I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

St. Peter Goes to the Dump: A New ELCA video

Squeezing a few days in Rome between a Greece tour and researching in Istanbul this fall, I met my friend Tim Frakes — who produces videos for the Lutheran Church (www.elca.org) — to finish a video about St. Peter.

Over the years, Tim and I have collaborated on five teaching videos, taking us from Lutheran-funded hospitals in Papua New Guinea to the room where Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin to the people’s German (…really annoying the pope).

For this video (similar to an earlier one on St. Paul), Tim filmed places around the eastern Mediterranean where Peter had lived and worked. We planned to have me “host” the video in Rome by filming (over two days) about 20 “on-camera” bits at the Vatican and in generic ancient settings.

Filming on St. Peter’s Square is always thrilling, with a backdrop of the greatest church in Christendom and so much rich Church history to share. While the square is a crowded mess through midday, it is glorious — rich colors, striking architecture warmly lit by a low sun, and no crowds — early and late. That’s when we filmed there.

(Of course, there is the nagging issue of whether St. Peter ever even went to Rome. Scholars differ on this. And as Lutherans, we didn’t want to anger Roman Catholics by questioning the veracity of the claim that Peter is buried under St. Peter’s Basilica. We proceeded as if the tradition itself of Peter’s work and death there authenticated the story.)

We needed distinct and evocative sites for each of our 15 generic ancient setting on-camera performances. We tried for Ostia Antica, but failed to get permission (without paying the $3,000 fee that they asked). Finally the people at Hadrian’s Villa gave us permission, supporting our church’s educational work (but didn’t quite understand why we were “filming St. Peter” at a place he certainly never visited). As it turned out, Hadrian’s Villa was much better than Ostia Antica would have been for our needs.

Tim and I scouted the site and set out to shoot all the on-cameras. It was an exhilarating day and we were both happy with the work. Exhausted, we returned to our hotel and went out for a celebratory dinner.

Later that evening, Tim knocked on my hotel room door with panic and horror on his face. He asked me if I had seen a videocassette. One was missing.

It was the nightmare of every TV producer: While working at his laptop, he had knocked three tapes from his desk to the floor. He bent down a bit later and picked up two. Then he joined me for our pasta and red wine.

Rome is not a place where garbage moves fast…unless you dropped a precious videocassette into a trash bin. While we were out, the maid came in and emptied the garbage into a big plastic bag that went outside…and then, with incredibly bad luck, the garbage truck came and went.

We got lovely Annamaria from our hotel (The Aberdeen) to go into her building’s garbage room. With plastic gloves on, she emptied bags on the floor, analyzing the empty jugs and so on to determine which bags were from Hotel Aberdeen. All her bags had already been picked up and taken to the Rome dump. Heroically, Annamaria and her husband actually drove to the dump…only to find that all had been smashed together. Our cassette was hopelessly lost.

Tim felt so bad, considering how hard we had worked. We just agreed not to punish ourselves, changed our morning flights home, and arranged to return to Hadrian’s Villa to re-shoot the 15 on-cameras…which were absolutely critical to the production.

Back at Hadrian’s Villa, the weather was as good as the earlier day. But there was a different man in charge. We explained our story (with the help of our gracious driver and Annamaria on the phone). The bureaucrats running the site seemed to enjoy watching this humbled American film crew begging for a chance to enter and reshoot our lost bits. They said no.

I couldn’t believe this. The light was perfect. We were permitted the day before. I had a flight that night to Turkey. And the gate was closed to us and our camera. We sat there looking like abandoned little puppies, sad faces, trying to stay cool…until noon, when they finally agreed to let us in “as tourists” and re-do our work.

With time ticking away, Tim and I lined up all 15 stops efficiently and, with precision focus, re-shot the entire list. The work went perfectly, and I was impressed by how easy it was to call back the lines I had previously memorized. I think my performance was actually better this time around. By 3:00 p.m., we had shot the last bit — just in time for me to zip out to the airport and resume my itinerary in Istanbul.

Tim flew home with all the footage to complete his St. Peter video. A week later, I was home and recorded the general voice track. Within about a month, the project was compete and a new teaching video was in the mail to all 11,000 ELCA Lutheran churches.

