”
» What’s the Deal?: “Become a Washington DC Tour Guide” is a five-week course offered by Fairfax County Public Schools that meets Wednesdays from 7 to 10 p.m. from June 30 to July 28 at Woodson High School, 9525 Main St., Fairfax; 703-658-1219. The class costs $149. Register online at https://aceclasses.fcps.edu.
Written by Express contributor Stephanie Kanowitz
Photos by Kristoffer Tripplaar