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This year on February 21, the world looks to tour guides, those cultural ambassadors who dedicate their time and energy to help spread the joy of travel and enable individuals across the world to experience new places. So who better to shed some light on the realities of being a tour guide than Berlin-based Originals guide Mike Stack? Mike leads the Third Reich Cold War Originals Walking Tour in Berlin and has created 2 more Originals itineraries that will be launched this year. Below, the veteran guide shares his favorite tour guiding moments, and the ins and outs of tour guiding as a career.

Kathrin: On February 21, the world will celebrate International Tour Guide Day. Did you know this special celebration existed for your profession?

Mike: When you first asked me about this day, I’d never heard about it and was very disappointed that I hadn’t. But from this year onwards my colleagues and I will be celebrating International Tour Guide Day every year. I’ve been thinking about what to do this year with our guides. Maybe a Zoom call where we can chat about the last year. Obviously with the lockdown it is going to be an online thing, but it’ll still be enjoyable. 

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Mike, Originals guide, Berlin (an Avenger fan)

I love that you were inspired to celebrate it from now on. How did you become a tour guide?

I studied European history and Tourism in New Zealand. I then traveled around the world looking for my place in it. When I came to Berlin, I met a fantastic Berlin woman who is now my wife and we’ve got a couple of kids together. Back then I thought, “this is cool here, I am staying here!” So I asked myself what I could do to make some money? One day I had a friend who was visiting me. We went on a historical tour with a guide and it was so much fun. The guide became my mentor in the end and trained me as a tour guide. So 17 years ago my tour guiding career began and I’ve loved it ever since.

Why do you love it?

My wife once said, “Be honest, you like to be the center of attention!” When you’re a tour guide you definitely do receive a lot of attention, which is cool.

You learn so much about history. It’s much more endurable to live in a city where you are giving tours because you know all of those nooks and crannies and all of those little corners of the city. I also enjoy the instant gratitude and maybe the odd tip if you’re lucky. I’ve got a young family, but the hours are great as a tour guide. Also being outside, all-weather, which I love as an outdoor sort of person. You learn about lots of different cultures, you meet different people and you make friends internationally.

You learn so much about history. It’s much more endurable to live in a city where you are giving tours because you know all of those nooks and crannies and all of those little corners of the city.

Berlin doesn’t have the most pleasant weather though for all year round tour guiding!  How do you motivate yourself to be out and about in rain or shine?

Well, there is one very important thing that I learned when I moved to this part of the world: there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. 

I’ve done tours in -24 degrees in winter in Berlin and I am thinking to myself when I am going to work if people are so interested in the history of Berlin and they go on a tour, how cool is that? And I respect that. And then you’re on a tour and it is freezing cold, snowing, -24. Brutal! But you’re in it together! So you form this bond as you’re going through the streets. I love it.

With these many seasons, which things do you always carry with you when guiding?

In winter extra gloves, hats, umbrellas. I used to have socks but no one wanted to borrow socks. In summer sun protection. I always have an iPad for photographs and videos, still photographs as well in case there is glare from the sun and you can’t use the iPad. I always have pens with me, maps and I always take water with me and I can’t have enough chalk for making drawings on the ground. Some people learn by visuals, some by words. So we make sure that everyone has the possibility to take something away from the tour.

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Mike in action

That’s a lot. I suppose your backpack must be quite heavy!

Oh yes, I also have books in there and an escapee’s files from the Stasi archive. I carry heaps of stuff with me so that if people ask me questions I can show them the resources.

I love how prepared you are for your tours! You are also training and recruiting tour guides in your role at Insider Tour Berlin. What would you say makes a great tour guide?

You’ve got to be extraverted as you have to be able to deal with people. You could be the smartest person but if you can’t deliver information you’re lost.

You’ve got to put your heart and your soul into it and want to keep learning and improving. You can see if someone has it (snaps with his finger) in the first 30 seconds.

You’ve got to be extraverted as you have to be able to deal with people. You could be the smartest person but if you can’t deliver information you’re lost.

Sometimes guides also have signature elements, like you for example walking backward while guiding.

Yes, don’t try that at home, kids! I’m a trained professional who walks backward and talks. It’s something I started years ago when people were asking great questions and I wanted everyone to be able to hear my answer. So walking between sights I got into the habit of walking backward and keeping the group together by talking while walking. 

Well, having witnessed it, I can definitely say you’re a professional backward walker.

Thank you very much. Years in the making.

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You actually created the itinerary for the Berlin Third Reich Cold War Walking Tour. What do you like about Originals tours?

The best thing about Originals is the staff that we work with at GetYourGuide. It’s so much fun; they always have great ideas, and we appreciate each other’s input. It also has a huge international reach with over 40,000 experiences around the world and a huge international community.

I also love the challenge. We created the Third Reich Cold War Tour and had a lot of history to fit into 2 hours. It’s always good to challenge yourself. 

During your 17 years of tour guiding, what would you say was your most special encounter or experience?

There are so many. But I think the most satisfaction I’ve had was a tour – I know it’s a dark location – of the former concentration camp Sachsenhausen.  I’ve had the honor of taking someone around that had family members who were inside that location and once I had a young Norwegian guy on a private tour whose grandfather had been in Sachsenhausen. Fortunately, he had survived the concentration camp. Though, it really affected him and his whole family for his whole life. They could never talk about the subject of the Third Reich or the Nazis or what the grandfather had gone through.

It was heart-wrenching. I get goosebumps talking about it now. When he saw his grandfather’s file  – what he’d done, where he’d been, where he was located, I could see the relief on his face. From then on, he had a different persona. It was a really powerful experience.

When I took him through the camp, we went to the archive where we actually got his grandfather’s file. We had it printed out, and you could see that something was lifted off from the guy’s shoulders. On the way out to Sachsenhausen, he was in tears, not knowing if he should be going out there and thinking about his family story. It was heart-wrenching. I get goosebumps talking about it now. When he saw his grandfather’s file  – what he’d done, where he’d been, where he was located, I could see the relief on his face. From then on, he had a different persona. It was a really powerful experience. He said it was really great to come here and actually see the location, that he understood it better now. I think it was a life changing experience for him, definitely.  

Is there any misconception about tour guides that you’ve always wanted to clear?

Bold letters please: Tour Guiding is a profession. It is a job. How often are those tour guides out there being asked by a customer: “So what’s your real job?” (Laughs). This is my real job, this is what I do for a living and it is great. I’d love to know how many guides out there get asked this question.

I’m pretty sure that many guides have been asked it.

Yeah, I think so too and that’s why International Tour Guide Day is so important.

Sadly we’ve come to the end of the interview. Do you have a message you’d like to share with the tour guide community?

Kia Kaha. As a New Zealander, it’s Maori and it means “hold strong to the faith”. Keep believing, never give up. Tourists will come back! Always know that if this is the job for you, keep on fighting.