Natural born travel guide

Paul Nolan

His father Rick taught a generation of public television viewers how to take in Europe. Now, Andy Steves, 29, has a successful tour guide business targeted to millennials and a new guidebook of his own. We talked about the incomparable value of travel and how his generation likes to go about it.

SMM: You obviously grew up in a travel-oriented family, but what was the genesis of your company Weekend Student Adventures?

Steves: I got the idea for a tour company for students in Europe during my semester in Rome [during his junior year at Notre Dame] because it naturally fell to me to organize all of my friends’ weekend travel. At beginning, it was five students coming with me to, say, Carnival in Venice. At the end of the semester, it was 30 students tagging along each weekend wherever I was going. That’s when the opportunity slapped me in the face. I couldn’t ignore it. I’m good at this. It’s basically what I was born to do, and I enjoy it.

So I went back to Notre Dame to finish my degrees [industrial design and Italian language and literature], and was working on this concept on the side. Notre Dame has a business plan competition that I entered. I got to the semifinals my senior year and actually came away in first place in my super senior year – my fifth year. When you come away with the blessing of all of these entrepreneurial judges, I knew I had to give it a shot. I hadn’t studied any business at all, but I have the experience and the opportunity. I’ve lived the need and I thought I could do something with it. I half expected it to crash and burn in a year or two, but it has actually worked. Now I’m trying to figure out what the next step is.

SMM: Your business and now your new guidebook, “Andy Steves’ Europe: City-Hopping on a Budget,” are geared toward millennials. Are there unique aspects of how millennials travel and what they’re looking for?

Steves: If we’re talking about millennials and their travel style, one thing you have to keep in mind is the addiction to the smart phone in their pocket. On the one hand, it’s an excellent tool that can share insights, maximize your time, point out interesting restaurants or sites you wouldn’t know existed. But at the same time, it may present a barrier you have trouble getting past if all they are doing is Instagram and Snapchatting during their time in London or Dublin. It’s really easy to get stuck behind these screens, and that can present a barrier between you and the culture you are there to engage with. That’s spreading to all ages, I believe. We always try to put our customers in places that don’t prohibit them from getting online, but that provide a more exciting alternative socially and experientially.

SMM: Incentive industry research shows that independent incentive travel has become increasingly popular versus group travel. The conventional wisdom is that millennials prefer traveling independently over traveling with groups. What do you feel are the pros and cons of traveling as a group versus independent travel?

Steves: There’s no question the younger demographic really appreciates and values independence. They want to things on their own time, they want to go to their own destination and they want to do their own thing. If a vacation is a reward, they don’t necessarily want to be told what to do or to meet up with a group during those four or five days. On the other hand, if you’re traveling with a group, you have the efficiency of splitting the cost of a guide between all tour members. You can make reservations so a group can skip the line into, say the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and save an hour. As long as the group isn’t too big, you really benefit from efficiency, and if you have a great guide helping you experience the local culture, that can make a difference as well.

SMM: We’re also told that millennials value experiences over stuff. That may cut across generations, but speak to that mindset.

Steves: A lot of people are just dying to get the next iPhone, obviously, but there is that transition where people really appreciate experiences, whether it’s a food tour in their hometown or spending their money on interesting vacations. Bringing it back to technology, there is this interesting sharing of experiences. People take pictures of their dinner and nobody thinks twice about it now.

SMM: A traditional incentive travel trip is going to a resort destination and staying put. Seeing Europe is about taking in as much as possible within reason. How realistic is it to bounce around with a group?

Steves: I always encourage people to stay put as much as possible If you’re going to see eight cities in 10 days, you’re moving eight times and you’re going to end it just having scratched the surface of all of the different places, and without actually being able to engage with the culture. I encourage people to spend at least three days in a city and don’t count a travel day as a day in the city.

SMM: How do you divide your time between Europe and the U.S.?

Steves: Since 2010, I’ve spent six to eight months in Europe every year. Prague has become my home base in Europe. I love the city. It’s affordable, central and well-connected. I used to lead the tours myself, but found local guides who can really take ownership of the tours and the itinerary for me. I’ve found that to be really valuable. I put a lot of faith in them. Once I get them up to speed on American expectations about customer service, I really hand over the reins. If they have an idea for a tweak to the itinerary, I’m open to that. I am transitioning back to spending more time in [his hometown] Seattle because I really love that city.

SMM: Aside from Prague, are there some hidden European gems that you can share?

Steves: I love Budapest. The city and the people there are so interesting. It has some serious history. It’s a very active place. In Budapest city center, practically, you can go on a caving expedition. You can go into thermal hot spring baths. You can run around a beautiful island that is a mile or two long. There is some amazing nightlife there as well. Krakow is great as well. Americans tend to associate Auschwitz with Krakow as if that’s the only thing it offers. Auschwitz is a town that is two hours away from Krakow. Krakow is Poland’s student city. In a city of 1 million people, you have 200,000 college students, so the old medieval town is really geared toward the hipster set.

There is always a new side to the classic destinations as well. There is always a new lens through which you can look at a city like London. That’s what I try to do myself when I go to a city I have been to a million times before. I might try to put myself into a historical mindset or a musical mindset. For example, London, this weekend, has the Notting Hill Carnival Festival, a celebration of Caribbean culture. I’m excited to check that out and take in that scene. Americans tend to distill down all of these European cities to the cliché tourist sights. If they’ve been to those tourist sites, they check that city off the list. If there is a way to re-portray that city, especially if there are cool events or exciting things happening, that’s something I’m always keen on discovering.

SMM: Because you target your business to students and younger people, you focus a lot on traveling on a budget. Can that work in a traveler’s favor because it makes one be more creative?

Steves: My dad has always said the more you spend, the more it insulates you from the experiences you are there to have. You can stay in a five-star hotel and go to fancy restaurants, but look around and you’ll see businessmen and tourists. Whereas, if you go down the street and find some street food, or if you stay in a hostel and meet other international travelers, I think that’s what international travel is really all about.