It takes talent and passion — and more than a little stamina — to be a great tour guide. With two decades leading Rick Steves' tours, Robin Dority has all that in spades. She's also pretty handy with money, as our interview discovered…
Robin, you've led Rick Steves tours for more consecutive years than any other American guide. How did you get started at this?
It's hard for me to believe that I've been guiding tours for Rick for more than 20 years now. I'd been working as a CPA and bank vice president, and I realized I wasn't happy with my career. I gave the bank six months' notice, and then took a year off to travel around the world. That gave me lots of time to think about what I'd really like to do. I knew I needed a job that would satisfy my wanderlust and love of travel. I'd already gone on a Rick Steves Best of Europe tour as a customer, and became friends with one of the guides. When I returned from my year of traveling, she recommended me for a job with Rick. The timing seemed serendipitous. Ever since then, I've felt blessed to be doing what I love.
Which tours have you led?
Over the years I've led many of our Best of Europe, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal tours. I've also led tours in Italy, covering all of Rick's itineraries there.
You've gotten to know so many places in Europe. Where does your heart take you?
The moment I'm on a plane to Italy, I start to get excited. And when it touches down on Italian soil, I feel like I'm home again — at my second home. I can't really think of a place in Italy that I don't enjoy. The country is so diverse with its different regions. You can feel like you're in a different country just by traveling to the next region. The people of Italy reinforce that, identifying themselves as Venetians or Florentines or Romans — being truly proud of their roots, local traditions, and culture.
Do you have a favorite spot in Italy?
I can't possibly pick a favorite! I really do love wherever I am in Italy at the moment. How can you choose between a peaceful moment on the shores of Lake Como, or the dramatic beauty of the Dolomites, or the pastel colors of Venice as you travel along the canals? On the one hand you have the power and emotion of seeing Michelangelo's David for the first (or even 50th) time, and on the other, the simple joy of a cappuccino beside a harbor in the Cinque Terre. From the richness and timelessness of Rome, to the Greek ruins and gorgeous beaches in Sicily, to the discovery of a little hill town in the middle of nowhere, there's so much diversity. And where do I even begin with the food and the wine? Fabulous, and again, made more impressive by the diversity as you travel from one region to another.
How are Rick's tours different today — the hotels, for instance — compared to when you first began guiding?
So much has changed. Our tour hotels have definitely improved. It used to be typical for everyone to share bathrooms and walk to a shower down the hall. I remember making sign-up sheets for shower times (and feeling sorry for the late ones who got cold water)! Now it would be rare to NOT have a private bath and plenty of hot water. Today's hotels are lovely.
Has your work as a guide changed very much?
That's better, too. As guides, we no longer have to spend our rest stop breaks on the pay phone making and confirming reservations, since we all use cell phones and email now. Also, expenses and accounting no longer take up much time, as it's all been streamlined and put online. That allows me to concentrate on my tour members and giving them the best tour possible. I also think that the local guides we use are consistently outstanding now. Years ago, when we were first trying out local guides (pretty much auditioning them in front of our groups), there were some painful moments.
Is it true that your first job with Rick was to actually fund a tour?
Yes, right after I left the bank (and before I'd ever dreamed of guiding tours) I signed up to go on a Rick Steves Spain and Portugal tour. A few days before my flight, I got a call from Rick's office, asking if I could take along a stack of money and give it to the guide! The company hadn't started using credit cards yet, and this tour had gotten overlooked. I think they trusted me since I'd worked at a bank. Rick personally came to my condo with a pile of cash — and a moneybelt — and told me very solemnly that there would be no tour if this didn't get there. The guide was very happy when I showed up.