Our friends at the ELCA website have organized all the videos Tim and I have done into one fun page at www.elca.org, so anyone can click on over and see our work.

My favorites of this work have been the Papua New Guinea show (even thought it’s pretty old…our first collaboration, which let me share my thoughts on First/Third World relations) and the Martin Luther story (since I had to sit through the old-fashioned, black-and-white versions when I was a kid in Sunday school, and this would pump up the color and energy for kids warming those same little chairs today). And for understanding the work that St. Paul and St. Peter did in the formative early years of the Christian Church, the other videos tell that story.

If you’re interested, I hope you can enjoy our latest work: The Life of Apostle Peter.

Updating a Rick Steves Guidebook

When my books were 200 pages long, I prided myself in personally visiting every listing every year. Now, with 20 books averaging 400+ pages each, I rely on a staff of researchers. We just had our annual meeting, and I had four hours to inspire and instruct our team. Here are a few concerns we dealt with:

Reader feedback: We get mountains. While tips on what has changed and areas of confusion are really helpful, most new hotel and restaurant suggestions are a disappointment. Still, we track many of these down because gold nuggets do pop up. Run down suggestions when you can.

Writing vs. checking information: Researchers are primarily information-checkers. My co-authors and I get the exhausting privilege of expanding our coverage.

Tap locals for help, but don’t be hoodwinked by cronyism. We need to survey our friendly hoteliers and B&B hosts, as they know what our readers are doing day in and day out…which tours, tricks, eateries, and so on work best. Where are we letting our readers down?

Cheap tricks: With our dollar in the tank, in 2008 we will all dredge up cheap tricks for eating, sleeping, transportation, and sightseeing at every stop.

Decipher hotel price schemes: When hotels have crazy computer-generated price schemes, try to find the average peak-season rate and suss out how travelers score the best actual prices in each place.

Avoiding lines: If there’s a line, there is a way to avoid it. We want those with our books to never need to wait through a line. Find clever ways around them.

Get deals for those with the book: Many prices assume a commission for some agency or website. Because our readers are going direct, try to negotiate for them a discounted rate that cuts out the middleman, saves our readers money, and gets the business all it would net out through an agency. But be very careful not to negotiate a discount from someone who isn’t in authority to back it up and make it happen next year. Check each discount in the book anonymously.

Don’t clutter up the book with bad-value sightseeing passes. Europe must have a university course called “Confusing Nonsensical Museum Passes.” Few are worth the trouble, much less the ink to explain in a guidebook. Really crunch the numbers.

“Live the book”: When researching, you are working every waking hour — eating, sleeping…living the book. Know what’s in the book. Know the frustrations of our readers. Do what our readers do, and report on it.

Think strategically: For example, figure out the connection from Lagos to Salema (which our readers will want to use). Avoid an expensive hotel by taking the overnight cruise from Copenhagen to Oslo. If flying home from Milan’s airport, consider spending your last night in Stresa and catch a shuttle directly to the airport from there, rather than detouring through Milan.

Don’t pollute the book with needless details (last entry 15 minutes before closing) or rare offerings (free second Sundays, English tour summer Wednesdays).

I like to illustrate a job well done by examples from last year’s research. Here are a few I used:

A new sight listing (in Berlin) written up clearly after a visit: The Film Museum is the most interesting visit in the Sony Center. Your admission gets you into several floors of exhibits (3rd floor is film and TV permanent exhibits, 1st and 4th floor are temporary exhibits) made meaningful by the included (and essential) English audioguide. The film section takes you from the beginning with emphasis on the Weimar Republic time in the 1920s when Berlin rivaled Hollywood (Metropoliswas a German production from 1927). Three rooms are dedicated to Marlene Dietrich, and another section features Nazi use of film as propaganda. The TV section tells the story of das boob tube from its infancy (when it was primarily used as a Nazi propaganda tool) to today. The 30-minute kaleidoscopic review — kind of a frantic fast-forward montage of greatest hits in German TV history — is great fun (it plays with 10-minute breaks all day long). Upstairs is a TV archive where you can dial and click a wide range of new and classic German TV standards. The Arsenal Theater downstairs shows art films in their original language.

