(Photo above: The yellow ticket says: “…All tips given on the tour are yours guide’s income…” which is not technically true.)
In 2004, the American psychologist Chris Sandeman founded the first tourist company based on the “free tour” concept in Germany. Though, since then, many more companies with the same concept have arisen, in this article we are focusing on the founder company and leader in this concept, Sandemans New Europe because, having worked for it, the author of this article has been able to study its functioning.
Sandemans New Europe is a marketing company that provides an advertising service for its own brand, “camouflaged” as a tourist company. Through the web, social networks and platforms like TripAdvisor, it creates a stream of information about what it offers, the “free tour”.
How the “free tour” works
The tourists who access this information, either online or from flyers in the form of street maps at hostels in the cities they visit, go to the starting point of the free tour at noon. There, a person hired by the company as a ‘meeting point manager’ (MPM) awaits them.
A large number of people already know the company or the concept, and many have enjoyed free tours in other cities, some even deciding to visit cities depending on whether there is free tour or not. Others have never enjoyed one, and they ask the MPM if they really don’t have to pay anything, but the MPM emphasises the idea that the service is free.
At the end of the tour, those tourists who want to can give tips to the guide. After each tour, the guide in turn must pay money to their MPM for each person in their tour group. This amount ranges from £1.50 to £3 per person. Generally, this is done in a coffee shop, which handles money every day in front of many strangers. What is left from the tips, if anything, represents most of the guides’ income from their relationship with the company.
During the tour, the guide has the obligations to promote Sandemans’ products (with cost) and to try to convince people to buy these products from the MPM. Breaks are taken in the same coffee shop as mentioned above. The company also offers some paid tours that take place in the afternoon, and also sells other companies’ products, such as museum tickets or tickets for tours offered by other operators.
Sandemans’ real strategy
When a tourist joins a tour group the MPM gives them a ticket that says, among other things:
“Your autonomous guide will be the provider of your tour. The guides have been certified by SANDEMANs NEW EUROPE, who is employed by your guide to promote your tour. All tips given on the tour are your guide’s income. The full name of the guide and his selfcontained number are printed on the guide’s identification badge, all at your disposal”
This is what Sandemans tells the public. But it is not true. The guides do not arrange their own tours or organise this whole structure. This is totally untrue, and is probably a legal scheme of Sandemans to avoid paying taxes as a tourism company that operates on the street. This is a way of covering up the fact that the guides are subject to an unequal power relationship and is a strategy of fear within their working relationship.
Likewise, it is false and very misleading to say that all tips are for the guide, as explained above. Some managers give the guides the option of explaining to the tourists the reality of the tip system. However, many guides do not do so because they know that a certain type of visitor will be uncomfortable about hearing this. Many of these tourists would believe themselves to be stingy if at the end of the tour they do not give a tip which they had not been counting on, because the company describes its product with the word FREE.
The guides write the scripts for the tours, although most of them have no background in the study of history. The company takes advantage of the desire of many of them to be liked by the manager and does not care that many of these scripts are the result of superficial research on Wikipedia. The two scripts for the city of Liverpool, for example, had countless incongruities, anachronisms and a multitude of historical moments up to the middle of 2016 explained in a superficial way.
Wages and fear in Sandemans
Among the contractual obligations of guides is to perform the paid tours on a regular basis, receiving £20 for a tour that takes between two and three hours. The guides also charge small commissions, between £0.50 and £1 for each attendee to a paid tour or for each product sold.
On paper, the guides are not required to conduct all of these tours, as they are self-employed. However, the manager always forces the guides to do them all (the tours can change time and day unexpectedly as the manager pleases), threatening to hire more guides, therefore reducing the number of tours that each guide does weekly and reducing the income of all the guides. It should not be forgotten that, as self-employed workers, the company can dispense with their collaboration at any time (as specified in the collaboration agreement signed by both sides). These conditions are the main sources of fear for most guides, but are not the only ones.
