TravelPulse Tour Director Profile: Randy Hammond
Photo by David Cogswell
For some people the office cubicle life is just not an option. Often these are the people one encounters while traveling, people who have found niches for themselves working in various remote places that are visited by travelers on vacation.
They inhabit a realm that exists on the fringe of the conventional office world, providing a means of escape for those who must spend most of their time within the cubicles of the world. The travel industry is a refuge for people who had to leave the straight life behind. One such a man is Randy Hammond, Tauck's tour director for its Ken Burns American Journey series tour "Winter in Yellowstone."
Hammond has been a tour director for Tauck, the 91-year-old Connecticut-based tour operator, for some 30 years. Through Tauck, a company that values highly the expertise of its tour directors and tries to cultivate their longevity with the company, people such as Randy Hammond have found solid, meaningful careers in travel.
READ MORE: Tauck Returns to Chicago with Ken Burns
Wide Open Spaces
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Hammond spends much of his time conducting tours in the wide open spaces of Wyoming and Alaska — it's a setting he's known since infancy.
He was born in the wide open spaces of Wakefield, Kansas, and moved to Abilene at the start of fifth grade. His parents had a farm, so he learned plenty about nature and hard work. After graduating from Fort Hayes State College in Kansas with a B.S. in psychology, Hammond went looking for a summer job.
“I saw an advertisement at the placement office for summer jobs in Glacier National Park in Montana,” said Hammond.
He worked in Glacier National Park in Montana as a bus driver/tour guide for a couple of summers and during the winter picked up a job at one of the ski resorts at the Teton Village near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. After that, he applied to Tauck, interviewing with the company in Denver. He started in 1977.
“That was my start with Tauck,” said Hammond. “My first tour was the Pacific Northwest out of San Francisco. We went up the coast to the Canadian Rockies and ended up in Calgary. It was a 15-day tour in one direction. Then we’d turn around and come back. I could get to San Francisco every 30 days. It was a long tour. It was a great introduction. It was a hard tour so they figured anybody that could do that could pretty much do anything.”
Branching Out, Moving Up
After proving his mettle in the Pacific Northwest, Hammond was called upon to fill in for a tour director who had left the company and had been operating Tauck’s New England fall foliage tours. At the time, they were the company’s runaway bestselling tours.
“In those days our fall foliage tours were very popular,” said Hammond. “You could go to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel where most of them started on a Saturday morning and between 8 and 10 o’clock you’d probably have 20 Tauck buses lined up picking people up every half hour... During the course of the week there’d be five or six every day. It was great. You saw a lot of people. New England is beautiful when the leaves start changing color. It’s a nice change of pace from out west.”
As time went on, Tauck tapped Hammond to fill in where they needed coverage in a rapidly expanding tour business. He branched out and directed tours in Alaska, New Orleans, Hawaii, New Mexico, Kentucky and Tennessee.
He led groups on Tauck’s Islands of Southern New England program. The company chartered a small ship and traveled up the New England coast from New York through the Long Island Sound toward Connecticut and beyond to Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Block Island and a tiny island called Cuttyhunk.
As Tauck expanded into international travel, Hammond was tapped to lead a Patagonia cruise through the Chilean Fjords.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “We started in Santiago, or we could start in Buenos Aires, to Ushuaya, then get on the ship there and travel through the Drake Passage.”
The Tour Operator’s Frontline
Hammond became one of Tauck’s solid, essential front-line people.
“Randy Hammond has been with Tauck for 30 years,” said Arthur Tauck, chairman of the company. “He knows just about everything about how we operate tours.”
The tour director is the face of a tour operator. He is the person who meets and deals with the public. He is the one who manages the tour, makes sure everyone gets together in time to make it to the next point of the tour. He is the person the guests go to whenever they have a problem, such as a lost cell phone, a lost credit card, an upset stomach, you name it.
The tour director is the master of ceremonies, the host of the traveling party. He’s a teacher who must teach without putting the class to sleep. He is a guide to the destination.
As Tauck’s business grew and the tour industry matured, it became apparent to the company that people like Randy Hammond were assets to be cultivated and held onto.
“When I started there were no benefits,” said Hammond. “In those days average tour director lasted two or three years. It was just something you did after college, then you’re done. I think it was a slow evolution, but eventually they realized, ‘We need to keep people around instead of training all the time, and have continuity.’ And as we got older we needed insurance.”
So Tauck signed its tour directors up as employees with benefits and made its tour director job a viable career.
Making Family Life Work
Hammond married a woman from Minnesota and moved to a small rural town called Sauk Rapids outside of St. Cloud. He and his wife have raised two children, now in their 20s. Hammond was able to successfully raise a family as a tour director.
There was one point, however, when the children were young, when Hammond decided to hang up his traveling shoes and try to live a more conventional life. He took a job managing a travel agency in St. Cloud.
“My daughter was starting school and son was still at home,” said Hammond. “That was a tough time.”
He thought his tour director days were over.
“I didn’t think I was coming back,” he said. “I figured this is what I would do.”
But it was not to be.
“There were a couple of things,” said Hammond. “Number one, I didn’t like being in an office all the time. Managing a small agency, I worked six days a week. I had morning meetings at 7 o’clock. I had to get involved in promotion so I would go out to the Lion’s Club the Chamber of Commerce. I was always doing evening (promotional) activities.”
Getting off the road wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“I figured I might as well be on the road,” he said, “because when on the road, I’m gone, but when I’m home, I’m there. I can get involved. My son is in Boy Scouts so I’m one of the assistant scoutmasters. I still help the troop out when I’m home. I still volunteer on district level in our council. When I was working at the agency all the time, I didn’t have time to do that kind of stuff. So I did that for a few years until both kids were in school and then I went back on the road.”
Now Hammond’s kids are adults. His home is near his wife’s parents, sister and brother. His wife teaches school and stays busy with community affairs. His schedule still takes him out on the road for about half of the year. And when he’s home, he is really home free.
“On the average I work 25 or 26 weeks of the year,” he said. “I’m up here for five weeks at a time. I’ll be in New Orleans for a week, off one week, then back for three weeks, I get a little break. We do Kentucky Derby as a special event, then I go to the Grand Canyon for a three or four weeks, I then head to Alaska for the summer. I’ll probably be up there for 10 weeks. Then in the fall I’ll probably do a combination of New Orleans or the Grand Canyon. We’re doing the Chicago event with Ken Burns again in the fall, so I’ll be doing that. I like doing the events.”
Everything seemed to have happened randomly, but looking back it makes sense. When he took his degree in psychology, he had no career plans.
“In those days I think psychology was just a generic degree,” he said. “I had no idea what I was going to do. I loved history but at that point didn’t think I wanted to be a teacher or anything.”
As a tour guide, being a history teacher is part of the job, but only part of it. And Randy Hammond’s classroom has no walls.
More by David Cogswell
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