Andy Steves - Author InterviewLearn more about the author
Andy found his inspiration to travel through frequent traveling with his father during his childhood. Falling in love with Europe at a young age, he has traveled throughout the continent extensively. After a study abroad trip in Rome in 2008, Andy began developing what is now one of the top student tour businesses in Europe called Weekend Student Adventures. He has become an expert in planning weekend travel throughout Europe.
“Traveling is something that has a special power to bring people from around the world together. Travel is something that advances mutual respect and understanding.”
Who is Andrew Steves?
I'm a Seattle-area native, proud Fighting Irish Notre Dame alum, competitive cyclist, avid sailor, and Chief Backpacker at WSA Europe!
Growing up as the son of travel guru Rick Steves provided you with incredible travel opportunities at a very young age. Do you share all your father’s travel philosophies?
Traveling is something that has a special power to bring people from around the world together. Travel is something that advances mutual respect and understanding. It opens our eyes to the beautiful world around us, and breaks down prejudices and stereotypes of the unfamiliar. It makes us realize that there are always multiple sides to every issue and controversy, and these minority views are not always portrayed fully by the media. Travel helps us question our "norm" and lets us compare that to what we observe during our travels. In this day and age when the world is getting ever-smaller, and many see the pendulum swinging in a conservative, protectionist direction and when violence and war isn't a last resort anymore between nations, I think travel is one of the only remedies to combat this trend from the grassroots level up. In these senses, I think my father and I agree in the real importance for everyone to have a passport and travel. I think it's one of the most patriotic things you can do.
Together with your best friend from high school, you visited cities from Amsterdam to Paris, from Madrid to Florence. Did this trip help you recognize a need for something like Weekend Adventures?
On our graduation trip, we did the classic "backpacker circuit" geared up with a Eurail pass, a budget, and excitement to experience Europe for the first time independently. But we really didn't interact much with study abroad students, and I wasn't exposed yet at that point to the unique style of travel while studying abroad.
You worked as a tour guide for “Europe Through the Back Door.” How was that experience?
I loved it--it was the best summer job I could've asked for. I worked as an assistant tour guide, and many of the logistical responsibilities fell to me like confirming hotel reservations, picking up metro tickets, running ahead to set up dinner etc. It really taught me all the things that go on behind the scenes in tour operations, which make everything go smoothly. And when things go smoothly, it's a much better tour. I was also fortunate to train under a number of wonderful guides, and I really picked up a ton from them.
You founded Weekend Student Adventures to give a “unique opportunity for students to fully immerse in the cities they visit by experiencing cultures as a local, rather than merely observing them.” What sets WSA apart from other organizations of its kind?
While there are other student tour companies out there, none share our same mission of connecting students with locals and the new worlds of opportunities that opens up for our customers. Anybody can go to these cities and snap pictures of the Colosseum or Eiffel Tower. It's much harder to experience the living culture that really brings each of our cities to life--and I think this is reflected in the reviews we get at WSA Europe. Amsterdam is so much more than the weed and the iAmsterdam sign; Rome is so much more than the Colosseum and pizza; Berlin is so much more than Checkpoint Charlie. We skip the line into each of the cliche touristy sights that I know people gotta see on their first time in town. This lets me build in a ton of value, but also a lot of exciting experiences in the free time we save skipping those lines, like going caving underneath Budapest, getting a diamond-cutting demonstration in Amsterdam, hanging in the student districts of Rome, etc. This unique approach is what makes us different, and I think it's what students appreciate most about WSA.
What was your inspiration for establishing WSA? How has your dad, Rick Steves, influenced your decisions?
It wasn't until I was a study abroad student myself that I realized there was a need for weekend trips for abroad students. At first, I was organizing trips for close friends on the side. The planning always fell to me because I knew how to get around and tended to know people in the places we were going. Before long "Andy's trips" became so popular that other students and random acquaintances were asking to come along just because they heard they could see more and spend less when traveling with me. When I was juggling reservations for 30+ students each weekend--and the responsibilities that came with this trip planning--on top of studies and other activities, that's when I realized there was a serious need for the expertise that I had.
And my dad always raised me from the get go on how to travel well and independently. So, while I've enjoyed the challenge of getting WSA off the ground on my own, I really couldn't have done it without my background of traveling with my dad and family each year growing up.
Aside from the satisfaction of traveling to a new place and learning about a different culture, what do you hope participants of WSA will learn most from their visits abroad?
