What It’s Like To Be A Fall Foliage Tour Guide in New EnglandPhoto Credit : Jay Yuan/Shutterstock
Gloria Swanson Ream may just know New England about as well as anyone. For 37 years Ream has led guided trips for Tauck Tours, a Connecticut-based company that has been leading journeys around the region since 1925. During her nearly four-decade career she has worked all over the world, but come autumn she’s largely anchored in her native New England. Each year she leads up to four consecutive weeklong trips, saying good-bye to one group on a Saturday afternoon in Boston and welcoming a new one just a few hours later. The trips touch all six New England states and span a good 800 miles of travel. They’re action-packed in other words, and that’s just how Ream likes it.
“You meet some pretty incredible people and I get to share New England with them at its most beautiful time of year,” says Ream.
In 2016, I got a front-row seat to Ream’s work when I joined a Tauck foliage tour. Ream was funny and easy going, part emcee and part teacher as she moved seamlessly from logistical details (bathroom locations were important) to historical tidbits and back again. Sometimes she leaned against a seat as she talked; other times she straddled the aisle with the agility of a surfer as the bus made turns. Her history was succinct—a CliffsNotes version of the region, to be sure—but she kept it a story, knowing where to amplify the funny and when to dive into some interesting trivia. At one point, the topic of George Washington came up, and someone in the back asked the name of his horse. A brief pause followed. “Nelson,” she finally answered, and laughed. “You thought you could trick me, huh?”
Which is to say Ream takes immense pride in her work. But what’s that work require? We recently caught up with Ream, who was on break with a tour at Hancock Shaker Village, about her life on a bus, peak color, and what she still loves about New England autumns after all these years.
It’s rare that anyone stays at one job for 37 years, much less one as public facing as yours. What’s the secret?
I’ve always had a passion for travel and I love the people I’ve guided and the adventure. It’s a job where you don’t always know what’s around the corner. But you always have to be prepared and well organized. And you have to think ahead of what could go wrong and then be ready to shift into a Plan B. But I love not always knowing what may be around the corner because often those situations create some amazing discoveries. Maybe we have to follow some detour and we come across this amazing maple sugarhouse in Vermont. Which has happened. Not that long ago I discovered an apple orchard just by chance in central Massachusetts and so we decided to pop in for a visit. The owner was so great and now we go there every week and we get apples. In fact,we were just there about an hour ago and everyone loved it.
How do you prepare for these trips?
I read a lot. I’m always learning something new because I want to surprise people. I don’t want to just give them the same thing they might be able to find with a quick search. Just the other day I read that story Yankee magazine ran about Lyman Orton [owner of the Vermont Country Store]and his paintings. That was fascinating and so when we passed through Weston I could talk about the importance he places on heritage and why feels this art needs to be preserved and shared. People loved it. But there’s also all the coordination. The tour planning begins a year in advance and then about a month out I start really thinking about the itineraries that I’m going to run and what I’m going to do. I reach out to all the suppliers to go over our times and when we’ll arrive. After all these years I like making those calls and keeping those connections. I think having those relationships are important.
What about on the trips themselves? Talk about all the behind-the-scenes work you’re doing that the guests don’t witness or maybe even appreciate.
It’s like seeing a swan on the water. It looks graceful and easy but underneath the water there’s a lot of action going on. Last week, for example, we arrived at the Omni Mt. Washington Hotel and this cold snap hit so I had to work with management to make sure the heat was going to be on for our guests. As I’m doing that, I was also thinking about my next group, which I’d be meeting in just two days. So, I’m going through the manifest, reaching out to our first hotel to make sure everything is squared away. Or, I’m in touch with the restaurant and laying out the kind of table configurations we’re going to need. I recently took a picture of my hotel bed. It wasliterally my office. There was my laptop, which was connected to a small printer, which had all these papers around it.
What are the most frequent questions you’re asked when you’re on a foliage tour?
Well, of course number one is, are we going to see color? Where is the peak foliage? And that’s where I go into my explanation of how the color starts in the higher elevations and then rolls down. It begins up north and then moves south. That’s clearly at the top. But people also want to know about New England history. They want to see those quaint villages they’ve heard about or seen in photos. And then they want lobster. That’s also very important. People love their New England lobster.
And I’m guessing you could write a whole guidebook on New England’s best bathroom stops.
Are you still a foliage fan after all these years?
That’s a big yes. It’s always interesting because I think that the mind or the mind’s eye, or whatever you want to call it, it really can’t seem to remember how beautiful it was the year before. It’s a surprise of mother nature. But when it’s sunny and the air starts to get crisp and those first colors begin to pop, I get excited just like everyone else.
Do you have some favorites stops or parts of the region that you always look forward to seeing on these trips?
I love Boston a lot, but I love being out in the countryside. That’s where you start to see the covered bridges and the more rural parts of New England. Those areas of Vermont or New Hampshire where you see those rolling hills, those weathered farms and the farmhouses, and the whole hillside is like a tapestry—that all still feels very special to me.
You’ve been doing this a long time and I know from my own trip with you that many Tauck guests are repeat customers. How does that impact the spirit of these trips?
It definitely creates something unique. Some people have been on other trips I’ve led before. Other times, their parents were guests of ours and they remember traveling with them on a Taucktour when they were children. I remember I had a guest who had done several different trips with me: London, Paris, Hawaii and New England. That was something. So you develop friendships with these people. I have a gentleman on the tour I’m leading now who has done 31 Tauck tours. Imagine that.
How have the tours or what people want from the tours changed over the years?
Technology has certainly been a big difference maker. When I started out we didn’t have cell phones. If we had any kind of emergency or needed to make a new reservation, we had to find a payphone and hope that you had some dimes. [Laughs.] But back in those early days I spent a lot more time on the coach. Today, people want to get out more. They want to engage in the places they’re visiting. It’s more site doing and less sightseeing. They want to meet the locals and just get outside to soak it all in. It’s New England after all. Can you blame them?