Backstage travel: No 5 – the tour leader

Guide, organiser, fixer and companion – rolled into one

Ian Richards is a professional nomad. For the past 13 years he's worked as a tour leader, chaperoning tourists on small group trips first around the Middle East, then Africa, Eastern Europe and now Asia. Currently a leader for Travel Indochina, he works across the company's region, which includes South-east Asia, China, Sri Lanka, India and Mongolia.

As opposed to a tour guide, who may be employed for a specific aspect of the trip, a leader is responsible for the group throughout the holiday and is guide, organiser, protector and problem-solver rolled into one. It's certainly not a nine-to-five job.

"If you do the job properly, you don't have a lot of free time," says Richards. "You manage it by having a good relationship with your customers. You don't treat it like it's me and them. You have to be part of it and then you get a good experience."

While some tour companies use local leaders, Richards, who has dual British-Australian citizenship, thinks Travel Indochina's use of "Western " leaders on its tours (in conjunction with local guides) has advantages.

"I understand Asia. I've lived here long enough – and I understand what foreigners want," says the 51-year-old. "You are the middle man; you are protecting the customer from different aspects, making sure they don't get ripped off, that they get good food."

Keeping a trip running smoothly requires considerable administration – confirming transport and hotel reservations, booking activities – plus a certain resilience. "You can be asked the same questions several times within half an hour, but that's OK. But trying to smile when you're tired is hard. You learn to be relatively happy.

"It's hard not to burn out. You have to rest; you can't drink too much; you can't push it too much."

The amount of work fluctuates according to the season, the popularity of the country and the political climate. (Hossam Moussa, a tour leader working for Intrepid in his native Egypt, has seen work fall sharply since the Arab Spring – and it doesn't look likely to increase any time soon.) As for Richards, covering a broad region is advantageous. Monsoon season in South-east Asia means fewer trips to those countries. "But now it's busy in China, so I can work China and Mongolia. I don't really have a quiet time."

Though Richards has a home in Thailand, his constant travelling means he rarely sees it. And there are negatives. "There are some things that are tough. Relationships go by the wayside. It's very hard for a partner.

"But I've always loved travelling," he adds. "You choose your lifestyle."

Caroline Bishop