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

Cold in Kyoto

Once upon a time, I was in Japan staying at a Kyoto ryokan in January. It was so c-c-c-cold I could see my breath. There was no central heating (as is often the case there). In the middle of the night, I needed to go down the hall to the toilet. I put on my kimono, which was about the size of a lady’s medium. It was comically tight. I slipped into my hallway slippers with the heels hanging over the edge. Dark and very cold. I shuffled on creaky floorboards down the hall and past balsa-wood-like walls. I didn’t want to wake anyone. It was really cold. When I reached the bathroom, I slipped out of hallway slippers and into the awaiting bathroom slippers. Just as small. Dreading the frigid toilet seat, I jockeyed my big body into position. I could still see my breath. Sat down gingerly. The toilet seat…was heated. I love the way different cultures can surprise us…whether in Europe or beyond. I’m heading off to Greece and Turkey tomorrow…anticipating lots of fun and, I hope, a few hot toilet seats. Anne and I will actually be on vacation (but I’m sneaking along my laptop). (By the way, I’ve enjoyed writing this blog far more than I imagined. I enjoy the community of travelers that is part of our conversation. I’m thankful we’re not all in agreement on things that I write about here. I try not to get involved in the back and forth, but I need to respond to some people on the last entry. Before you say that I favor children smoking pot, take a moment to understand my position, and the thinking behind it. When I try to inject European-style pragmatism into an issue we find controversial in our country, I do my best to share my thinking on my website. Simply go to the Social Activism corner and snoop around.)

Travel Guru Cultivates Winkerbean Look

A priest professor at El Salvador’s prestigious University of Central America once told me “when I hear the word democracy, my bowels move.” They drink sangria in Spain. Ireland is the Emerald Isle because it rains a lot. The people there are friendly. Foie gras, while outlawed in Chicago, is the primary reason so many Brits travel to the Dordogne in France. For a travel writer, can you imagine which ideas are most challenging and rewarding to share? When I travel, I’m hungry for experiences and lessons that challenge us…that confront us. This politicizes my writing. It makes it much more fun for me. And, lately, it’s getting me more media exposure than ever. I’m giving a talk tonight at Seattle’s Town Hall called “Travel as a Political Act.” I’ve had several TV, radio and newspaper interviews leading up to this event. Yesterday, the Seattle Times ran a feature story on me with Mark Rahner. Mark wrote that “Travel as a Political Act” may sound about as bourgeois as Yachting for Peace. It was a fun-loving, Colbert-esque interview which caught me by surprise time after time. He pointed out that I’ve cultivated a trademark Winkerbean look…which somehow led to discussing famous rock stars hanging babies out windows in Berlin. With questions like “When you bring up ‘travel as a political act,’ won’t you be talking exclusively to prospective shoe-bombers,” I had no choice but to get into uncharted waters. Read Mark’s interview here: Travel Guru Speaks his Mind on Foreign Policy

Two-Bit Celebrities Like Each Other

Regardless of my “celebrity,” I love it when other well-known people who I enjoy or respect travel and use my books. Bette Midler came to town recently. She has no idea who I am. But her trumpeter (the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy) is an absolute fan…he just loves my books. He contacted my office and gave me tickets to see Bette’s show. It was great. Afterwards, backstage, I joined the groupies waiting to say hi to “the Divine Miss M” and this groupie had a groupie of his own to chat with while he waited. Fun. My publisher was just bought out by a bigger publisher. In a typical consolidation thing, everyone was nervous. Thankfully, our new, bigger, parent publisher really likes our line of books. In fact, just last week I received a call from the CEO, who used my book in Ireland with his family and had an absolute blast. That made my day. When I go to political gatherings here in Washington State, it’s so strange to jockey myself up to Maria Cantwell or Patty Murray with health care, civil liberties, or FCC concerns on my mind — and end up talking my shop (Europe) rather than theirs. At a dinner before the last election, my congressman, Jay Inslee, invited me to a dinner he threw for then-Ohio state congressman Ted Strickland, who was running for the governorship of Ohio. Jay sat me next to Ted…so we could talk travel. While Ted won, and is currently the popular governor of Ohio, he still travels through the Back Door. My wife just got back from a Garrison Keillor cruise through Norway’s fjords. Anne, my biggest fan, got me on the cell phone with Garrison (who didn’t know my books). But Garrison’s PHC sidekick, the talented Tim Russell, couldn’t stop talking with Anne about the fun he’d had traveling “through the back door.” It’s funny to me how “celebrities” are so busy being celebrities that we are routinely oblivious to what other “celebrities” are up to. Thank goodness for the Annes, sidekicks and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boys to clue us in on what’s going on out there!

