The Evil Inspiration for Rick Steves' Tours
|Rick's first tour group (#3112) ready to meet their Cosmos bus and tackle Europe. Were the hard rolls for lunch.or defense when encountering tourist traps?|
This is Part I of a four-part series running monthly on the origins of Rick Steves' tour company (excerpted from Rick's Postcards from Europe, a book of his travel memoirs).
A travel writer alone with his notepad in a Munich beerhall is like a music lover sitting in the middle of an orchestra. The sounds and sights of Germany and travel swirl everywhere: Old Bavarians cling to the past, tour guides hawk clichés, hormones rage far from home, and even shy travelers shout brassy anthems to drinking. As Cosmos tours march in and out following the raised umbrella of their guides, I remember my early years of tour-guiding fun.
Each spring through my college years I bought my plane ticket before I knew how I'd pay for the trip. Loans from my parents — who got me hooked on Europe in the first place — allowed me to deficit-finance those early journeys. I worked the debt off by teaching piano. For several years, I earned a free airplane ticket by escorting groups of travelers from Seattle on Cosmos tours. (I'm sure Cosmos has many satisfied customers today, but my experience working for them in the seventies was quite an eye-opener.)
With the sponsorship of Dale Torgrimson, a travel agent friend, I'd choose a basic three-week Europe tour. When I sold twenty seats during my travel lectures, I earned a free flight and tour. The tour came with an official guide; I was the "escort" for my group — generally half the tour — and a wannabe guide for the entire busload.
While most of my travel time was still spent exploring Europe without groups, for several years mass tourism was my free plane ride. The joy of independent travel mixed with the ugliness of group travel helped strengthen my desire to teach smart travel.
On my last Cosmos tour, my group and I tumbled off the boat in Belgium in search of bus #3112. Packing onto #3112, we met our harried guide. Monica, a German, picked up the microphone and said, "I was to be finished for the season today. Finally going home. Yesterday I said goodbye to my last group. It was a difficult group. I am ready to go home. Then I receive a message that I must do you."
She was a hardened, chain-smoking woman in her fifties who plotted potty breaks as if on a military campaign. She could sense the pain in your bladder even before you got the nerve to raise your hand. Clenching the mic, she'd splice in a terse "cross your legs" midway through a lecture on Mad King Ludwig.
There were forty-nine tourists on this forty-nine-seat bus. Everyone rotated, moving up one seat each day — except for a chubby little New Zealander who wore kiwi T-shirts and stayed in the middle of the five-seat back row. Every time I'd look at him he'd make a strange but polite squawk. His accent was so heavy that over three weeks I never understood a sentence he uttered.
I remember three retired Belgian brothers, slow-moving shoppers in dapper little hats. There was a gentle old guy from San Mateo who had an embarrassing crush on a petite Japanese girl. An Indian engineer who worked in Saudi Arabia explained that his wife packed twenty-four saris, one for each day of their trip — for better scrapbook photos. And I remember a lawyer's wife with tight lips, frizzy hair, and a son who was so excited he had to blow on his hands to keep them cool.
Scott, a childish twenty whose parents sent him on the tour to grow up and get a little culture, was less thrilled. He packed Gatorade from home. Staying on the bus during most stops — for his own safety — he wondered out loud why they just don't tear down the old buildings and make modern, efficient ones.
Marv was newly retired and also on his first trip. Figuring a bribe was the standard best way to ensure a great time, he tucked a $100 bill into my shirt pocket on day one. That was a lot of money to me then — enough for five days of travel. I tried . . . weakly . . . to give it back. I failed. But moving that bill from my pocket into my wallet, I was determined not to let this get Marv a better trip. But the money made it clear: This trip was important not only to Marv but to each person on that bus. To give him a good return on his investment, I decided to give every person in my group 110 percent.
My frustration with big-bus travel grew as the trip dragged on. Waiting for the bus to pull out was the exasperating norm. Pressing my nose against the window, I scanned the parking lot ten minutes past departure time. Cliques of tourists passed the time merrily complaining about last night's hotel. Disgruntled husbands — who would prefer that the European experience be distilled neatly into a large park in California — compared things to "back home."
Squawking at my Kiwi friend and waiting for the Belgian gentlemen to finish their shopping, I'd stew and develop both a passion for tour group punctuality and tricks to enforce it. And jamming a pillow against the speaker to muffle Monica's harsh voice, I developed an appreciation of tour guide charm.
|Escorting small groups within the big Cosmos group on independent excursions, Rick earned the respect of his group.and the disdain of the tour's guide.|
I learned about expensive sightseeing "options" on those Cosmos tours. My mission as group escort was to spare my group the extra expense but not the experience. After reviewing with my group which sightseeing options were worth taking, Monica's sales pitch went over like a bathless double.
