Brian McFarland was already going off-script. He launched his walking tour company, Charleston Cavalier Tours, in 2013 and found himself drawn to stories that fell well outside the confines of the city-approved training material.
So when a federal judge ruled the city's mandatory exam and certification program unconstitutional last year, McFarland sensed an opportunity.
"For the first time in my life, I felt like I was ahead of the game," he said of his reaction to the ruling.
That decision, and his own philosophy on touring, led McFarland to launch a new trade association for Charleston-area tour guides. This one, he said, would be open to all guides, whether they are city-certified or not.
He's called the group the Guides of the Gorget, after the crescent that appears above the palmetto tree on the South Carolina state flag.
"They took the tree, so I figured we'd take the gorget," McFarland said, referencing the logo adopted by the Palmetto Guild, an organization recently formed for city-certified guides only.
Being part of the trade association would be a secondary accreditation, McFarland said, meaning membership would signal that a guide has received some specific training or education connected to the organization.
The first thing McFarland would do with a group of guides, he said, is take them to an improv class, since they always need to be thinking on their feet on the job.
"You have to have people innovating; you have to have people taking risks, or everyone just settles in," he said.
For McFarland, going "off-script" doesn't mean disregarding facts or research. To him, it means telling history "from the bottom up," by highlighting people and sites and stories that more often sit on the periphery of the city's narrative.
McFarland dug out that kind of niche for himself with his series of tours above Calhoun Street that take guests through less-traveled neighborhoods like Cannonborough, the Eastside and Radcliffeborough.
McFarland is a certified guide himself and said he sees some value in maintaining his own certification with the city.
Being vocally supportive of an optional tour guide certification system isn't a popular opinion in Charleston — at least not yet. McFarland said he's met operators who share his passion for the free speech aspect of his stance but fear that publicly sharing that view could hurt their bottom lines.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. still needs to hear the city's appeal to last year's ruling. Until then, the tour guide certification program is voluntary, but officials hope to bring it back.
"A lot of people are in waiting mode," McFarland said.
Even if the city wins its appeal and makes certification mandatory again, McFarland said he'll still pursue his trade group for "like-minded people with a focus toward different stories and other perspectives."
Charleston's new nonstop connection to London led the awards at Explore Charleston's annual meeting Thursday.
The Charleston County Aviation Authority and Hill Construction — the company that completed the airport kitchen and customs renovations needed to land the British Airways connection — were recognized with Charleston's top hospitality award, the Golden Pineapple.
Both projects were critical to taking on the twice-weekly service, which marked the first-ever nonstop overseas flight from South Carolina.
Wayne Smith and Brumby McLeod of the College of Charleston's School of Hospitality and Tourism Management also received a Golden Pineapple for their research on short-term rentals. Frank Ford, chairman of this year's U.S. Women's Open held at the Country Club of Charleston, was also awarded.
Explore Charleston's assistant director of sales, Angie Day, was recognized for her 10 years working at the destination marketing organization.