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Leading the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady Cruises is just like any other CAF tour—except the docent is standing backward on a waterborne craft!

by Constance Rajala, CAF docent class of 2008

Learning how to negotiate the river and an audience of more than 200 people takes dedication, time and lots of practice. Here’s how it all happens.

Water babies

CAF River Cruise docents are recruited from an existing pool of 450 CAF docents. Anyone who is recruited must have experience conducting CAF’s core tours for at least one year. The typical class size is 16-20 trainees. Training has three main components:

  • Memorizing the names, architect(s) and dates for approximately 120 sites and buildings
  • Mastering techniques such as microphone skills, breath control, presentation and presence
  • Becoming a spinner of yarns about Chicago – its history and highlights – that will captivate a diverse audience

Just as the River Cruise is a joint effort of CAF and partner Chicago’s First Lady Cruises, training is also a collective effort. It consists of five day-long sessions, including two practice sessions on a boat. In addition, the trainees put many hours into practicing the tour at home. Like regular CAF docent training, River Cruise docents have a sponsor and a certifier to help them through the process.

Creating a cruise

Knowing the name, date and architect of a building is important—but it is just free-floating information without the docent attaching an “identifier” to the building so passengers know where to look. Words like tall, glassy and modern don’t work. Docents spend hours developing sharp and accurate shorthand to focus attention in the right spot at the right time.

Similarly, those engaging narratives that make the CAF River Cruise TripAdvisor’s top tour in Chicago do not come to life without lots of effort. Docents learn to develop thematic threads that tie a cruise together and memorize short tales that enliven the cruise, such as the history behind the city’s movable bridges or the reversal of the Chicago River.

Each docent creates his or her own cruise from the base of common knowledge learned in class. This web of architectural facts, historical details and colorful local tales must then come together in a fashion that is lively, engrossing and easily understood. Most cruise-takers are there for entertainment and recreation, and for many, English is not their native language. Getting a cruise to strike just the right notes, while pitched to the most general of audiences, is an art in itself.

Anything can happen...

What cannot be practiced is coping with the unexpected. Over the years, the training team for the River Cruise has learned to at least prepare trainees for what could happen. What can you do when a barge suddenly blocks the river and you are stuck, unmoving, for 10 minutes? How do you deal with passengers who may be enjoying themselves a little too much? What happens if someone suddenly proposes marriage to his girlfriend while you are up there chatting away? These situations and many more have happened during cruises and docents never fail to find graceful—if impromptu—ways to cope.

... And now you get pushed off the dock

Certifying to become a River Cruise docent is a make-or-break undertaking: filled with information, revved up with enthusiasm and adrenaline, the trainee is asked to step in unannounced and give the tour in place of the certifier, to an unsuspecting audience. An experienced River Cruise docent is always onboard to ensure everything goes well, but when no members of the audience notice the docent is a newbie, it is considered a success!