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If You Build A Tour
They Will Come!

by Mark Rowlee

The word went out and they came from all over the country to listen to their travel-guru espouse on the virtues of travel to Europe. Travel to Europe is what Rick Steves does. He does this extremely well and quite successfully. It's what has made his Europe Through the Backdoor such a phenomenal success.

A frequent guest on PBS TV membership drives and a well-quoted, and arguably the most prolific travel writer today, Rick is pretty well known. But I wanted to see first hand, short of taking a tour, how he built such a strong reputation. And this last weekend was the perfect time.

Each year his organization has a weekend of activities that can be as grueling as one of his earlier tours. He'll bring in his tour guides, bus drivers, etc., (60 of them this year) to his home office in Edmonds, Washington. During this time he hammers out new itineraries and fine tunes existing tours. He takes the input of his staff and together they create tours that don't have a broad appeal but appeal to those who want to learn about other cultures in a style he thinks they'll enjoy.

His tours aren't for everyone and he makes no bones about that. "No grumps." Thats one of the truths of his tours. And be ready to walk a lot, carry your own bag and climb lots of stairs are two others. And when he does 200 tours a year with over 5000 people, you get the feeling he knows what he's talking about.

During that two-day weekend, while his staff is in Edmonds, his Europe Through the Back Door group puts on a tour alumni party and reunion. And for the last few years he has combined this with what he calls his "Test Drive a Tour Guide" program. A couple of thousand people come in from around the country for a weekend of travel seminars and reminesing about previous trips and ones planned for the next season. It's also a free weekend for the general public.

Rick likes to remind folks that when he first started driving a minibus on his tours his travelers had to sign a "waiver" that if they couldn't find a hotel on any particular night, they wouldn't complain. With this kind of upfront honesty its rare he gets the "grumps" he talked about.

Rick offers what the other tour operators can only wish they had the foresight to do themselves. You'll see Europe the way he feels it was meant to be seen and understood. You'll meet people in love with their country, people who want to show you why they have such pride in what they do and what they can teach.

At a border crossing when asked his occupation, Steves doesn't say tour guide or travel company owner. He says he is a teacher. And teach he does! From how to effectively and efficiently pack your bags, to learning more about where you are going before you go Rick (as he prefers) can teach it all. And he's had over 25-years to perfect his expertise.

Knowing what the ins and outs of foreign travel is important but not mandatory. His personally selected guides know what they are doing and what to show you and how best to show it to you. A little background reading on the areas you'll be visiting is always a good idea. It will help to pull all the other aspects of a trip together as you travel. Then local guides will help bring it all together.

Over the years his company has grown. Now, overseeing a growing organization that does over 200 tours a year he still hires and trains his tour guides the way he wants them to be. Rick vigorously promotes public television through his fund drive marathons and stations across the country. The company even has its' own line of Rick Steves travel gear...offering everything from ear plugs to his personally-designed suitcase/backpack. He knows what he wants and will not accept less of those around him.

Operating a successful travel operation out of his home base of Edmonds, Washington, Rick has become one of the foremost authorities on travel to Europe. It is what he feels is the best way to get to know the large world and making it smaller and part of one community. He started about 25-years ago, driving tourists in a minibus and making up the tour or adding to it as he drove. What it has become now is the natural evolution of an organized mind meeting the needs of his travel market.

At one time most of the people taking his tours were in the under-35 age group. Now, a quick survey the people in attendance at his alumni get-together and the age range is from the late-20's to well beyond. Some of the tours are even good for the whole family. That is to say, as long as the family member isn't too young ("cute is not always cute to everyone"). Whining equates to being a grump...only younger.

His are not your everyday run-of-the-mill tours. No one is going to carry your bags for you, you may not have an elevator in your hotel or for that matter any air conditioning, there are hikes involved and usually lots of stairs to climb. But you will be centrally located and not stuck in an American-style hotel on the outskirts of town.

Your touring is not fast-paced. You'll usually spend at least 2-nights in each location. The first night, everyone eats together and tours together. The next day is pretty much on your own after you've been oriented to the area. You're encouraged to get lost...literally. Sometimes it's at these times you discover those things that make memories of a lifetime.

The big operators send a bus out on tours packed with 45-50 tourists and one guide. You hit all major sites, shop at the shops where your guide gets the biggest kickbacks and then, and just when you think you've paid for your tour, you will be expected to tip the guide, the driver and everyone else along the way. This alone can tack on a healthy amount to any "all-inclusive" rate.

Steves would never allow this. You get the feeling he would fire on the spot any guide who took a tip or kickback. Its one of those things over the years that he has become adamant about. All-inclusive should be just that. And he won't allow bus-stuffing. No more than 20-25 on any 50-passenger bus. He has learned over the years people want a little room to spread out, so they get it.

He says he is a teacher. He is out to teach the world how to travel smarter. He wants to give you the knowledge to travel independently or as a tour group member. To know how to have fun and get to know the locals. Only this way will you become a better world citizen. Add healthy doses of honesty and integrity and you have the foundation of a successful business.

You can become more familiar with Rick Steves' operation at his extensive website: http://www.ricksteves.com.

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