Travel Skilled Rick Steves Talks Coronavirus And Enterprise Ethics. Plus, Why You’ll Need To Learn His Attractive New Book
© Rick Steves’ Europe
Wrap your stay-at-home thoughts for a few minutes around travel guru Rick Steves — an American best-selling author, TV host, radio personality, activist, teacher, speaker and champion of European tourism. Come away with an eye-opening look at a successful business owner whose penchant for creating meaningful experiences for travelers to Europe is as passionate as his inclination for making ethical choices his guiding light. His tourism company — Rick Steves Europe, founded in 1976 when he was 21 years old — has, in recent years, guided 30,000 travelers annually on bus-tour getaways, bringing in $100-million revenue per annum. This winter, when the company faced uncertainty due to the novel Coronavirus’ impact on the travel industry, Steves set different wheels in motion. He fully refunded trip payments to all pre-paid customers for 2020. Then he promised job security and healthcare coverage to the more than 100 staff employees at his Edmonds, Washington headquarters (near Seattle), while not knowing how long the pandemic’s threat would last. It was a bold resolution, as well as a reassuring vote of confidence in the future.
Europe: Rick Steves’ beat.
With countries closing borders and the virus continuing to spread, Steves has remained at home. This is the first summer since 1980 that he has not traveled to Europe.
The scope of his and his team’s steady output is significant: more than 50 guidebooks, a PBS-TV travel series (now in its 11th season), a public radio show, a syndicated newspaper travel column, a Rick Steves Audio Europe app and a Rick Steves’ Classroom Europe series that produces hundreds of free short educational videos about art, culture, history and the environment that are helpful for use by teachers and homeschooling parents. Even his Facebook and Instagram feeds are lively. The timing of his newest book — For the Love of Europe: My Favorite Places, People and Stories (Avalon Travel), which spotlights 100 personal essays — will appeal to armchair travelers, particularly those who now miss moving in the wide-open yonder. Among Steves’ many skills, being a storyteller ranks high, as evidenced in these enlightening, funny, outrageous, perceptive, poignant, soothing and touching pieces. Call this book his love letter to travel. Sit with the essays, allowing the descriptions to wash over you, and feel as though you can almost imagine being there, too.
In this interview for Forbes, Steves shares insights for navigating challenging times, reaching difficult decisions, cherishing travel memories, focusing a traveler’s mindset and discovering unexpected bonuses in your own backyard.
Rick Steves’ new book, a treasure trove of 100 personal essays.
Book cover image taken in Bern, Switzerland © Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli Photography
Celebrating Success to Facing a Pandemic
In late January, Steves hosted 100 of his tour guides from Europe for a weeklong gathering of workshops, brainstorming sessions, lectures and parties at his office and home. “We were euphoric,” he remembers. “We rented a party boat on Puget Sound…and [had] an incredible time. They all flew home, ready for our best year ever, and then this tsunami swept over us and we had to shut everything down. That was really a shame. I love my guides. I love to connect American travelers with little mom-and-pop places around Europe. I love to get Americans out of their comfort zone and help them come home with the best souvenir, which is a broader perspective. And I love to make money doing all that. But none of it happened.” Every tour was canceled. “It was heartbreaking,” he says. “My guides, who are freelancers in Europe, don’t have any work now.”
Once upon a time: Steves and his TV crew in the Scottish Highlands.
© Rick Steves’ Europe
He told his Washington State staff: Trim the sails, hunker down and be patient. “My commitment is to keep my team together, so that we can throttle up when normalcy returns,” Steves explains. “As a business manager, if you make money off the hard work of your staff for 20 or 30 years and then you have a couple years when you work hard but make no money or even lose money, that is part of being in business. This is my turn to stand by my staff as long as this crisis lasts, just like my staff has stood by me over these decades. I can do it because I am a privately held corporation. I can have these ethics without stockholders getting upset. I’ve got the money. We’re all sharing the sacrifice by getting ourselves down to 60 percent of our work week by the first of next year, but still having health care. We are going into a wait-it-out mode. Nobody would call me a patient person, but right now patience is my middle name. I am encouraging my staff to enjoy the stability of knowing they have a job and to spend time with their families.”
Paris: The romance of travel.
