Hi from Rick: Europe Invades Edmonds
|Rick was happily squished by his tour guides last week. See a larger version of this photo.|
Dear Back Door Traveler,
Europe Through the Back Door headquarters is finally quiet today, after the busiest tour alum party and tour guide summit we've ever hosted. For over twenty years, we've invited our guides and tour members to Edmonds for this grand tour reunion. This year's "massing of the scrapbooks" was our best and busiest yet. Last Saturday, more than 1,200 tour alums (from the 8,000 who traveled with us in 2009) gathered here for four parties. They were joined by 80 or so of our guides — 60 of whom flew in from all corners of Europe.
(My TV crew roamed through the parties to capture the excitement of the day on film, which we plan to edit and put on our website for those who couldn't make it to Seattle. Stay tuned!)
At each reunion party, I had the pleasure of introducing a few guides, to share greetings from their culture. When I introduced Cristina from Portugal, I happily announced that for 2010 we were breaking Portugal away from our Spain tour. She added that for 800 years her country has fought to maintain its independence from Spain (and has the longest unchanged border in Europe), so this itinerary change was only right. As she spoke, it occurred to me that our guidebooks and tours have dealt with similar border challenges that the countries themselves have. (We originally had Britain and Ireland in the same book. In time, the Irish gained their guidebook independence, too.)
I also introduced Alfio from Sicily. Noting that Italy no longer has a shrinking population, he added an aside that his baby boy is "obsessed with breast-feeding." He and his wife are being awakened nearly every hour through the night, and just before he left home, their little boy spoke his first word: "tetta."
That same Saturday, we hosted 21 "Test Drive a Tour Guide" classes in our town's three biggest venues. Each was filled with a mix of tour alums and potential first-time travelers interested in our various tour itineraries. (About half the people we took around Europe in 2009 were repeat customers. I think one of the most powerful marketing tools for this big sales event was to have alums and prospective first-time travelers in the same theater together to hear the guides describe the various tours. The energy and enthusiasm was palpable...and contagious.) I capped the day with an evening talk entitled "An Irreverent History of Europe Through the Back Door's Tour Program." (Here's a full-length video of last year's version.)
My Tour Operations staff and I kicked off our week-long summit with an all-day general meeting with all our guides on Friday. I started the day with a three-hour lecture on the heritage, ethics, and fundamentals of being a Rick Steves tour guide. I stressed our determination that our travelers get the absolute most value out of each experience on the itinerary and out of each guide. The bottom line: Employment is shaky for guides in general, but solid for our gang...and to keep it that way, we're raising the bar on what our guides provide our travelers.
In the weeks leading up to our summit, I had spent several long days with our Tour Operations staff reviewing our concerns and vision for each of our 35 tour itineraries. This week, while our staff and the guides were hammering out these ideas and the countless details of their respective tour itineraries, I was in our radio studio taping a world of radio interviews. Over the course of four six-hour recording sessions, we got 30 or 40 separate interviews (each streamed in the rough on our website and with live call-ins from around the country). Producer Tim Tattan now has raw material for about four months of radio shows in the can — and a lot of work ahead of him. Getting our foreign experts actually in the studio for all those interviews was a huge boon for our national radio show.
Our hard-working days have been rewarded with fun evenings — happy hours and dinners at different venues in Edmonds. Getting 60 or 80 guides together in a bar or Mexican restaurant is a rare treat — all exuberant about their work, so fun to talk with, and happy to weave together countless friendships...and all right here in this beautiful corner of the USA. And it was a blast to see the fun they were having experiencing our country. A few, such as Lyuba from Bulgaria, had never been in the USA before, and they were as wide-eyed about our culture as their tour members are about theirs. When I welcomed Arnaud, our very sophisticated Parisian guide, with a nice margarita, the salt on the lip of the glass truly startled him. Sharing stories of tough travelers, Irish guide Stephen recalled how he once guided an Australian who opened twist-top beer bottles with his eye socket.
For some Sunday-afternoon fun, we rented two school buses with local guides and gave our guides a bit of their own medicine: a guided tour...of Seattle. I can imagine the Seattle guide must have had a memorable experience herself, with forty European guides on her bus. Peter from Hungary noted that rolling boisterously down the freeway into Seattle felt like the scene in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" when the inmates commandeered the bus and escaped from their asylum.
Free time was also spent looking for exchange-rate bargains. Word about our local Apple Store spread quickly: "Same price as in Europe...but in dollars!" (meaning that a gadget you'd pay €300 for over there would cost $300 here — a 40 percent savings). I asked Arnaud to compare the service here with the service he's accustomed to in Paris. He said, "Here, it exists." Patrick from Brittany added, "There was more staff than clients, and they were jumping on you. They fixed my hard drive in two hours, with smiles. In France, it would be ten days and double the price."
Some of our tour guides get extra work with us as guidebook researchers. Along with our editorial staff, I spent Tuesday morning with the 20 guides who help update our guidebooks. And I enjoyed a breakfast at our local diner with our newest guides. As the ten rookie guides sorted through the menu, Gokalp (from Turkey) said, "In all the movies, you call waitresses 'honey.' Is it okay to do that?" When the waitress was taking the orders, and asked what kind of eggs, Nina from Italy asked, "Do we choose that?" When the waitress followed up with, "Your toast?", Nina asked, "Do we choose that, too?" When the various plates finally arrived, Lyuba from Bulgaria exclaimed, "Wow, it's a very serious breakfast!"
Seeing three young Turkish guides at our breakfast table was a reminder that Turkey is now our second most popular tour destination. These young Turkish guides filled the far east end of our table with bright eyes and exuberance...much like Turkey aspires to fill the east end of the European Union.
My staff designed and pulled off this complex and exhilarating week as smoothly as could be. Today we say goodbye, as our guides fly back to points all over Europe — from Stockholm to Sofia, from Lisbon to Thessaloniki, from Glasgow to Izmir.
My brain is fried, my voice is hoarse, and my tour guide heart is soaring. It's time for us to catch our breath, knowing we are primed and ready to lead a 2010 tour season brimming with rich experiences, vivid lessons, memories to last a lifetime, and great travel companions.
Learn more about Italy in this month's Tour News!