Rick Steves has spent about 100 days in Europe every year since the Nixon era. Between last March and this September he logged zero minutes abroad, although he always thought of Europe.
While settling at his home north of Seattle, the travel expert and multimedia personality created public television shows and hosted virtual events in a world nearly 5,000 miles away. In June, traditionally at the beginning of the tourist high season, he took reservations for tours in the following year. The travelers moved quickly and occupied 95 percent of the nearly 31,000 places on around 1,100 group trips from February to December.
As for Steves, he’s finally crossed the Atlantic 18 months after the shutdown and is quickly making up for the lost time: this fall, he hiked the Alps and stopped by Paris and returned five weeks later to lead new guides through Italy and to film in Rome, Florence and Athens. His balance sheet for the last quarter of 2021: 30 days.
We met Steve’s home in Edmonds, Washington to discuss his recent forays into Europe; his approach to the safety of his employees and guests, especially when dealing with Omicron, a new twist identified a week after our first conversation; and whether his brand optimism is high for 2022.
Q: How has the pandemic affected your tour operations?
A: It was a challenging time for everyone in the tourism industry. We have our best year ever in 2019. On the eve of the pandemic shutdown, we had our annual tour guide summit. I had 100 tour guides in my living room celebrating how we were all ready for 2020. We broke out of this annual jumble and everyone flew back to their hometowns in Europe. Two weeks later, it became clear to us that we would have to cancel our entire 2020 season. But our mantra was: “The pandemic can derail our travel plans, but it cannot stop our travel dreams.”
Q: How did you get on during the shutdown?
A: I was very busy writing and producing during the downtime. I produced a TV show called âWhy We Travelâ, a declaration of love for travel. It’s a hot topic because it talks about the value of traveling to Covid.
My priorities were taking care of my co-workers and our community. We started the Rick Steves Volunteer Corps. My employees use their paid time in blackboards and senior centers and help clean up parks. There is a lot of need in our community during the pandemic.
Q: You have waited longer than many others in the industry to travel internationally. Why?
A: “Patience” has been my middle name for a long time. It’s not an American strength, and it’s certainly not Rick Steves’ strength, but for a year and a half I’ve been very conservative about travel. I thought we shouldn’t travel before the vaccinations. We should stay safe, stay healthy, and take care of our loved ones and neighbors.
Q: What developments or conditions have reduced your international travel concerns?
A: It was too early to start group travel, but I wanted to go there and see how it was. I had the feeling that for people who do not get vaccinated, Europe is a world that is getting smaller and smaller. Everywhere I went it seemed like there were security measures in place keeping unvaccinated people away from (vaccinated people).
Q: Tell us about your long-awaited return to Europe.
A: The first trip was a vacation. I wanted to hike around Mont Blanc with my girlfriend. It’s been six days of 10 miles of hiking every day. We had a sherpa service that took our bags from one mountain hotel to the next. Then we went to Paris. I wanted to see how it was from a Covid point of view and how things survived. A few weeks later I went back for a 20 day work trip. I wanted to do a mentoring tour for guides. (The group, led by Steves, followed his nine day trip through the heart of Italy.) We have 100 guides in Europe. They are all professional guides, but I wanted them to know exactly what makes a Rick Steves tour.
Q: In your experience, how did Europe perform during the pandemic?
A: I was concerned that we would sweep away the bodies of companies that died during the pandemic. But I happily found that almost all of them survived. The other thing that struck me is that the ambience of Europe, the passeggiata [Italyâs traditional evening walk], the energy on the streets, the cafÃ© scene – they are like they used to be. In Europe there is a pulsating zest for life.
Q: Have you seen a lot of Americans in your travels?
A: Half of the people who hiked around Mont Blanc were American and they were full of joy. Half of the people I met while waiting in line at the Pantheon (in Rome) were American and they had the time of their lives. Half of the people I met up at the Acropolis ([inAthens)wereAmericansandtheyhadagreattimeThesmilesontheirfacesdidn’tsayCovid;Theysaidwelivewearetraveling[inAthens)wereAmericansandtheywerehavingagreattimeThesmilesontheirfacesdreliding[inAthen)trafwarenAmerikanerundsiehatteneinetolleZeitDasLÃ¤chelnaufihrenGesichternsagtenichtCovid;Siesagtenwirlebenwirreisen[inAthens)wereAmericansandtheywerehavingagreattimeThesmilesontheirfacesdidnâtsaycovid;theysaidweârelivingweâretraveling
Q: How do the countries you have visited protect their residents and tourists?
A: When you go to a museum, you wear a mask. When you go to a restaurant, show your CDC card and know that everyone there has their vaccination. I was pretty impressed.
Q: In addition to proof of vaccination, what other documents do Americans need to visit Europe?
A: To get to Europe and fly home from Europe, you usually need a negative coronavirus test. People wonder how they get their test in Europe. It’s easy: just ask at the hotel counter. Some countries also have a passenger search form. I pissed it off and the airline asked for my passenger locator form and I didn’t fill it out. So I had to stand by the side while checking in and fill it out. I could have missed my flight. Before heading to the airport, go online and fill it out.
Q: Will you customize your tours to comply with local regulations and ensure the general safety of your staff and guests?
A: We decided about a month ago that everyone on our tours – the bus drivers, the tour guides, and the participants – needed to be vaccinated. I don’t want to take people to Europe and leave them standing on the street while we go in and have a good dinner. You cannot work efficiently in Europe without a vaccination.
We did part of the guides mentoring tour to see what it is like and what is required during the pandemic. We cannot take 25 people together to many museums. We can get your tickets and release them at the museum or we can go in with two smaller groups. We’re going to spread the people in restaurants more apart. That’s just common sense. I think 50 people on a 50 seater bus would be tough. We have 25 people on a 50 seat bus and we will maintain social distancing and wear masks if the pandemic continues. We will have peace of mind that everyone in our travel bladder is vaccinated, wearing their masks and washing their hands.
Q: Are there any benefits to slowing travel and capacity limits?
A: You always pushed yourself into the pantheon and it was a mosh pit. Now stand up, show your CDC card, take your temperature and see the Pantheon without the crowds. I was in the Sistine Chapel (in Vatican City). Usually you put it on your shoulder pads and get ready to mix. It’s not that crowded anymore. I haven’t enjoyed the Sistine Chapel like this in more than a decade. You don’t have the masses of coaches from emerging countries. That takes a lot of pressure off important parties.
Q: Many countries like Germany, Belgium and Austria are seeing an increase in cases and are taking stricter measures. A new variant called omicron has also appeared. Will this affect your travels in the next year?
A: Nobody knows exactly what the situation will look like in spring 2022. In times of the pandemic, there is still a long way to go. We will assess the departure dates in more detail.
Q: Are you planning to resume your extensive itinerary for your various projects?
A: I will be traveling to 10 cities for 30 days in April. I am very excited to return and make sure all of our guides are up to date and I am very much looking forward to continuing to shoot there.
Q: Any advice for travelers considering traveling to Europe?
A: I think there is a lot of fear and misunderstanding about what it takes to travel in Europe and what it’s like over there. On my first return trip, I was nervous. I’m so grateful that I didn’t succumb to the nervousness and the bail. So often you hear about things and worry, but when you get there you think: “I’m glad that I had the courage to make this travel dream come true.”
Q: Are you cautiously optimistic that group travel to Europe will return in 2022?
A: I don’t want my trademark positivity to be a mask for recklessness or impatience. I think it’s a stumbling block, but we’re making progress. At the moment I am still confident that we will be in Europe next spring.