Unlike many other travel company CEOs, Steves did not offer credit vouchers. “The majority of people who signed up for a 2020 tour had previously taken a Rick Steves tour,” he says. “They know us, know our style. Everybody got a refund. It doesn’t surprise them that we didn’t jerk them around, that we didn’t give them a credit, didn’t make it tough to get a refund. If they wanted to leave their money with us for a later tour, we said no, take your money back. We’re friends. We’ll get this together later.”
The Czech Republic’s jewel: Old Town Square in Prague.
That customer-first service is refreshing. “I have many friends who’ve been jerked around by the tourism industry and it’s just not right,” continues Steves. “If somebody booked a tour [with me] and I can’t do it, I don’t get to keep their money. I don’t care whose fault it is. It’s not my fault, but it’s not their fault. I’m the businessman. I need to give all that money back. It’s the ethical thing to do. Just like keeping my staff together is the ethical thing to do. It’s also good business, because I’m in it for the long haul. I need my team and the public to know that we are a company that they can count on to work with them. I feel very good about this. And I am thankful that I have the financial resources to suffer through this for a few years.” Was the refund process complicated? Yes. “We’re built to take people’s money, not give it back,” he adds. “But it was all hands on deck and we did that as fast and as efficiently and as candidly as we could.”
Filming Rick Steves’ PBS-TV show on the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia.
© Rick Steves’ Europe
Predicting Travel’s Return
Recently, the company unveiled scaled-down 2021 tours, but told customers that it would not take deposits, letting them put their names on trips that they want to be the first to know about when ready to open. Several thousand families have already done so. “I am thankful for that,” says Steves. “I am impressed by how resilient the demand is. I have been through crises before. The demand does not dissipate. The demand gets backed up and returns with a vengeance. We are primed and ready. We have our guides and tour busses. We’ve booked hotels. Whether we will be traveling or not, I don’t know. I am disappointed in our government’s inability to have some sort of discipline, embrace science, be patient and care about your neighbor. If it is every man for himself, we’re going to be playing whack-a-mole with this virus for the next decade. I don’t want to do that.”
Bernese Oberland in Switzerland, where Steves once dangled — admittedly terrified — from a cliff.
Steves predicts that tourism will rebound incrementally. Some people are now traveling regionally, driving road trips. Then intrepid individuals will spread their wings farther. “I have a cousin in Norway who loves the Greek isles, so she flew there on vacation knowing that she’d have a 10-day quarantine when she got back to Oslo,” he explains. “I am not that determined to travel and I am not promoting that kind of travel, but I am glad it is there. Individuals will travel more when countries get a grip on this virus.” The last thing will be organized tourism — “bus tours like those that I sell,” says Steves, who reiterates the power of patience. “I don’t want to put people through the emotional turmoil of signing up for a tour, paying for it, then having it canceled…. There is no reason to push it. I’ve said pretty clearly that we are not going to be the first tour company out of the gate. We are going to wait until it is stable.”
Steves always rents a bike in Amsterdam to maximize fun.
For his tours to work, many dots must connect, all parts must function. “It has to be easy to travel between countries in Europe,” he explains. “That could happen and yet the United States would still be behind the curve. Americans are not welcome [in Europe] because we do not have the discipline to control this virus. I don’t blame the European countries. We’ve also got to have enough time, stability and economy so airlines can take people efficiently and reliably across the Atlantic. There’s going to be a lot of organizing before we are able to travel.” Furloughed workforces need to be rehired and gear up to speed.
Cheers! Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany.
His European vacations are famous for showcasing small businesses — charming shops, family-owned restaurants, unique people-to-people diversions and activities that foster camaraderie with locals. “How many of the mom-and-pop businesses that we all love are still going to be in business?” he wonders. “I am hopeful that the long-term impact [of COVID-19] does not mean that…giant corporations have the economy of scale to crush all the small guys. I wish we had a government that recognized that value. My business is not taking travelers to an international chain hotel and eating at a chain restaurant. Rick Steves’ tourism is the opposite of social distancing. It is people to people. It is kisses on the cheek. It is going to a pub where strangers are just friends you get to meet. That is what turns us on about European travel. And that will come back, but it won’t be the first thing to come back.”
Olé! Spanish Flamenco dancer.
Stepping Into Stellar Stories
Last year, Steves spent an intense amount of time writing For the Love of Europe: My Favorite Places, People and Stories, locking himself away, an ironic twist of fate considering this year’s virus-forced seclusion. And yet, in hindsight, the schedule proved an unanticipated purpose. “I am thankful that I did it just in time for my book to come out during this difficult pandemic,” he says. With so much negative news, anxiety, fear and frustration now, dreaming about travel and its transformative uplift can seed happier emotions.