The Oracle of Delphi and the Wisdom of Single Supplements

I’ll be in Greece at the Oracle of Delphi next week. But today, in a sense, I was already there. My tour department managers and I had breakfast with a “tour organizer consultant.” Talking to him was the modern-day equivalent for a tour organizer of going to the Oracle of Delphi. Two thousand five hundred years ago, movers and shakers from throughout the ancient world went to Delphi to get advice from the Delphi priests. The priests weren’t in cahoots with the gods. They just interviewed everyone who came to them, thinking that they were. Because of that, the priests knew what the competition was up to (politically, militarily and so on) and could give divine-quality advice. Our consultant is like the Oracle of Delphi — he’s smart because everyone thinks he’s smart and brings their situation to him. As a result, he knows everyone’s situation and can give excellent advice to competing tour companies. He’s brilliant as a sounding board. We tell him our dreams of where we could or should be going as a tour company and he tells us how we can sell more tours. We consider his ideas and incorporate only those that don’t violate our vision of who we are as a tour company. Here’s a bit of what I learned between the omelet and the English muffin: We lose lots of people by not promising baggage handling. (We make people carry their own bags to their hotel rooms.) We advertise peak-season prices and discounted off-season prices. It would be smarter marketing to advertise the off-season prices and charge a supplement to go during popular times. Americans travelers want to pay extra for a single supplement. A “twin bed” in Europe is often single mattresses sharing the same frame…too cozy for many Americans. The huge new influx of Chinese and Indian tourists (there are 200,000 people in India with enough money to consider traveling in Europe and their tour organizers love to negotiate) is making hotel booking more difficult (and expensive) for American tour organizers. To get into the Vatican museum during the 90-minute, groups-only window (each morning from 8:30 to 10:00) you must fax your request exactly one month in advance (literally within a 20 minute window of when you want an appointment). Otherwise, you’ll wait with the masses for up to several hours in the general admission line. When competing with the bigger tour companies, we need to stress our undeniable strengths. We claim to have excellent guides…but every company can claim that. Examples of ways we have a distinct advantage are small groups (28 people max — versus the standard 40 to 50) and centrally located hotels (other moderately price tour companies are being driven far from the city center for hotels within their budget). Many midrange tour companies are using the term “deluxe” — so the real deluxe companies are no longer using the term. They just take out the superlatives and rely on their reputation. A key perceived value for top-end clients with a top-end tour organizer is the assumption that the bus will be filled with a more sophisticated crowd…not the low-end riffraff. The caliber of our clientele is golden. Print and Web promotions feed on each other. For instance, even Amazon.com (the king of Internet commerce) sends out a print catalog. We’ve had such a huge success with our “family-friendly” tours. How else can we grow? Rather than scraping the barrel for new destinations, we might do well to offer “free and easy” tours for more “mature” travelers. The fact is…many have traveled with us for a decade and would like to continue. But our pace is faster than they want. Grand Circle Tours grosses $700 million a year by catering to this market. Many of their customers would travel with us if we offered a less physically demanding tour. People of different generations get along better. Therefore, if contemplating a tour for older travelers, advertise young guides…not older, more empathetic guides. Cruise companies are more popular then ever — even on Europe’s rivers. The comparative cost to organizers is better, since hotel costs have skyrocketed. Tourists like the “one hotel” concept of not having to pack and change every day or two. A seven-day tour is no big deal from the East Coast. But from the West Coast of the US, a seven-day jaunt to Europe is too short. Oh well. Enough marketing. I need to tune into my own travel dreams. Next week Anne and I get a vacation together — we’re taking one of them Rick Steves Tours…to Greece. Can I go and just relax? We’ll see.

New TV Shows and Culture Shock in the Heartland

I’m sunburned — just home from an exciting football weekend in Indiana at Notre Dame, where our son (Andy, a junior there) proudly marched for his first game as part of the elite corps of scowling and intimidatingly tall “Irish Guard.” It was “praise the Lord and pass the football” for this Midwest ritual. (I find less culture shock between Europe and Seattle than between Seattle and South Bend.) With the disappointing score, the homily Sunday morning at Mass was appropriately on humility. Back in the office, the pressing order of business: Choose the theme for this season’s public television pledge special. (For simplicity, I like to say “PBS,” but that’s not really accurate. PBS is the biggest distributor of programming for public television, but my show is distributed by American Public Television — APT. So, I say public television.) In past years, I used to spend as much as 30 days visiting 30 different stations during the December and March pledge-drive seasons. Now I’m down to about 12 days in 12 cities, and rely on producing what’s called a “virtual pledge event” once or twice a year to help in the necessary fundraising. This is done in Portland at my “presenting station” (OPB). We do it live there, but we don’t ever say Portland or Oregon Public Broadcasting (to OPB’s disadvantage yet to the advantage of a hundred other stations who will run the show). I talk in general terms about “your public television station” and each station then puts its call letters and phone number on the screen. I love the efficiency of these “virtuals” — they free up time for me to make more TV shows in Europe while virtually “hosting” pledge events all over the country. Last year, I had my biggest single pledge break at WTTW in Chicago after running our “the making of” special that showed our film crew actually making the episode in Milano. I flew home realizing that this struck a chord with PTV viewers and potential supporters — seeing how small producers like us are scrambling to bring this programming to public television. For our next “virtual,” we plan to show this, then the actual Milan show, and round it out with a sneak preview of our new Burgundy show (shot two months ago, which I think is the best of our new series in the works). We’ve never shown an episode before the series as a whole debuted. But I’m excited to make this exception. The problem: What to call a special with no geographic focus. I brainstormed with my boss at OPB and we came up with a winner: “Rick Steves Insiders’ Europe.” While I’m thinking of TV, I need to start setting up the last six shows for our new series. We have seven shows shot and mostly produced in 2007. Six more shows will give us the standard 13 for our promised release date in October 2008. I suspect I’ll be really hot on Greece and Turkey after my next month’s trip there, so we’ll likely have shows on Athens with Delphi, the Peloponnese and Istanbul. That’ll be shot in the spring (fine weather, early enough to keep our editor busy back home) then we’ll need three more to shoot in summer — I’m thinking Copenhagen, Stockholm and Talinn/Estonia. But there is a world of options. Stay tuned. (And go Irish!)