Providing stellar pre-trip, in-destination, and post-trip service and safety is something we take a lot of pride in. Beyond that, however, I think we can only be considered successful if we really shake up our students' worldly perspective; if we help them see their visits to these new cities as case studies for them to observe, note the differences they experience, and learn from them. When my guides and I do this well, we get into that deeper, more redeeming kind of travel: helping students see themselves as a small part of a very big planet populated by equally important and valuable people. On each WSA weekend, I hope we pass on the travel bug and give students that insatiable curiosity to keep on traveling, keep on meeting new and interesting people, and keep on learning about and appreciating foreign cultures. I think it's then that we turn a "good" semester, into a life-changing, unforgettable, "amazing" one.
What is a typical day like in the life of a Chief Backpacker of WSA? How do you motivate your team?
There is no typical day really for me. A routine sounds nice, but I don't remember the last time I had one! At the start of each semester I run around like crazy to give smart travel talks to students as they kick off their semester abroad. I've found that's the perfect time to help students get off on the right foot over here in Europe. I also get the chance to mention our great lineup of trips. Once I wrap up my talks--about 30 in 12 cities over 35 days or so--that's when the tour ops start. So I'll be in very close touch with each of my guides to confirm all the reservations for hostels, sightseeing, restaurants, and other activities specific to the destination. And that my personal schedule revolves around the destinations in which I'm leading tours. I'll usually get in on a Monday, then prep and set up the tour over the following days in time to kick off our weekend Thursday evening. And then I'll be leading the tour from Thursday evening through Sunday. Then it's on to the next place!
When it comes to motivating my team, I've been fortunate to find self-motivated individuals. Great tour guides are different from normal ones when they have a passion about the subject and stories they're sharing with visitors. I've been sure to focus on finding great guides in each of our cities. Til then, I lead the tours myself.
What do you tell would-be participants of your programs who have hesitations about traveling abroad?
It's too easy for me to just say "do it, you'll love it!" When it comes to violent crime and safety, Europe is head and shoulders above the US. Gun violence in Europe is a mere fraction of what you see back in the States. For those who haven't ever traveled out of the country, and who are hesitant about traveling for the first time, I'd recommend planning a trip to a more Western-friendly destination like Ireland or England. Those are great countries that provide a bit of a stepping stone to more extreme destinations. And there'll be opportunities to push your comfort zone a little even in these relatively "PG" destinations.
In your article “How to Plan an Unforgettable Weekend in Paris,” you shared fun activities and places to visit while in Paris on a weekend. What is one place in Paris that every student should visit?
The Sacre Cour church up on the Montmartre hill is one of my favorite in the world. It's made from a beautiful, self-cleaning white stone and you can see it gleaming from across the city. Built more recently than the old gothic cathedrals found throughout town, it has a more modern, lively feel to it, and the mosaics inside are stunning. It's also located in one of my favorite neighborhoods in town, so check out the church, and bring some picnic supplies to enjoy on the steps and explore the surroundings afterwards. That would make for a great afternoon and evening.
Check out Andy's recommendations for more insider tips for cities across Europe!
Managing excursions for hundreds of study abroad students to smaller destinations can overwhelm the local community, how do you provide a quality travel experience for your students and maintain cultural sustainability?
I definitely agree that hoards of tourists can overwhelm small towns. But as WSA focuses on larger cities, they're already inundated with hundreds of thousands if not millions of tourists yearly. And there are much more powerful forces at play which manage and provide the framework and infrastructure to handle such heavy volume. That being said, I think our sensitivity to and passion about cultural experiences is quite clear on the website which helps our travelers self-select themselves. Our low-to-the-ground, budget-oriented, and active traveling style isn't for everyone, and the transparency for our style of travel helps our students self-select and decide on their own if it's a fit for them. And as a result, we get amazing students who are excited to broaden their horizons with us, and they tend to tread much more lightly when it comes to those cultural experiences where others might trample. We don't want grumps on tour anyways! :)
What is the next big thing for Andy Steves? What is your next travel destination?
Over the summer, we updated our home page actually to make available certain parts and segments of our tours to be relevant and available to all travelers, not just students. We just launched "WSA Detours" which are designed for students and backpackers who love our itineraries, but prefer to travel independently. So, we're offering key sightseeing, a recommended itinerary, and discounts at our favorite venues packaged up in a 3-day experience bookable 365 days a year. I think this will help us offer great value to customers who otherwise wouldn't be in the market to travel with WSA. Beyond that though, I think this Fall '13 semester is going to be our biggest yet! We've got everything going for us: great word of mouth, incredible local guides, a hot destination line up, a great marketing, and social media team. Now we just gotta fill those seats!