European Traveler chats with travel guru Rick Steves
Why did you choose to start your company, Europe Through the Back Door, rather than do something else, or even work for a travel company?
I was inspired by being a customer of other teachers/tour guides to teach and guide in a way I thought was better. Taking a travel class poorly taught about taking the bus from Istanbul to Nepal showed me the frustration and lost opportunity of a traveler who had the experience but was too lazy and disorganized to share it effectively with his student travelers…So I became a travel teacher. Escorting big bus tours in the 1970s showed me the built-in conflicts of interest between guides and tour members as well as the potential value of a thoughtful and well-organized tour company…So I decided to develop my own formula for a tour company. From the start, I’ve enjoyed making my own rules and having fun with my business.
What one or two reasons do you point to as reasons you’ve been successful?
We have been true to our mission statement since before we had one…to inspire and teach American travelers to enjoy Europe economically, efficiently, and thoughtfully. Nothing I do in my business supports itself. Everything overlaps and is therefore a better value than normal — as well as profitable.
Do you have a personal and/or business philosophy you’d like to share?
Life if too short to drink cheap wine or work with people you don’t respect and enjoy.
Was there ever a time for whatever reason you thought about selling the business or doing something else? If so, what compelled you not to?
A long time ago at that difficult stage when I was transitioning from a single entrepreneurial teacher to someone with a paid staff it was challenging and I considered becoming a high school teacher. Then I realized I am a teacher…free as a bird with the best students anywhere…smart people who slept through their history and art classes before they knew they had a trip coming up. Now they’re Europe-bound and wish they knew who the Etruscans were. I haven’t looked back since.
I’d assume people underestimate how difficult it is to run a travel-related business — that it must be like being on vacation all the time. What is the biggest misperception about your work?
Nobody understands the reality from a footwork point of view of researching and writing good guidebooks.
How did you deal with the challenges of a growing company — I imagine at some point as the company has grown, you have had to relinquish some day-to-day control over some aspects. Was it difficult? How have you dealt with growing pains in the business?
I have learned to delegate. That was tough. Now I happily don’t know how to issue a Eurail pass. I honestly don’t know our store hours…that’s a good thing. I produce in my corner of the building. I am one of five on our “business team” which functions as what I think of as a “virtual ceo.”
What advice do you have for those who have to be on the road when they don’t necessarily want to be away from home and family?
Bring work or reading you enjoy to make the plane ride a blessing. Take a moment to homey up your hotel room (with your favorite munchies, photos of loved ones). Assuming you’re going someplace interesting, get out there and enjoy it. Be a temporary local. Sure you’ve got plenty of reasons to be homesick…but for now you live there. Immerse yourself in it all.
Where do you see yourself and your company in five, ten years?
Exactly where I am now only with much more teaching horsepower.
What are your company’s annual revenues? Can you give me a sense of how that has grown?
I think we’re pushing $30 million gross with 70 employees. While we’ve grown a lot, we are the same culture of travelers.
Any other advice for entrepreneurs or those thinking of starting their own business?
Don’t hire relatives.