Unleashing the American Guide

­­A Summary of the Indie Guide Roundtable at the 2018 AMGA Annual Meeting

Most American guides are content working for a single large guide company. They have enough work and can live on the pay. The company takes care of business (permits, insurance, etc.) so they can focus on what they do best and enjoy the most.

However, as guides gain experience and certifications, some begin to question this entrenched paradigm. They wonder: How can I make a better living from my hard work? Would more autonomy let me improve my craft? Would working independently allow me to provide equal or better service to clients? This leads to another important question: Is it possible to take on the business end of guiding without sacrificing field time?

Like other guides I know, these questions occupy my thoughts. I’d been guiding for 20 years and wanted to work with greater independence—to make a more livable wage and to deliver the best service possible to my clients. The problem was—and still is—that very few resources were available and no alternative model existed to help me achieve these goals. And the more I learned about the business of guiding, the more I realized how little I knew.

We need how-to information with examples from successful real-life experiences to help us succeed. To start, however, we needed more discussion about these issues among guides and those involved in the business end of guiding.

To brainstorm ideas about independent guiding, I led a roundtable at the 2018 AMGA annual meeting in Salt Lake City. This article summarizes what was discussed at that roundtable, and includes some ideas shared afterward among guides.

Geoff Unger and the Indie Guide roundtable.

Geoff Unger and the Indie Guide roundtable.

The Roundtable

A roundtable is a group discussion on a topic with a pre-set but flexible agenda. Each participant has an equal right to contribute, as illustrated by the idea of a round table. The goal of this roundtable was to share knowledge and discuss key issues facing guides seeking greater independence. About 20 guides attended, including Geoff Unger, Certified Guides Cooperative (CGC) president; Russell Hunter, Colorado Mountain School owner; and three IFMGA mountain guides. The roundtable itself lasted two hours and the discussion continued in the months that followed.

What is an Independent Guide?

The first topic of discussion was defining an independent (“indie”) guide. Many attendees thought of an indie guide as one who has a start-to-finish relationship with the client and no full-time employees. The guide deals with the client from the first inquiry to the final thank you, including the money transaction.

But what exactly is an indie guide independent from, and what are the costs of this independence? Russell Hunter said, “In our country, to be independent, you need to do all the things that a guide company does to support its guides.” This led to a lively discussion about the trade-offs between taking on business responsibilities and earning more. Russell Hunter talked about the craftsperson dilemma. “Everybody here is a guide, that’s your craft. That’s what you’re good at—that’s what you’re trained to do and what you love doing. As soon as you start a business, you have to put energy into that business: being on the computer, talking to people, working on permits, stuff you don’t necessarily like. You also have to make money. So it’s a split between doing what you love and doing all this other stuff you may not love.”

Paul Koubek: “When I work for the Yosemite Mountaineering School, the general breakdown is 50% of the money goes to the company and I get 50%. I keep half and the other half is the cost of running a business. I’m paying the business so I can wake up in the morning and focus on guiding. Plus, in this case, they have a monopoly that gives me no other option in Yosemite.”

Russell Hunter: “There’s a cost-benefit for everything. So the question is, can I do better? If I were doing it all and collecting 100%, could I do all of this and feel like I’m giving away less than 50%?”

Silas Rossi: “The biggest question is, is guiding sustainable? Not only in a longevity of doing the field work, but also enough money to allow me to sometime stop doing the field work.”

Supporting our favorite independent association.

Supporting our favorite independent association.

Shane Robinson proposed a broader definition of indie guide. “I think there is the possibility to be an independent guide where you primarily work for other companies, but in short stints (winter for this company, Red Rocks for that company, volcano season for another company, etc.), and potentially even cherry pick jobs from the Northwest Info Exchange email list serve, plus maybe some guest guiding or a little CGC work, but all with very minimal overhead. I see a range of roles from employee to independent guide to guide service owner. A guide may have to jump between all three roles to be truly independent.”

Todd Passey: “I think if you just work for others and don’t have clients that you work with from start to finish, maybe you are more freelance than independent.”

Pinning down a simple definition of indie guide was proving more difficult than it first appears. Looking at a subject close to the hearts of indie guides–craft beer–we could define indie guide in a style similar to the way that the Brewers Association defines an American Craft Brewer:

  • Small: An indie guide may work in partnership with other guides but does not employ any full-time guides or support staff.