As I left the hotel with my hearty splinter group, Monica said, "Really, you will see nothing in town without taking my 'Munich by Night' option."
With a battle cry of "Double the oompah for half the deutsche marks!" I led my group of renegades into the tram and on to the beerhall.
Mathauser's wasn't overrun with tour groups back then. With a little organizing of chairs we sat directly under the band — three tables closer than where I sit now.
To meet the neighbors, we'd fly a coaster like a Frisbee into a happy gang at the next table. With glasses raised in our direction, they'd roar a lusty welcome. The happy sound of my tourists clinking mugs with new German friends fired my determination to save tourists from the greedy grip of European guides.
Guides like Monica hate guidebooks. On a bus, guides know good travel information spreads like a cancer and pretty soon, no one's taking their optional sightseeing excursions.
|Tour members like these — sleeping through a staged show of cultural clichés — inspired Rick to start his own tour company. For these folks, this tour was the culmination of a lifetime of travel dreams. They flew home satisfied (and well-rested), but Rick knew they could have experienced more.|
I saw the greedy dance of tour guide and merchant as Monica prepped us for cuckoo clocks, dazzled us with a merchant's demo, and gave us twenty minutes to buy. While shoppers compared newly purchased treasures back on the bus, Monica shared a cigarette with the owner of the shop and picked up her fifteen percent.
As we traveled through Europe, our group hardly realized it was one tiny link in a steady chain gang of groups going from tour-friendly hotel to restaurant to shop. The only locals we encountered were vendors who slapped on a smile with the arrival of our bus and expertly put up with us for their livelihood.
On the last day of the tour, Monica, wearing her payday smile, gave an inspirational plea for big tips. We'd long remember Monica. But on the keyboard of a jaded tour guide's memory, goodbye and delete are the same key.
Merchants appreciate the business but marvel at blitz tour itineraries. Any bus driver can rattle off the basic route:
Day one: Wake up in Amsterdam; morning at Anne Frank's, the Diamond polishers and Rijksmuseum; noon to seven o'clock drive to the Rhine hotel, wine tasting, sleep.
Day two: 7:00 to 7:30 breakfast, 7:30 to 8:00 Stein talk and shopping, 8:15 depart to Dachau, Olympic Stadium, and the beerhall in Munich.
Day three: Drive to Venice with a quick stop in Innsbruck to see the Golden Roof.
And so on.
Bus drivers call these "pajama tours" because the tour members might as well stay in their pajamas.
On the Road is the tour industry magazine. It's distributed free at better kilt, stein, Swiss clock, crystal, wooden shoe, and stocknegel dealerships. On the Road is a tour guide's grapevine filled with news and warnings: "Due to staff shortages, Pompeii will close on Sundays." "Buses are no longer allowed into central Florence." "Non-local guides risk stiff fines and expulsion in Venice." "In Rome, bus drivers who don't park in the 'mafia lot' behind the Colosseum can buy back their tires at the Porta Portese flea market." "The British Tourist Board is now accepting nominations for its annual 'Loo of the Year' award."
On the Road reports on the best commissions (Bucherer in Lucerne for Swiss clocks), clever ways to sell optional tours ("sell Paris tours after the champagne tasting at Reims when everyone's in a bubbly mood"), and even tips on getting a break from your tour members (crank up the heat on the bus after lunch to put everyone to sleep).
And when groups aren't sleepy, they need games. On the Road suggests awarding a bottle of Chianti to the tourist who correctly guesses the number of tunnels the bus goes through between Florence and Orvieto. It even lists handy tour guide trivia: Did you know that Churchill's statue is wired with a weak current of electricity to keep pigeons from mistaking his bald head for a potty stop?
The folks at On the Road also produce a cassette with all the necessary tunes to fit your tour route — from the Blue Danube waltz to "Climb Every Mountain" to "Arrivederci Roma." Their "Super SingaSongaSongaEurope" tape is packed "with favorites from Europe and around the world that your clients will hear at folklore shows, banquets, and gala evenings. Plus three songs written all about taking coach tours!"
Imagine being stalled in an Autobahn traffic jam with your endlessly energetic tour guide leading you in the SingaSongaSongaEurope theme ditty:
Up with the lark each morning,
On the bus by eight o'clock,
Our driver loads the baggage,
Our leader counts his flock.
Take a seat by the window,
Remember we have to rotate,
Rest stops are twenty minutes,
Hurry back 'cause the bus won't wait!"
My time escorting big Cosmos tours 25 years ago taught me a lot about the mainstream tour business, inspiring me to design better tours.
[This is Part I of a four-part series on Rick's early days as a tour guide and organizer back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The article is excerpted from Rick's autobiographical and anecdotal book, Postcards from Europe. Check out a print-friendly version of the entire chapter here.]