It must be said that the only Sandemans private tour in Liverpool has a much lower quality than the free tour. It is also necessary to explain that this city is only a transit point for the typical Sandemans tourist: young back packers with limited resources. Therefore, tourists passing through this city reserve their money to spend in cities that offer more, like London or Edinburgh. However, that does not matter to the company; it “strangles” the guides monthly to force them to sell more and to reach a minimum level of monthly sales. Depending on how well or how badly the guide performs in reaching that level, in the following month they will have to pay a higher or lower amount for each person on their free tour. Is it really an obligation to reach this minimum level of sales? Yes it is; if the guide does not reach it, the local manager will dispense with their services, while the other guides in the group, frightened by this example, will be afraid of the same fate.
In the same way, the company pushes the guides into asking the tourists to write positive reviews on TripAdvisor, thus increasing the presence of the company on the internet for free. A single negative review in a month can mean the “dismissal” of the guide (the minimum number of reviews varies according to the manager in each city and the relationship that the guides have with them). Some of these negative reviews arise from the company’s misleading advertising because many tourists feel compelled to give a tip they had not been counting on at the end of the tour.
For this system, the guide has to be extremely friendly with all the attendees, including in the following situations: people delaying the pace of the tour by doing “selfies” every two minutes; people showing no interest in the work of the guide; people who do not pay or just give a few pence; groups of nine people who only give a fiver note; or tourists who pressing the guide with questions about things to do for free in the city in exchange for a smile.
Finally, the company introduces new guides with the low season at the beginning of winter. Why? Because there are many less tourists and these are less predisposed toward buying products. Therefore, the company’s income is reduced, while the number of guides is increased so that competition between them is fomented and many of them go crazy trying to sell because they all know that those who sell the least are dispensable. This is why the company does not reduce the levels of sales that the guides have to achieve.
The company pays the guides by bank transfer monthly, with each payment corresponding to the sales and payments for tours from two months before (that is, the guides are always paid “two months late”). There are usually delays (in some cases of many months) and errors in payments. Getting the company accountant to correct these mistakes and to make the right payment in a reasonable time is a tedious operation that needs to be done almost every month, wasting a lot of time and energy.
And the guides, what do they say about all this?
Some are happy and others are not so happy. Here, factors such as education, culture and personal aspirations of each guide need to be considered. Clearly, psychological factors are also important; let’s not forget that Chris Sandeman is a psychologist.
In the case of Liverpool, a guide can earn £1,500 per month in August by working a little more than 20 hours a week, plus the hours invested in company meetings and arrangements with the accountant for incorrect payments. In winter, this figure can be below £700. These calculations are based on optimal conditions for the guides: two guides per language, with a collaboration system when setting schedules. In case there is no mutual collaboration between guides, the company gives preference to guides with better sales figures in choosing which days they work. Thus, the situation can become very competitive and cannibalistic if the manager wants it that way.
For many guides, this money is very tasty, especially considering that it is very easy for both the company and the guides to avoid paying taxes with these figures. The guides avoid having to work in hotels and restaurants all month to earn the same pay for many more hours, with several supervisors and in very hard working conditions. Some young Spanish guides, who find it impossible to earn that money in their own country, would agree; some guides see it as having to bite the bullet of absolutely no social coverage (sick leave, vacations, pension contribution).
Others do not think in this way, although most are silenced by fear. More than 290 Sandemans guides, scattered around the world, talk about their affairs in a private Facebook group, but a very small percentage discuss the serious issues of their relationship with the company. The rest may read the debate but do not say anything for fear that the company become aware of their opinions (this can happen easily because there are ex-guides in the group who are currently hired by the company to do administrative work).
The Facebook group does not request signatures on material that defends the guides, since the company can immediately dispense with guides very easily.
Fear serves this pyramidal and highly neoliberal structure, in which the guides, who are the basis of the company, do everything: promoting the company through the flow of TripAdvisor reviews, writing the scripts, doing the work on the street, and overpaying for it. As one old guide in Liverpool once said: “He is not ready, Chris Sandeman, who not only does not pay us, but we have to pay him!”
So, in this group of guides there is every different type: from those that pay a £20 deposit for the loan of a red jacket with the company’s corporate image to use in his work (the company does not require this but does recommend it) to the one that used his own money to print business cards to give to tourists at the end of the tour. There are a few who complain without thinking of organising or taking any action, and there are others who are more aware, knowing that this structure is hypercapitalist, and who are hostile to interrelations between humans being full of intermediary parasites that live from the proceeds of performing the policing function of an angry dóberman.