  • Independent: Less than 50 percent of guiding time is for one company, of which they are not the owner.

  • Certified: An indie guide is AMGA-certified in the discipline in which they guide.

  • Client Relationships: An indie guide has a start-to-finish relationship with at least 50 percent of clients, including payment and all correspondence.

The definition of an indie guide is a good topic for the 2019 Indie Guide Roundtable.

Obstacles to Independence

During the discussion it became apparent that in order to succeed, an indie guide must overcome two major obstacles: acquiring permits and learning how to run a business (to “crush some admin,” as Mark Allen says). Yes, there are other issues, but it really boils down to these critical two.

Permits

All land belongs to someone, and guides need permission to use that land. In Europe, your guide license is your permission, but in the U.S., permission is typically granted by land owners in the form of a permit. The problem is, few permits are issued for U.S. areas that mountain guides favor and where their clients want to go. For example, Denali National Park has issued permits to only six companies to guide clients to the summit and Yosemite National Park has only one company to guide climbing. The application process for the coveted permits is often too complex for individuals and is best suited for guide companies with trained staff to acquire land use permits to cover several guides. As a result, guides in many areas have little choice but to work for a guide company. “Okay, we’re done here,” said Paul Koubek. “An independent guide doesn’t exist.” This became an ongoing joke throughout the roundtable.

Shane Robinson’s idea of an indie guide working with more than one permit-holding entity is one solution to the permit problem: a guide works a season in the Tetons for one company, then a different season on Denali for another company.

Business Savvy

A fully independent guide must be both the guide and the guide business, taking on tasks usually handled by a guide company: dealing with finances and legal issues, getting insurance and permits, marketing, etc. Most guides enjoy the field work aspect of guiding. Adding business responsibilities in order to become independent is less appealing and, as Lindsey Fixmer pointed out, something most guides know very little about. Independence is enticing, but taking care of business is less than glorious. It works for some people, but not all.

Options for Indie Guiding

An indie guide must find a workable balance between field and business. This is not an either-or decision. A variety of opportunities can be found along a range from company-employed guide to fully independent guide. The table below summarizes the trade-off between business responsibilities and independence along this range.

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Several options exist to help indie guides with permit issues, business responsibilities, and to ease their transition to full independence. They include working for more than one company, guest guiding, the Certified Guides Cooperative and pooling resources as a small owner-guide group.

A common first step toward independence, after working for one large company, is to work for more than one large company. Also known as freelance guiding, guides often make this step after several years gaining experience at one large company. This is an accepted practice with the caveat that clients derived from the large company are not taken to a different company.

Certified Guides Cooperative (CGC)

Although separate from the AMGA, the Certified Guides Cooperative is a non-profit organization that serves certified AMGA members. It provides permit access and liability insurance to its member guides in many U.S., Canadian, and other permit-held areas for guiding.

Any AMGA member can become a CGC member for $1,000 (which buys an ownership share in the cooperative) and then activate, as needed, their annual membership for $300. Clients pay CGC guides directly and the guides pay the CGC daily user fees ranging from $20 to $80. AMGA members who join before they are certified receive 10% off the cost of AGMA courses.

CGC president Geoff Unger explained that “In order for the risk management plan and insurance to work, the clients become clients of the co-op, but the co-op doesn’t take the clients away from you. Clients sign a registration form and a release form and pay the guide directly.”

Guest Guiding

Some large companies, such as Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, allow certified guides to use their company permits and insurance to guide in their permitted areas. How much a company takes from the client fees varies from company to company. One roundtable participant discussed his guest guiding experience, “You can live in California and guide in Devil’s Tower because you know those people. What you’re in charge of is your professionalism. Your safety. Your certifications. Your wage.”

Il Team Lyskamm 4000. An example of small owner-guide group from Alagne, Italy.

Il Team Lyskamm 4000. An example of small owner-guide group from Alagne, Italy.

Owner-Guide Groups

Small groups of guides working together as a business is another emerging model for independence. In this newer approach, guides work toward common goals: marketing, independence, providing the best service to clients, and earning more. Together they are more powerful than working alone. They share the effort and cost of running the business so that they can guide with greater autonomy. Small owner-guide groups are common in Europe, where permits and insurance are non-issues.

