Interview with Robyn Stencil

Robyn can always be relied on to do what it takes to run marathons — and make ice cream the most important meal of her day (caught red-handed, above).

Robyn Stencil works in Rick Steves' Tour Operations department. She's worn an array of hats here since 2004, when she joined our staff as a travel advisor. Since then, Robyn has dabbled in radio production, percolated in publicity, left her indelible mark on our website, and done research for Rick's Great Britain and England guidebooks. She's also assisted/escorted/participated in 15 Rick Steves tours, including Europe (14-day, 21-day, Family and My Way℠), France, Paris, Spain, Eastern Europe, Italy (Best of and My Way℠), and Germany-Austria-Switzerland. During this time she also managed to earn her Master's Degree in Education from Seattle Pacific University. Most importantly, Robyn can always be relied on to do what it takes to run marathons — and make ice cream the most important meal of her day.

Was there any experience in your youth that made you a big fan of traveling?
My parents instilled a love of traveling from the back of their station wagon as we packed up the car to go camping every summer. Both sets of my grandparents were also ardent travelers. Their walls dripped with such exotic looking pictures (which turned out to be places like the Roman Forum and Venice), and their tales of belly dancers and dirt-floor huts ignited my imagination. It was all pretty eye-opening to a kid from the Pacific Northwest. When I got a little older I started traveling across the U.S. for soccer, and by the time I was in high school I knew I wouldn't be satisfied until I let the world unfold in front of me.

What led you to work for Rick Steves?
My German language class in high school was part of the GAPP exchange program, and my teacher used to talk about Rick Steves all the time! I didn't get to go on the exchange, but when I was in my last year at the University of Washington I studied abroad in Rome. I came back transformed — an eager, soon-to-graduate, young adult who figured I might as well go work for the famous Rick. Little did I realize how many other people had the same thought! Persistence, however, paid off. After about a year of repeatedly bugging Rick's HR department, they finally agreed to give me a seasonal job working as a Travel Advisor in his Edmonds, WA office. That opened the door to lots of variety, and lots more travel.

Did you have any qualms about working on tours, given that you saw yourself as an independent traveler?
Traveling independently certainly has its benefits, but travel is best when you get to share it with others. I love the role of being a tour leader — the person who gets to know tour members on an individual basis, makes sure everyone is taken care of, teaches about a different corner of the world in a meaningful way, and shares all of my favorite sights, snacks, and experiences with the group. It's a constant balancing act between managing logistics, imparting knowledge, and socializing. But when you get a "wow moment" reaction out of your tour members, you know you're helping to accomplish something important.

What kind of things do people find as unexpected "wows" on our tours?
People are really surprised that we are able to pack as much as we do into a tour day. After all is said and done, we often get feedback on the pace of our itineraries being "just right" — although most tour members won't admit this when they're getting out of bed at 7 a.m. on their vacation! We really mean it when we say our tours are physically active, but I think tour members are happy at the end of the day when they see how much they experienced. Also, everyone raves about the food we eat on tour — every place we visit has distinct culinary specialties, from authentic Alpkäse in Switzerland to haggis in Scotland and everything in between. Finally, I think the most unexpected surprise is the group bonding and friendships that are formed during the trip. I am still close to a couple I met on our Eastern Europe tour four years ago — that's just one example.

On Rick Steves' My Way℠ tours, are tour members different in terms of how they've prepared or things they want to do?
It's interesting to watch tour members approach the My Way℠ tours. I've seen lots of people do more on a My Way℠ than on a fully guided tour — the opposite of what you might expect. But the beauty of My Way℠ is that this is exactly what tour members can do — tailor their own journey within a journey. In general, I think My Way℠ tour members are independent in the sense that if they want to spend six hours in the Uffizi Gallery they have that freedom, but they still share the same love of travel and camaraderie as other tour members. I think having a good travel experience always depends on how much you're willing to let go of daily routines and the comforts of home and give in to the culture and the moment you're experiencing. The more you are able to do that, the more you'll get out of a trip to Europe.

Have you had people within the same My Way℠ tour create very different trips for themselves?
A perfect example was on a recent My Way℠ Italy tour I escorted: one couple spent half a day absorbed in Rome's Capitoline Museum, while another couple spent an entire afternoon at their favorite bar. Neither couple opted for following the "traditional" sights that our fully guided tour explores (like the Vatican, St. Peter's, the Colosseum, and Forum). Did these couples use their time in Rome wisely? What matters is they made their own choices, creating their own Roman experiences. That's what they valued most.

What's your role as a My Way℠ escort?
As an escort this past summer, I did more travel consulting than I would have as a guide or assistant guide — checking in with people to make sure they had plans for the following day, describing museums, answering transportation-related questions, and simply sharing my love for the places we were visiting. Many of the tour members already knew what they wanted to do, but had logistical questions about how to arrange or actually do it. I'm more used to giving language or cultural lessons on fully guided tours, but it was a nice change to be a sounding board and help tailor each tour member's experience based on what they might be interested in. I also manage the schedule, work with hotels to assign everyone's rooms, and make sure our driver and bus are in sync with everything. I've even provided first aid for a tour member's sprained ankle.

Does a My Way℠ tour give the escort time to make his or her own travel discoveries, too?
Recently, I was tipped off by my Italian bus driver where the two best gelaterias in Florence are. I walked five miles round trip to make sure he was right!

Finally, tell us about your new job in Tour Ops. How does traveling help you in that job?
Joining the Tour Operations department at Rick Steves was a bit like riding a bicycle on the Autobahn — I'm not just referring to the speed and handling needed to keep up with the flow, but also respecting the engineering marvel of how the department operates! It's truly incredible — our command center of only seven people organizes, manages and supports all the guides, sights, hotels, restaurants (and more) behind our 40 itineraries. It's been the most intimidating, and at the same time the best, challenge I've undertaken in a long time. There is no way I could have done it without the first-hand experience of researching, guiding, and traveling; they simply go hand in hand. For instance, in 2013, when I will start managing the Scotland tour, I will be able to rely on connections and experiences I've made through researching the country for the Great Britain guidebook. Likewise, the affinity and draw I've always had towards all things Germanic will allow me to put that passion to good use in running the Germany-Austria-Switzerland and Berlin-Prague-Vienna tours. People constantly say to me, "You have the best job in the world!" or, "You have my dream job!" I never know how to respond besides grinning like an idiot and agreeing with them!

What Robyn won't tell you — here's how her tour alums rave about her:

"Robyn was an excellent tour escort. She was very knowledgeable, professional, personable, passionate and enthusiastic. Robyn provided us with very useful information on each town that we visited including; sites to see, getting around, local culture, food, specialty's and things to try, safety tips, etc. She did a fantastic job and I would tour again with her!!! "
—Susan in San Jose, CA

"Robyn was perfect for this trip. She is well versed and gave great advice. She did a great job on the bus giving insight to each person as they were preparing for each new city. She was enthusiastic, articulate, prepared, succinct and fun. We stayed over a few days and her education from the first 13 days gave us the confidence to handle the next few days on our own in the south part of Italy."
—David in Casper, WY