Tom wields some intimidating credentials — a law degree, the prestigious "Blue Badge" tour guide status, and his selection by Queen Elizabeth II to be a Member of the British Empire (MBE), a royal honor just below knighthood. Yet both friends and past tour members alike rave about Tom's wit and welcoming attitude. They say he has the ability to turn his tour members into one big family by the end of their journey. Making his home in London, Tom leads our Best of London, Best of England, and Villages of Southern England tours, and offers private tours in and around London.
You've been a lawyer, but now you're a tour guide. What made you decide on this career change? And as a lawyer, did you ever put someone in the slammer?
I began in crime — it doesn't pay. I'm still waiting for fees from those early days as a defense lawyer! And yes, the slammer was often involved. But I'd done guiding to earn some money to live on whilst doing the bar course and exams. So when I decided to change careers, tour guiding was a natural fit. I still use my voice, of course, but people actually want to hear what I have to say — which was initially quite novel for a lawyer.
You're English, but assisted on the tour of Scotland. Do you have a better understanding of the Scots as a result? And in what key ways are your northern brethren different?
The Scots are great achievers. It's been amazing to see how so many have shaped both Scotland and the UK — and spread their influence across the globe. My lead guide was Roy Nicholls, who has a gift of putting things into context. There is so much bloodshed and sadness in Scottish history. No one could go to the Culloden battlefield and not be moved to tears. But there is also so much beauty and strength too, both in the countryside and the people. The whole package, even the weather, makes the Scots who they are.
What are some common Americanisms you don't (or refuse to) understand?
The first time I ordered fast food (it was in Wisconsin), I was confused by the girl asking whether I wanted it "to go." "Go where?" I thought. So I replied, "Sorry?" This then confused the girl, who asked why I was sorry. I'm sure she thought I was demented. I think on every tour I've led, I learn new phrases. Recently I was asked what sounded like, "jeet yet?" which I learned was Southern code for "Have you eaten yet?" I like the Southern phrases but will never be able to say "y'all" properly.
I get a real buzz taking tour members on public transport. The interaction between the locals and us is definitely a favorite. From people going to work who are mildly outraged that we could be on "their" bus, even in "their" seat — which is one side of our British character — to the person who would do anything to make us feel welcome — and usually won't stop talking — which is another side. I'm proud that London is generally amazingly friendly, and I love that it's possibly the most multicultural capital on earth. I'm Cornish by birth, which means I can unashamedly promote Cornwall, where we spend three nights on the Villages tour. Mebyon Kernow translates as "Sons of Cornwall" in Cornish. It's a Celtic area, which also means I especially like the beauty of Celtic North Wales on the Best of England tour.
Queen Elizabeth II honored you for your services to British tourism. What did you do to get the honor? Did you meet the Queen?
I was very involved in establishing an institute to raise standards in tourist guiding. Out of the blue I got a letter from the Prime Minister's office saying that I'd been recommended by him to the Queen to receive the honor. And it wasn't a joke! Yes, I met the Queen — she gave me the MBE medal in Buckingham Palace. I was pretty nervous, but Her Majesty is good at putting you at ease, even if you can't quite remember that you say "Ma'am" as in "ham." The Queen was warm, totally informed, and had a good sense of humor. Mind you, I had no idea that she'd agree to meet James Bond and would parachute into the stadium at the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.
You are a "Blue Badge" tour guide. What does this mean and how hard is it to be certified?
The Blue Badge is the highest level professional tour guide qualification in the UK. You take a course and exams — which for me were more interesting and challenging than the bar exams! You have to pass eight written and practical exams, and submit a project about an aspect of London. To guide in the UK, you don't have to have a Blue Badge, but it's recognized all over the world.
Here's what Tom won't tell you…but his tour members will:
"Tom Hooper is, quite simply, the best guide we have had on our 16 Rick Steves tours. That is saying a lot given the exceedingly high quality of the guides that Rick chooses. Tom not only has superb teaching and leadership skills but he has a caring temperament. He notices if someone is upset or not feeling well and he tries to help where he can. You leave the tour feeling that you have made a good friend."
— Theresa in Petaluma, CA