With hundreds of photos on pleasing paper stock, this 401-page travel memoir gallops engagingly out of the gate. Ace anecdotes abound: Steves dangles from a cliff in the Swiss Alps, crowd-surfs in an Istanbul mosque, hangs with hippie squatters in Copenhagen, swoons over sumptuous cheese in France’s châteaux-kissed Loire Valley, is blissfully buzzed on the Italian Riviera’s Cinque Terre, contemplates the mastery of Michelangelo’s David in Florence, peers at vestiges of the Cold War in Budapest, jockeys with jostlers atop city walls in Dubrovnik, chats with a verger at Westminster Abbey in London and gets pickled in Bruges. “Where else,” he writes about that Belgium city dressed in cobblestone streets and Medieval buildings, “can you bike along a canal, munch mussels, drink fine monk-made beer…and savor heavenly chocolate, all within 300 yards of a bell tower that rings out ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ jingles?”
London’s Westminster Abbey aglow with a double rainbow.
© Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli Photography
Some essay titles amuse, suggesting revelations and sportiveness, such as “Pamplona: Feeling the Breath of the Bull on Your Pants,” “Dutch Tolerance: Red Lights and Pot Shops,” “Baden-Baden: Getting Naked with Strangers,” and “Helsinki: Relax…I Wash You Twice.”
After Steves finished writing the bulk of the manuscript, he noted that there was one overriding theme: “When an opportunity presents itself [to connect with people] and you’re wondering whether you should do it or not, the answer is yes. Make serendipity happen,” he urges. “It is people [who] make trips sparkle. It is learning, oh, you can make friends.” So the final pages pay tribute to human connection. “Let surprises waylay your careful plans,” muses Steves. “Count…the friends you’ve made while far from home. Packing that attitude, you’ll realize that the world is a welcoming place, a place filled with joy, love and wonderful people.”
Appreciating Home Sweet Home
“Travel is living life with more definition. It carbonates your world,” reflects Steves. “Being at home is a weird situation,” he adds, laughing. “Walking home the other day, I saw a slug on my neighbor’s fence and all I could think about was escargot!”
Taping his radio show, “Travel with Rick Steves.”
© Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli Photography
It must be a shock to slow his go-go pace. “I’ve been a workaholic,” Steves admits. “I don’t regret it. I love travel. I eat, live, breath and sleep it. But now travel is not an option. I have all this energy and interest in embracing life, so I am doing things that I’ve neglected. I’ve learned to cook. That would have been inconceivable a year ago. I’ve always been very tuned into good nutrition, but I’ve never used my oven or my barbecue until this crisis. I’ve never really had the joy of talking to somebody about the decisions you make about cooking. My children are saying, ‘Who are you?!’ I play the bugle when the sun goes down. I play my piano — I let the chords take me to places, I follow the chords. This is something that I didn’t have time for or interest in, but now I do. So I am proving to myself that the way travel gives more colors to your palette, staying home with a traveler’s mindset can bring more colors to your palette as well.”
For art lovers, another new 2020 book.
© Rick Steves Europe
His enthusiasm for newfound domestic pleasures is undeniably sweet. “I had never felt the fun of a knife cutting through a crispy onion,” Steves remarks, a bit giddy. “It reminds me that there are worlds unexplored by those of us who are explorers. I’m an adventurous person, [yet] I’ve never been inside a big pet store, which I did days ago. Every Saturday now, my girlfriend and I go to the market and our discussion is about which bouquet of flowers to buy. The whole beauty of dogs — we have two dogs. [Before the pandemic] I would never have taken the time to walk dogs. I would never have cuddled with a dog at night and looked into his eyes. Now I do that and it’s a beautiful thing. I was this weird character that just got brought out of a glacier of constant travel. Now I realize that there are avenues at home that I can adventure through and they are quite nice. This is a different kind of life for me.” Being curious, willing to try new things, valuing the little stuff and nurturing a positive attitude will lead to fresh horizons.
Spreading smiles in Sognefjord, Norway.
© Rick Steves Europe
Rick Steves works with and supports several advocacy groups, as well as financially contributes to more than 170 organizations. To help off-set his company’s effect on the environment, he invests $1 million annually in climate-protecting nonprofits, including conservation and agriculture in underdeveloped countries. To learn more: Climate Smart Commitment.