A new restaurant listing (in Berlin) that makes the dining experience clear, and offers a distinct style and great value: Zum Schusterjungen Speisegaststatte is a classic old-school eatery. It’s German with attitude and retains its circa 1986 DDR decor. The “Boot Boy” is famous for its schnitzel and filling €7-8 meals. It’s a no-frills place with quality ingredients and a strong local following. It serves the eating needs of those who lament the fact that it’s hard to find solid traditional German cooking with the flood of ethnic eateries (small 40-seat dining hall, daily 11:00-24:00, corner of Lychenerstrasse and Danziger Strasse 9, tel. 442 7654).

A cheap transportation trick: Eurailpasses don’t cover the Czech Republic, so you need to buy a ticket for the Czech portion of the trip before boarding a train. (Tip: Since the Germans charge double what the Czechs do per kilometer for tickets within Czech Republic, you can actually save money by crossing into Czech Republic without the Prague leg of the journey paid for. Buy it from the conductor for €7 and pay the €2 penalty…and save a few euros over the €14 price for the ticket bought in Germany.)

An example of a fun detail (in Luzern) that could change if Frau Segesser retires, and therefore needs to be checked each year: Midway across the old wooden covered bridge is a little chapel from the 16th century, built to guard against destruction by flood. A line of family crests acknowledge the volunteers who, over the years, have kept the chapel decorated with the seasons. Since 1987, this has been the work of Frau Segesser. While you’re paused here, notice the serious woodwork.

Sorting out 2008 Travel Plans…

I just finished my last lecture tour of the year (Portland, San Francisco, LA, San Diego, Phoenix) last week, and now, psychologically, I can start thinking about next year’s travel schedule.

I need to commit for 2008 by the end of 2007 so our TV and guidebook research teams have their parameters set.

Each year it’s a similar basic routine: four months of work in Europe (April and May in the Mediterranean world, home for June, and then July and August north of the Alps). This year Jackie is graduating, so June will be a busy and exciting time to be home.

We produce, on average, six or seven TV shows a year. That’s about 40 days of filming—half in spring (in the south) and half in summer (in the north). It’s critical that I have good weather and lots of action to brighten up the footage, so I need to match the regions with the months.

In 2008, I think we’ll shoot two shows in Greece and a show in Istanbul in late April/early May, and probably three shows in Scandinavia in late July/early August.

When we shoot is also impacted by the need to provide an even flow of rough footage to spread out the demands on our editor back home. And in September — before all the shows are edited — our new series will debut. This means we’ll be committed to delivering a show a week for 13 weeks with several still in the works. It’s a bit scary because once we start the delivery schedule, there’s no room for any glitches in the production schedule. (We do this each season…and have always made it OK.)

With age and wisdom, I have learned to get over there early for some research to get in shape, tanned up, and acclimated to the road. I also give the crew a day before I join them to get some beauty shots (“B-roll”) in the can. Producer Simon and our cameraman are in a better mood to help me “cover the script” if they’ve got some pretty shots in the can first.

Once the TV days are set, I then need to divvy up the guidebook research chores. Each two-month trip is basically 20 days research, 20 days filming, then 20 more days research. My research time is determined by which regions are most used (e.g., many, many more travelers will use the chapter on Germany’s Rhine River valley than will use Norway’s Setesdal Valley), and which regions I didn’t make it to personally in the last year or two.

While we have researchers update every place covered in the books, with my visit I try to do more than check the existing material. I like to broaden the coverage and really revamp and freshen up the eating and sleeping listings. Another factor, of course, is new books planned.

For 2008, my priorities will be the following:

Bits of Italy I didn’t do last year (this is our bestseller, and — despite its immensity — I do everything thoroughly each two years…I’ll be sure to do Cinque Terre, Amalfi Coast, and Siena this year);

Vienna/Salzburg/Munich/Füssen/Danube Valley (we’re publishing a separate book on Vienna with Salzburg and Austrian side-trips in ’08);

Paris, Amsterdam, London (I love doing the city books personally every other year–I did Venice, Florence, Rome in ’07); and

Portugal/Galicia/Basque Country (Portugal’s past due for me, and I hope to get charged up to make a future TV script for Galicia/Basque with what I learn in ‘08 researching that zone).

