Meeting Rick Steves


A few weeks ago I made fun of someone for using a Rick Steves guidebook. Actually, that is putting it lightly. I ganged up with another friend of mine and we raked the poor fan over like a third grader gets teased for no good reason except some bullies thought her fat. Why did we do that? I for one thought he was too young to be using Rick Steves over Lonely Planet, Moon, Footprint, or Time Out. Where would I get that idea? My 80-year-old grandmother loves Rick Steves. She watches his shows on PBS, and buys all the products PBS sells.

My first exposure to Rick Steves was watching one of these shows with her and it was only a few years ago. The show seemed a little corny, as most travel shows can, and from then on I viewed him as the grown-up’s travel guide. And when I say grown up, I mean middle aged, or older. So this is what we told our new friend. He proved our point by telling us his dad bought him the book.
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My second exposure to Rick Steves was this weekend at the New York Times Travel Show. His books took up half the allotted space of the Avalon table and he had the longest line of any of the authors signing at the show. When I took a picture of this signing, I was immediately struck by how much younger he looked than he did on TV. I didn’t get to see his seminar on European Travel in 2005 but it was clear that of the whole Longitude booth which included travel books from publishers like Fodors, Rough Guides, DK, Frommers, Bradt, and travel lit from Travelers’ Tales, Seal Press, Interlink, and authors Tony Perrottet, and Peter Greenberg, Rick Steves was far and a way the king. Every time I walked over to the Avalon table and saw his stacks, all I could think of was that he had built an empire. And I continued to refer to those big blue stacks of books as the empire for the rest of the show. To boot, until this weekend I had no idea that in addition to his books and PBS shows, his company runs guided tours through Europe with the entire business bringing in more than 20 million dollars in revenue each year.

Saturday afternoon my new friend at Avalon asked us to join them for dinner. Rick was there, Joshua Berman the Belize author for Moon, and three folks from Kiva designs who were at the show launching Rick’s new travel gear line. During dessert he moved to the seat next to mine so we could talk. We talked about his 18-year-old son who will soon be on his way to Europe for his first solo trip. You should’ve seen how excited he was. Not jump up and down excited like I get, but happy for this coming of age time in his son’s life. As Rick was telling me about his son and how he’ll be writing about his trip through their website, I took an inner step back. Rick, no matter what the demographics were for those who were buying his books, loved travel. And that kind of energy is contagious. I stood corrected and marveled at how genuine he was. The man who attracts hundreds to an author reading, needed no star attention at an intimate dinner of 9 with his publishers and business colleagues. He was engaged in the conversations around him, and attentive. There was so much humanity behind the name, the shows—the empire.

In Michael Shapiro’s interview with Rick Steves in A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Discuss Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration., Rick said this about his marketing efforts.

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Michael: You’ve done a brilliant job marketing yourself. On my way up here I saw a flier for a weekend of free workshops. So the workshops draw people who buy the guidebooks, viewers see the TV shows then buy your famous carry-on bag or sign up for a tour.

Rick: Nothing would succeed on its own. If I didn’t do tours, my TV shows wouldn’t be as good. If I didn’t do TV shows the books wouldn’t sell as well. If I didn’t do the guidebooks I couldn’t research the TV shows — everything helps everything else so everything can be a better value to the consumers and we can still be profitable, which is really quite amazing. My tour guides are the best paid in Europe — I’m the second biggest fundraiser for PBS. When public broadcasting makes money, they are part of the family. When my publisher makes money, it’s part of the family.”

It’s safe to say that I won’t be teasing anyone else for using his guidebooks. And yes, I’m going to call my grandmother and tell her I shared a banana tart with her fave PBSer. But I will also take from this a lesson in humility and remember how impressed I was that a man of his success remained gracious in the limelight. He sat, ate, and conversed with us as equals, not at the head of the table, or commanding attention. He talked as a family man and a traveler, just like most of the rest of us.

So, we can all see that there’s more to name-building than just bigger and better bylines. Remember that as you build your name. I know I will.