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Less isn't better

A former tour guide pops the balloon of 'improved' tours

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Before I took this wonderful position as staff photographer for New Times and the Sun, I was a tour guide at Hearst Castle for close to 17 years. Just recently, after more than 50 years, the entire tour operation changed dramatically. There had been rumblings about changing the way the tours worked from the day I started at the castle back in 1991. Fortunately, I got out before that occurred.

I think the management of this State Park simply doesn’t understand how valuable their unique tour operation was. To understand this is to understand that the guide staff at the castle was a diverse mix of extremely intelligent, extremely opinionated, and extremely vocal people. This mix of people, place, and feel of the moment while giving tours makes me seriously doubt I could ever convince someone who hasn’t done the job properly why it’s so valuable to keep it the way it was.

Through half of my life, I understood and constantly revised my approach in giving tours to the throngs of people who came from all over the world to see this bit of majesty. This approach was to create a friendly rapport with the public from the beginning of a tour and explain the history, the thought process as I saw it, the architecture, and the art throughout the 75-minute journey across the hilltop in such a fashion that people would leave not only with a little bit of factual knowledge of the place and its contents, but also with the personalities involved with its creation.

Giving a tour was weaving together history, art history, philosophy, and a sense of time and place, which even the allotted 75 minutes didn’t allow to be completed. Now the tours have been chopped to 40 minutes and the estate and its contents will lose most of the underlying context and history necessary to give a semblance of understanding of why the place was created as it was. If it seems that chopping 35 minutes from a tour would have no impact, realize that’s about the amount of time a one-hour TV program would have after commercials are taken out.

 Giving the tours and being on them was an experience like no other in the California State Park system because of the interaction between the guide, the public, and the park, and now it’s gone for the wrong reasons, which primarily have to do with saving a minuscule amount of money. We had something unique, and now it’s been homogenized for mass consumption by people who never had any idea or cared what the experience was ever really all about.

I’ve heard stories from friends who still work there, and I have to laugh and grimace at the same time when I hear their thoughts—which they can’t tell because they would be reprimanded or fired. Stories that include the cacophony of sound and movement that replaced the tranquility that actually was possible on a guided tour, people handling the porous white Carrera marble statues that soak up oils from the skin, people dancing on balustrades for video cameras, and the overall Disneylandification of the hilltop.

Instead of looking to creatively solve the problem of staffing a State Park that is busiest in the summer and on holidays, it’s been a slow trudging move in the last 20 years to get rid of the guide staff regardless of the repercussions. There was a program when I started that allowed people to just work summers and Christmas time, but that was ended for reasons that never were explained properly. Yes, I was “expensive” for 17 years while I commuted 100 miles round trip from San Luis Obispo on my dime while I barely managed to make my rent payments on a regular basis from the salary I received from the state, but because of the love I had for the place and the job I did, I made do.

As the years progressed, the state made it impossible for people like me to work there and made it impossible to recruit and keep people at the job for any meaningful length of time. I’m sure it wasn’t personal because the number crunchers in Sacramento and San Simeon don’t see the personal side of things—they see numbers. Unfortunately, numbers don’t add up to experience, job satisfaction, or happiness.

I pondered writing this piece for a while after the changes happened, and one morning in the shower I recalled the most memorable moment I had while working as a guide—and it wasn’t the time I met Arnold before he was governor (I was shocked I was taller than him, and he was very unpleasant to me), it wasn’t the time Laurence Fishburne graciously accepted my handshake, and it wasn’t the times I got to take friends to swim in the outdoor pool for the summer staff parties. The time I most remember was on Dec. 22, 2003, at 11:15 a.m. when a 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck the San Simeon region.

I was giving a tour to 50 people at that moment, and I was gobsmacked. I had no idea what was happening—and neither did the group, because the whole mountain was moving like someone had picked us up and thrown the whole Earth around. Fortunately, because of my colleague’s help, my training in disaster situations, and the authority I had over my group of 50 people that was based on friendly, open trust created from the rapport that began at the beginning of the tour, we and all of the other multitudes of groups of people—all led by tour guides with similar training—evacuated the hilltop without incident or injury within 10 minutes.

I’ll ask some direct questions to the man in charge of Hearst Castle today, Nick Franco. What are you going to do when the next earthquake hits and you have a couple thousand people strolling without escort through the grounds? What are you going to do about the damage caused by people handling the priceless artwork on the grounds? What are you going to do about leading an important state park by concepts of good customer service and not shortcut fixes because of finance? When will the state and its associated managers understand what a prize they have not only in the estate itself, but also in a successful interpretive program?

It’s been more than 50 years and millions of satisfied visitors and now you all are screwing it up. Remember when Coke changed its formula 1995? Probably not.

Steve E Miller is staff photographer for New Times Media Group. Send comments to him at semiller@newtimesslo.com.

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