Like anyone planning a trip, I need to be realistic about how much I can cover. I think this is way too much for my 80 days of available research time. Something’s got to go. Thankfully, I have a great staff of researchers and co-authors. Between us, we’ll cover it all.

Just thinking about all this European travel gets me seven kinds of all-charged-up.

The Fun of Running a Travel Business

Sometimes I feel like a parent with 60 teenage kids. Like yesterday, when the frantic prank email went out to our entire staff: “Ragen (from Tour Operations) puked in Rick’s office. Does anyone know how to clean up the carpet?”

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Each year the 16 managers at Europe Through the Back Door join me on an overnight retreat, and the remaining 60 employees have the building to themselves. It’s like when parents leave a high-schooler at home alone overnight — you just know something crazy’s got to happen. Judging from the mess we returned to, everyone’s grounded for a while at ETBD.

Our annual management team retreat is a critical part of running our business as each ETBD manager essentially runs a separate business (retail, tours, rail, books, etc.) under our big roof, and this is a time when we look ahead, fine-tune, compare notes, address employee concerns, and recalibrate. I am passionate about running an efficient show so we can be profitable, provide good employment, and be a fine value for our traveling customers. It’s all about design.

We dealt with many issues. For example, work space has been tight. We just rented a big, old house across the street that will be christened “Book Haus” and will haus eight of our guidebook editors. This will open up much-needed space in our main building.

We dealt with my philosophy of pay, perks, paid time off, bonuses, the advantages of being a privately held company, and the freedom to take time off without pay. For the second year in a row, the entire staff enjoyed a big bonus. With the fragility of the travel business environment lately, this seems smarter than higher wages.

The regular concern about more paid vacation was addressed. (I always say how great Europe is in this regard, yet give paid vacation on the stingy American business model.) I stressed how — as I have never had anyone pay me for not working, but always have had the opportunity to save up and then take time off without pay — I would like to give employees more money and assure them they can take off whatever time they like (if it doesn’t disrupt their department).

The big challenge (and new commitment) for us is to invest more in software to equip each department with whatever they need to be more productive (and therefore better paid) with less overall labor expense.

Another challenge is the rising euro and our dropping dollar. While our gross revenue has grown every year in the last decade, our net income has been down two times (in 2003 and this year), coinciding with big drops in the value of our dollar. There’s no telling how long this situation will last.

Each department head made a presentation. Our railpass business is down, but it’s not our fault. In the last decade, the people who produce and wholesale railpasses in Europe (Eurail and Rail Europe) have decided they’d rather sell passes directly to American travelers than pay travel agencies and companies like ours a commission to sell passes. Consequently, most railpass retailers are demoralized (shrinking commissions and so on). I believe we manage to sell more passes than any single business in the USA other than ER and RE — but we can read the writing on the wall.

The big rail news this year is not very big: Slovenia has its own railpass (whoopee!). My own travel style has evolved with the average American traveler. With shorter vacation times, cheaper airfare, and more travel experience resulting in more focused rather than multi-country trips, railpasses are no longer such a good fit. While in the past I generally bought one big, fat, wonderful railpass for my entire trip, these days I cobble together a few cheap inter-European flights, a few point-to-point rail tickets, and a little car rental (which I find is becoming a relatively better value than rail).

European Union regulations are having an impact on the tour business. For instance, there is a new, strictly enforced law (designed to keep bus drivers from being groggy at the wheel) requiring bus drivers to get 45 hours entirely off every seven days. This means each tour needs a two-day stretch without access to our bus. This affects our itineraries. We are also feeling a strong push from our tour members to offer single supplements so our single travelers can be assured a single room.

Our guides and staff are concerned that in order to sell more seats, we’re promoting our tours to more “high maintenance” travelers. I assured my staff that we are promoting our tours in a way that maintains our “no grumps” culture and that, regardless of the dropping dollar, we will not compromise on experience, nor will we fill our buses with complainers.

