If you need tips to keep this year’s holidays civil, look no further than Chicago’s tour guides, who have become masters at easing political tension.
Charlie Vergos, who leads riverboat architecture tours in Chicago, said one bit of scenery gives him and his co-workers fits.
“How should I say this . . .” Vergos says, pausing. “It is stressful going by Trump tower . . . you have to kind of calm everybody down preemptively.”
Vergos says tour guides once told light jokes about Trump tower. But that was before Trump started winning primaries.
“We left for the winter and came back in March and as soon as you’d say, ‘This is Trump tower’ you’d hear people tense up. Or people would clap. Or you get a lot of boos sometimes.”
Billy Dean, another river tour guide, said: “I’ve had whole families giving it the finger. . . . This one guy last week gave it a Nazi salute.”
Vergos’ employer wants tour guides to avoid politics. That’s challenging when a student on your boat for a class trip asks: “Can we burn it down?”
Other tour guides described tourists calling the tower “The White House.” A third-grade class chanted “Build the wall!”
Walt Chadick, executive director of Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Co., says the company is aware of the challenge their tour guides face.
“We talk about it all the time,” he said. The best advice is to “just be cool. . . . A smart, adept, tour guide can weave his way through that.”
Neither Dean nor Vergos want to discuss politics on a tour to begin with.
“It’s uncomfortable,” Dean said. “Suddenly I have to address Trump’s candidacy just because there’s this billboard in the center of the tour.”
Sailing past the tower is “like going through a rapid . . . or walking through hot coals,” Vergos said.
What about not mentioning the building? Not an option.
“It’s visible for the whole branch of the river and half the people are going to look directly at that,” Dean said. “You can’t not talk about this building.”
Vergos now uses humor to get the audience to say the name themselves.
“I’ll just be like, ‘Oh, jeez guys, this is so unprofessional — I’m blanking on the name of this next building.’ ”
Dean takes a similar tack.
“I describe a little bit about it and then say, ‘Can anyone point out the Trump tower for me?’ ”
If all else fails, Vergos just comes clean with the audience.
“I’ll just say, ‘If y’all don’t mind, I’ve kind of had people yell their opinions at me all summer . . . I’m just going to talk about the architecture on this one.”
Vergos says that usually works. “I think it creates empathy.”
Craig Wenokur, vice president of Wendella Boats, agreed focusing on architecture is the way to go.
“We are apolitical. It’s just a building on our tour,” Wenokur said. “We’re not rating presidents here.”
Other tour guides say nothing — or call it “The Tower” or “The building to my left.”
But Margaret Hicks, a walking tour guide in Chicago, always stops by Trump tower on her Disaster Tour, which points out Chicago calamities from the Eastland to the Great Chicago Fire. She calls the Trump building, with its huge sign, an “architectural disaster.”
Hicks, who owns her own tour business, admits she has the luxury of being candid and understands why her compatriots on tour buses and riverboats think their hands are tied. The profit is in the tips, and alienating half a tour can be costly.
“I had one tour where this lady said, ‘Until she mentioned Trump I was going to give her a tip, and now I’m not,’ ” Hicks said. “That’s fine, that’s a small price to pay. I told my group that was the best five bucks I ever lost.’”
Hicks’ tour includes a summary of the sign’s history, and the city’s ban on any future signs of similar size — though the letters stay on the tower because they were there before the sign ordinance was amended. Hicks also mentions the City Council’s unanimous decision to remove the Honorary Trump Plaza street sign in front of the tower — and that even before that vote, one of the signs disappeared.
“I think it’s glorious, and I think it’s hilarious, and I think it’s Chicago,” Hicks said.
For Dean and Vergos, that approach is off limits, at least until Wednesday.
“If he wins, it becomes political forever. If he loses, I’m going to make fun of it,” Dean said.
“I don’t know what it is about the American spirit, but the second someone’s a loser they’re totally fair game.”