One U.S. example of an owner-guide group is In The Company of Guides (ITCOG), started by Todd and Winslow Passey and Tim Connelly in 2011. ITCOG run trips from day tours in the Wasatch to Everest.

Another example of an owner-guide group is Alaska Guide Collective (AGC) formed in 2016 by Elliot Gaddy, Nick D’Alessio and me (Joe Stock). In creating AGC, having compatible partners and being able to work well together were critical. Choosing the right partners requires a large dose of luck. Elliot, Nick and I had worked together for several years for Alaska Avalanche School (a large guide company), so we knew and trusted each other.

AGC acts as an umbrella organization that allows us to guide with more independence. We share the costs and effort needed to run the business. We also share clients with each other for Alaska trips, but do not take a commission. Each of us deals with our own clients from start to finish. Although we work together as much as possible when multiple guides are needed, the only product we offer together is avalanche courses.

The workflow for an AGC trip starts with interaction between client and guide and booking through the AGC website.

The workflow for an AGC trip starts with interaction between client and guide and booking through the AGC website.

As AGC we don’t have any regular employees, but we do hire guides to work select jobs with us. We don’t have a central office or any shared gear, but we do share business expenses for software, the website, and hired consultants for legal help, graphics, and accounting. To pay these expenses, we each put 20% of our gross guiding income (minus travel and lodging) into the AGC business account. In addition to the AGC limited liability company (LLC) we each have our own LLC, through which we buy gear and move our personal paychecks though for an additional layer of legal protection.

Getting permits has been an obstacle for AGC, but possible. Southcentral Alaska has many land designations—state land, State Parks, Forest Service, Wilderness Study Areas, Bureau of Land Management, National Parks, and Heritage Land Bank—each with its own permitting policy. Although working with some of these institutions is a bureaucratic nightmare, AGC has been able to acquire permits because our business model and experience have been persuasive to permit holders.

Supporting Indie Guides

During and after the roundtable, we shared ideas about resources available to indie guides and what is needed. Some of these are summarized below.

Getting Feedback on your Business

A major problem faced by indie guides is that they often work without co-workers, both in the field and office. One roundtable participant explained the problem: “One of the inherent differences of working independently is finding opportunities for peer review collaboration, critical thinking about improvement. All those things that a guide service can provide.”

Geoff Unger said “The most reasonable outside review you can get is AMGA accreditation. The cost for a small business AMGA accreditation including a risk management review is about $250 then $50 a year. There is a self-assessment questionnaire. You submit all your supporting docs (risk management plan, insurance, etc.) to the accreditation director. They review that and give you some concrete feedback and recommendations on how to make your business stronger.”

Certification and Advocacy for Independent Guides

Although the AMGA’s primary focus is on certifying the field skills of guides, the AMGA is also the single greatest advocate for independent guides. The AMGA promotes guiding as a profession, and AMGA certification gives us credibility. The efforts of AMGA advocacy director Matt Wade directly support independent guides by increasing certified guides access to permitted areas. If Matt requests permit information from your region, please help collect that information for him!

The Importance of Working Together

Don’t Burn Bridges

It may seem counterintuitive that becoming an independent guide requires the ability to work with others, but working effectively with others is fundamental to success. There are times when we need to subdue our independent natures. For example, as you strive for greater independence, don’t burn bridges. Do not alienate previous employers, their guides, or others you have worked for, or with, in the past. You’ll need every friend you can get (and keep). Maintain a positive attitude toward other guide companies and refrain from disparaging them in conversations. They probably gave you a good start and they will continue to be your good friends and supporters if you treat them with humility and respect.

Collaborate

Collaboration is necessary to make indie guiding a viable profession. In creating Alaska Guide Collective, we needed to be compatible, able to work together cooperatively, and have similar individual goals. In addition, we had to work well collaboratively. Collaboration isn’t just getting along. It means working together creatively and collegially, even under pressures and deadlines, toward shared goals. Collaboration takes effort and is inherently messy, but is essential to the ongoing process of developing and improving a small business.

Share Information and Clients

Helping your fellow indie guides will help you and promote indie guiding as a profession. Just as guide companies work toward a common goal of building the guide business (a goal directed by the company owners), indie guides can work toward a common goal of building support for all indie guides. This means sharing information as appropriate: give them local information and advice about how to guide in your area.