Our HR department reported that in the USA, 50 percent of all senior managers are expected to retire in the next five years. This will set off a scramble for brains in our economy. On top of this, younger employees around the country do not trust the system or workplace because of the lack of loyalty shown to them by management (driven by greedy demands of stockholders). To keep our great staff, we need to be innovative, maintain our fun work culture, and invest in tools so each employee can produce more and therefore make more.

Our business has never been stronger and our growth is steady. 2007 was our best year ever for tours, with 11,800 travelers filling 483 separate tours (my wife Anne and I were just two of these). In each successive year since 1998, we’ve lead more tours (110, 120, 154, 182, 208, 220, 261, 311, 420, 483) and sold seats to more tour members (2,600, 2,700, 3,600, 3,900, 4,700, 4,900, 6,300, 7,700, 10,200, 11,800).

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Rather than resort to paid advertising, we have a secret marketing weapon: using free travel information as our publicity stunt. In 2007, we hired an in-house publicist, which has been a huge boon for me. We’ll give talks at four travel shows in early 2008 (LA, NYC, San Francisco, and Seattle). The LA Times ran an editorial I wrote on drug policy (which was rerun in 10 other newspapers around the USA). I’m hosting a 30-minute documentary for the ACLU on American drug policy (next month). We were named Seattle’s top small business for philanthropy for 2007. And, regardless of my thoughts on why our country has military bases in 130 different countries around the world, we’re entertaining our troops by making our TV show available to the US Armed Forces Network.

I reviewed my upcoming initiatives (including a dozen new audio tours covering Venice, Florence, and Rome to be produced in December) and the gearing up to shoot and produce the last six episodes of our next 13-episode TV series that debuts next October on public television.

After wrapping up the retreat with a big thanks to my managers, we all drove back to Edmonds to clean up our offices.

The Demise of Paper: Amazon’s Kindle

For years, my eyes glazed over when my publisher, Bill Newlin at Avalon Travel, would enthuse about coming high-tech and futuristic trends in the book business. I am Mr. Paper. I want a ripped-out chapter of a guidebook in my pocket. I want to curl up with the PAPER on Sunday morning. (Although I must admit, as I walk down hallways of hotels on Sunday mornings and see a New York Timesthe size of a tree stump at each door, the sheer bulk of paper/printing/transporting has me questioning the rationality of the traditional model.)

Then, six months ago, I was invited to Amazon.com headquarters for a marketing meeting. I expected just a normal brainstorming session about how we could pump up our sales. For instance, we produced a videoabout how I research my books that landed on their site as well as ours.

Suddenly I was talking to a very important circle of Amazon people. (They had the passion, urgency, and secrecy that I imagine came with the Manhattan Project during WWII.) As is my defensive demeanor when pooh-poohing the push for an electronic book, I was light, goofy, and (I imagine) annoyingly cocky. They made me sign a legal promise of secrecy, and I was taken into a special room. Someone came in carrying a package with the importance you’d expect from a donated kidney at the last possible moment. And then it was revealed to me: Amazon’s secret weapon…the Kindle. It sank in — this was a big deal.

It was turned on. And the moment I held it, so was I. It was a remarkable moment. I actually felt that I was holding the future. With its lambskin cover, it’s cuddly enough to take to bed. And thanks to its magically newsprint-like (rather than backlit) screen, my eyes saw it like a printed page of paper. I turned the page by touching a tab. (I can even imagine that in the future, “turning a page” will be an anachronism.) No larger than a single paperback, the Kindle can hold 200 books. With its Wi-Fi, you can program it to automatically download whatever newspaper, magazine, or blog you subscribe to. And, of course, you can buy books from Amazon for $9.99 with same ease and speed that we buy songs from iTunes for $0.99. My first thought was, “Amazon deserves to make a lot of money off of this.”

The skeptic became an evangelist…but I couldn’t tell anyone. Now I can. I’m generally the last to embrace something trendy, but I get to be a “beta user” of the Kindle. “Digital paper” will never be paper. But I think I can now actually look forward to the demise of the paper book and newspaper.

My publisher has created an electronic prototype (a combo-guidebook to London and Paris) as an experiment with Amazon to sell an electronic guidebook. It wouldn’t surprise me if printed guidebooks will follow music CDs out of our lives in the next generation.