If you’ve ever been browsing PBS during random afternoon hours or late at night, you might have come across an awkward khaki-pantsed northwesterner with a Minnesotan accent stumbling through basic phrases in Finnish whilst trying to buy a herring in Helsinki. This man is Rick Steves. His program is Rick Steves’ Europe, and to the elation of millions, it is now on Hulu.
This may sound like paltry news to some, but I take it as a sign of a fascinating monopoly on a very large tourism industry. Or at the very least, a sign of Rick Steves’ rapid rise to geek-chic popularity.
Rick Steves’ Europe is a travel program centered on a philosophy of traveling “through the back door.” Steves has traveled to Europe and beyond for 30 years, providing readers and audiences with something other than large tour groups, stuff-your-face cruises, and the out-of-reach extravagancies that you usually find on the nostalgically opulent Travel Channel.
Steves’ philosophy is that “globe-trotting destroys ethnocentricity,” and he makes no bones about it: his efforts in educating you as a traveler are intended not only to give you a better travel experience, but also to build a better reputation for the U.S. in the minds of the rest of the world.
It is this philosophy that has popularized Rick Steves – not his glitzy production value (there isn’t any), nor his jaw-dropping excursions (he’s never been on one), and definitely not his fashionable appearance (he wears the same thing for his entire trip: khaki pants and a button-up short sleeve shirt, usually with a very plain backpack slung over one shoulder).
No, Rick Steves has built an empire on being awkward. Or rather, he has built an empire on being okay with being awkward, especially in foreign countries.
Why is all of this important? Because his guidebooks often sell out to preorders before making it to the shelves. His is by far the best-selling travel guidebook in America.
This is saying something. A few years ago, it seemed like the best options for traversing Europe were to a) backpack it, staying in grimy hostiles, showing up in places where you had little idea of how to see the sites, or b) join a massive tour group.
For those wanting to take a European vacation that was thrifty and adventurous, yet broadened your cultural horizons, there were few books or television shows that could show you the way.
If you purchased your standard travel guide, it came along with a healthy speculation of what was being recommended, always making you wonder if someone was getting a kickback at your expense. But Steves’ has eliminated this concern. He has no endorsements, and he declines the extravagant event invitations offered to him by tourism boards. He is interested in traveling as most people must travel: on a strict budget. As he states in his philosophy:
“In many ways, spending more money only builds a thicker wall between you and what you came to see. Europe is a cultural carnival, and, time after time, you’ll find that its best acts are free and the best seats are the cheap ones.
A tight budget forces you to travel close to the ground, meeting and communicating with the people, not relying on service with a purchased smile… Simply enjoy the local-style alternatives to expensive hotels and restaurants.”
Steves encourages lodging with the grandma who happens to have a spare room and plenty of fresh scones as opposed to the lavish hotel with a bellboy who is eager for his tip. And he tells you where that grandma lives and gives you her phone number.
Instead of leaving you to pay for guided tours that might inevitably end in various gift shops, Rick Steves provides informational tours for you via downloadable MP3s. In Rome, for example, he has designed a “night walk” that includes large amounts of history and the best gelato places in town.
Steves has written an excellent book called Europe 101: History and Art for the Traveler to give you a wider perspective before diving into the overwhelming amount of history you can encounter in Europe.
He emphasizes the art of picnicking in France to save money, and lets you know the name of the bartender at a hidden pub/bicycle shop in Ireland.
As evidenced by a number of awkward exchanges on his TV show, all of this comes at Rick’s expense, as he puts himself out there. He knows that to reap to biggest benefits from traveling, you must “become a temporary local,” and that often means going outside your comfort zone. But he emphasizes doing this with a polite yet curious attitude, not a snooping loud one.
What is remarkable is that Rick knows one language: English. After 30 years of traveling around Europe, he has made a point of learning how to creatively communicate with locals for the sake of his audience.
So, what does all of Steves’ awkward fame mean? It seems backward to equate a lack of coolness to a better cultural perspective, but then again, that might not be so far off the mark. Steves is transforming what it means to have a good vacation. He values cultural engagement more than comfortable hotels. He values history and education more than making the funniest face next to the Buckingham Palace Guard. He makes the Ugly American a nerd.
Steves’ philosophy is restoring a spirit of courtesy and politeness to what has become the image of American tourists: generally, a bully. He humanizes that which is foreign through a willingness to be uncomfortable. He’s endlessly curious about what shaped him, about his cultural roots.
What he has done with his books and programs is taken these values, very wisely assumed that they mattered to millions of other Americans, and monopolized a portion of the travel industry through the application of this very hopeful philosophy.
His approach intelligently upholds a respect for the truest desire of his audience: to understand themselves and others more fully by traveling. He has created a wiser consumer by assuming that his audience values being culturally savvy. In my mind, that makes good business sense.
Steves’ competitors are surely taking notice of his uncomfortable savoir-faire. Let’s see if the rest of the travel industry is willing to get a little awkward along with him.