One way to build good relations with other indie guides is to promote the free exchange of clients among indie guides you trust. For example, if a client emails you for a trip but you’re busy during that time, connect the client to a trusted indie guide friend.

Traditionally, a referring guide takes a commission–10% of what the client pays–but this can have a discouraging effect on guides working toward independence and struggling to develop their business.

“I know some are hesitant to recommend clients to other guides because they are afraid of losing them,” said Todd Passey, “but I personally think that’s short sighted.” The extra income from commissions is small and you lose the chance to help a fellow indie guide. Nickel and diming your fellow indie guide hurts both parties.

What is an LLC and why do I need one?

An important first step toward independence from working as an employee for a company is to obtain an LLC, which makes you a limited liability company of one. An LLC limits your financial liability by adding a layer of legal protection between you and the client. The LLC prevents personal assets, such as your house and savings, from being used to pay debts or liabilities from a lawsuit. There are several types of LLCs. Independent guides working by themselves typically opt for a sole proprietorship LLC. Owner-guides working together typically use partnership or S-Corp LLCs.

Creating a business LLC involves registering your business name with the state, getting a state business license and an employee identification number (EIN) for taxes. It’s a confusing process but won’t take more than a day of work. More complicated is the money flow. For the LLC to work, all income received (client fees) for independent guiding must go through a business bank account for the LLC. You pay yourself and taxes for that income from that business account. All gear should be purchased through that business account to help limit your personal liability for claims against you because of your gear.

An LLC is also useful when working as an independent contractor for a guide company. The LLC provides the guide some legal separation from the client. To use the LLC, have the guide company pay your business account, then pay yourself from the business account.

Developing and Compiling Resources

A project would be to compile a database of resources for indie guides. Currently few resources are available to help guides move toward independence. As one roundtable attendee said, “You’re looking for the book to read, but it hasn’t been written yet.” Hired business consultants can help, but they are expensive and indie guides tend to want to do it themselves. We need an Indie Guiding for Dummies, a concise manual of the business half of guiding: legal matters, accounting, etc. A future project could be a working group to compile those resources.

At the roundtable, as a start toward this database of resources, we brainstormed a list of components that make up the business side of guiding and that we need to know more about. With more refinement, this list could eventually turn into a table of contents for Indie Guiding for Dummies.

Let’s continue this conversation at the 2019 Indie Guide Roundtable. See you there!

Components of a US Mountain Guiding Business

Personal Skills

  • Promptness and reliability

  • Professionalism (appearance, organization, networking, ability to run meetings, guiding experience and expertise)

  • Computer and communication skills (person-to-person and via technology)

  • Ability to work well with business partners, clients, and other guides and guide groups person-to-person and in meetings

Getting Permits

  • Who and how to contact the agency.

  • CGC membership

  • Guide contacts for advice

Insurance

  • Where to get it and what it costs

  • Risk management plan

  • Incident management plan

  • Field risk management documents

  • Incident management team

Setting Up a Business

  • LLC

  • Business license

  • Employee identification number (tax ID)

  • No loss statement

  • Profit and loss statement

  • Articles of organization/certificate of good standing/certificate of authority

  • Operating plan

  • Assumption of risk/waiver/release of liability form

Getting and Maintaining Clients

  • Client resource management (CRM) (eg, Google Contacts, Salesforce)

  • Client application

  • Booking system

  • Website

  • Marketing: advertising, social media, writing, presentations, sponsors

Accounting

  • E-commerce (a way to collect money)

  • Bookkeeping system (eg, Quickbooks)

  • Bookkeeper (entry of day-to-day transactions)

  • Payroll help to pay employees

  • Accountant: taxes, advising

  • Bank account

Legal

  • Lawyer

  • Operating agreement

  • Letter of engagement

Liability

  • Banking and money flow

  • Insurance, permits

  • Documentation

Working as an Independent Contractor

  • Liability coverage (LLC)

  • Negotiating skills

  • Your rights, agreement

Making a Living

  • Price structure (rates)

  • Longevity

  • Negotiating skills

  • Business growth

Lifestyle

  • Freedom to move around and to follow the work (mobility)

  • Freedom from personal debt helps, but is not necessary

  • Ability to balance office and field time

  • Ability to balance work and family

  • Life insurance

  • Health insurance

  • Disability insurance/workman’s compensation