Ben has practically grown up around Rick Steves. He has been on the road with Rick's tours nearly non-stop since 1997, and has been leading Best of Europe tours and Italy tours since 2003. Even though Ben was raised in Rick's hometown of Edmonds, he now considers himself a European-based guide as he now makes his home in Rome for a good part of the year.
Ben, is it true you began your career with Rick as an exploited child laborer?
Child laborer? Yes. Exploited? No. My parents, Cliff and Mary Ann, were two of the first people to work at Rick Steves' office. So when I was 16 and an after-school job opened up, I just fell into it — excited to earn $5 an hour! Traveling to Europe, let alone spending most of the year over there, was not part of my plan at that point!
How have your parents shaped your interests?
They exposed me to a variety of activities and places which imparted an awareness and curiosity about the world. In 2002, I decided to quit the comforts of my "normal" job with Rick Steves in Edmonds, so I could travel full time. They supported and encouraged me all the way. Without that support, it would be difficult for me to spend the majority of each year on the other side of the world. If they refuse to take any credit for that, I would remind them that they were the ones who gave me the gift (a combined graduation-birthday-Christmas present) of my first real trip, a seat on the 21-day Best of Europe tour. That was in 1996, and my life hasn't been the same since.
When did you decide you wanted to become a guide? Was there a particular "Aha!" moment?
Yeah, the day my name just showed up on the "assistant guide" schedule! Rick got it in his head to draft me, kind of like a baseball player. He must have seen some potential I wasn't aware of.
Was there a guide or two when you were learning the ropes who taught you a particular thing you'll never forget? (You can name names!)
One of the great things about this company is that I had the opportunity to "assist" and apprentice with numerous guides before actually leading my first tour. This way guides can pick up bits and pieces from one another, and build their own style of guiding. Rick likes to call this "cross-pollination." Rick gives us the freedom to run each tour the way we think is best — as long as we do all the things promised. As you would imagine, it's a pretty dynamic group to have as mentors. And now that I live in Rome I have the chance to listen in on local guides every day so I guess you can say that a guide never stops learning and evolving their style of guiding.
What's the most satisfying thing about your job? What's a really good day?
I like all places our tours go, but they aren't really new to me. So what's most enjoyable for me is to experience each day through the eyes of our group members. Most people are into Rick's travel philosophy and come to Europe with an open mind. And they certainly bring all of their own interests and perspectives. Their personal views make each trip different, and a great day for me is when I can share in their enthusiasm of discovery.
Explain how visiting multiple countries on a single tour affects your tour members.
Until you've been to Europe, it's hard to imagine the variety of unique cultures that exist in such close proximity. One of my favorite days on the Best of Europe tour is when we wake up in the Austrian Alps and go to sleep in Venice. In a day's drive, you completely change history, language, cuisine — everything is different. You could drive a day in the States and hear the same accent when you arrive. On these tours, you see five or six different countries in a relatively short time, but still get a legitimate feel for each one. The opportunity to witness cultural contrast is unparalleled.
What kinds of individuals or families seem to be attracted to Best of Europe tours?
They're usually fairly diverse groups — all ages from all over, with totally different backgrounds. The common denominator seems to be a shared belief in Rick's travel philosophy. Our tour members are interested in understanding the place they're visiting, rather than just being able to say they've been there. It seems they want to be more travelers than tourists.
Every guide brings unique strengths or special interests to their tour. What are yours?
I'm a master gelato taster — can tell you the best places for ice cream throughout Italy. Seriously, as a friend of mine likes to say, "Jack of all trades, master of none." I think it's essential for a guide to be well rounded and that's what I strive for.
So why did you choose Rome as your European base?
There are amazing things that are simply a part of normal daily life in Rome. When I feel like seeing ancient architecture, I hop on the bus, pass by the Colosseum en route to the Pantheon. Art? Just drop into a church for a few minutes to see a Caravaggio or Raphael. Food? You can't walk two blocks without passing a great café, pizzeria, trattoria, or gelateria.
Where do you want to travel that you haven't gone yet?
I met a traveler years ago who told me it was his goal to travel to one country for every year of his life. I liked that, so I've kept a tally since. I have meaningful memories of over 40 countries, which means I have a few more years before I "need" to go elsewhere! Lately, I've been more interested in exploring, in greater depth, places that I've already been to. Plus there's a lifetime worth of things to see just in Rome. That said, we do have several Tunisia guidebooks that we've been perusing...and it's less than two hours from Rome!