Margaret is embarking on her second career as a Rick Steves tour guide. She originally joined our office staff and hit the ground running as an assistant guide, back in 1991. Ten years and dozens of tours later, she bid us adieu to start a family. And now, with her kids a bit older and her husband willing to go it alone for a few weeks at a time, Margaret is back with us, leading Best of Europe, Family Europe, and My Way tours. She also writes travel stories, people profiles, and life lessons on her blog.
After stepping away from European touring for so long, what were the biggest changes you saw on your first tour back?
It's astounding how much easier travel has become with cell phones, the Internet, ATMs, and the euro! I have vivid memories of dashing to a phone booth during my tours' rest stops, calling ahead for hotel room numbers, dinner reservations, museum hours, etc. for my group. Now I can just sit in a café and arrange everything online, or call from the bus on my cell phone. Amazing! Also, the availability of ATMs is a huge change and saves tons of time. Guides used to have to wait in line at a bank — and pay a fee — to change our travelers' checks when our tours arrived in each new country. On the six-country Best of Europe tour, that was a lot of time and money! (And with the amount of travelers checks I needed for running a tour, my moneybelt was always bulging — not very figure-flattering!)
Rick's company has also changed a lot since the '90s. What stands out the most for you?
I'm dating myself here, but I used to answer Rick's reader mail (by hand, in cursive!) and I became Rick's webmaster back when our online "bulletin board" had a blinking green cursor on a black screen.
I was Rick's sixth employee when I was hired in 1991, and back then we were the office staff and the tour guides. Now there are more than 80 people in the office, plus another 80 who do guiding exclusively. It says a lot about what a great place this is when I see how many of my colleagues from the early days are still working for Rick, 20 years later. We've all grown up along with the company.
The biggest changes I see are in our tours. They're still the same at heart, but much more comfortable. On my "return" tour after so many years not guiding, at every hotel I was amazed: "We get our own bathrooms?! And air conditioning? Again?!" When I began working as a guide, air conditioning in a hotel or on the coach was unheard of, and private bathrooms weren't a given. We used to stay at a very rustic hotel in the Swiss Alps where half the tour group had a "slumber party" in one big room, and the shower's hot water was coin operated! The hotels may be waaaay nicer now, but my tour members this past year were still the same breed of independent-minded, curious, adventurous, easygoing, and fun people. And I love that we have the family tours now. The mix of generations was energizing for everyone, and it was so sweet to see friendships made across generations and between families.
Another change in our tours is that we use more local guides now. You can learn so much from a local who's spent a lifetime studying their home city.
Also, with our Rick Steves guides' intranet, communication between guides and with the office makes it so much easier for us to share advice and up-to-the-minute tips. We guides used to leave handwritten notes at a hotel for the next tour guide who'd be passing through. Now, if one guide learns some time-sensitive news (say, that an Italian train strike will start tomorrow morning) or comes up with a creative meal or side-trip idea, they can share that information with all of us instantly.
Finally, I've noticed how Rick's books, TV, and radio shows have really spread his travel philosophy far and wide. When I first started, our tour members were all Northwesterners — we'd even get together in Edmonds beforehand for a potluck! Now it's fun meeting the people from all corners of the United States and Canada who join our tours.
You'll be leading Family Europe as well as other Best of Europe tours this summer. Does having two "tweens" at home give you any insights into leading and teaching on a family tour?
After chaperoning kindergarten field trips and leading a pack of wild Brownies, guiding Rick's tours is a breeze! Seriously, I do feel that so much that I've learned as a mom has helped make me a better tour guide. For one thing, my son has developmental delays, which has made me much more patient, and more understanding about whatever challenges other people face. Raising my two very different kids, it's become clear to me that people have different learning styles and that's impacted how I convey information on our tours.
A few years ago, I decided I'd better brush up on my tour-guiding skills, so I got a part-time job as a tour guide on a double-decker bus around downtown Seattle. It was fun to study my own city's history the way I study about Europe, and to give a Rick Steves sort of spin to the Gray Line spiel!
I've realized that nothing beats the thrill of witnessing someone's pure, wide-eyed joy and awe when they experience something amazing for the first time — whether it's my kids' first trip to Disneyland, or tour members' first glimpse of the Alps. I love seeing that in my own kids, and on tour I get to help make it happen for 28 kids and kids-at-heart!
What did you miss most during your decade away from guiding?
All of it! The awe-inspiring scenery, both rural and urban...the incredible art and architecture...being part of a group of strangers who often become dear friends in the space of just a week or two...my colleagues, who are inspiring in their knowledge and love of Europe...the simplicity of living out of a suitcase...the challenge of speaking another language...and the FOOD!
Finally, what does your family think of all this?
My kids have grown up watching Rick's videos and listening to his radio show, and of course they've met him at company family events, so they are very excited for me! Last year they each sent a little toy with me on my first tour. I sent home photos of the toys having "adventures" all over Europe. My husband's really happy for me, too. It's hard to be the solo parent left behind but he knows I've got travel in my blood and few things in life make me happier than this job. I tell him repeatedly how grateful I am that he helps make it possible for me to go!