Sunday, March 10, 2013

My morning with Rick Steves

Today I went to the Washington Convention Center for their annual Travel and Adventure show. Thanks to Amazonlocal I was able to buy two tickets for $9 total($4.50/person) rather than the $15 fee at the door. I've gone two years in a row to get ideas about travel, free swag and to hear from their guest speakers. Last year, I saw and met Samantha Brown from the Travel Channel. She the perky blonde 30-something woman who hosts her own shows, where she stays at fine hotels and showcasing more high-end attractions with superficial commentary. More like an early version of Katie Couric.

This year Rick Steves was the guest note speaker. Again for the uninitiated, Rick Steves has a popular travel show on PBS(he's the nerdy-looking guy with glasses who says "Keep on Traveling!" and writes guidebooks that are carried by Americans all through Europe). Many seasoned travels scoff at his books and shows and while his books are not as detailed as the Eyewitness series or even Lonely Planet, he fills a niche for the first time traveler to Europe. I have own qualms about some of the items in his book but admit he has helped many people to get over their fright and plan a trip to Europe.

So back to the convention center, my father and I were on the Metro got our tickets and were in line a half hour before the event began. The guards said that the show had broken an all-time attendance record yesterday, which would become a recurring theme. So once the place opened up, all of us trampled down to the big stage where the travel speakers would appear. We nabbed front row seats and since we still had a half-hour to go, each explored the rest of the booths while the other held the seats. Rick came out on stage a few times to adjust his mic with the sound crew. The couple next to me were huge Rick Steves fans and the man told him his shoelaces were untied. WTF? Steves looks down at his shows and both were tied perfectly. Okaaaay. I will say that he was jovial, friendly and joked with the people in the front row beforehand. So after introduction from the chairman of the travel show company and plugs for all the sponsors, the man himself comes up and starts to talk about Europe through the back door. First impressions: he looks much like he does on TV, albeit with grayer hair and a bit of a stomach paunch. As for his goofy enthusiasm, it might be all show but he seems as open and unaffected as he does on his shows, certainly not like the founder of a million-dollar travel empire. While I don't like most of his hotel and food suggestions in his book, I do like his philosophy of traveling like a local. His overlying theme is don't be afraid to get off the beaten path and go where the locals go. Go to a farmers market and buy a few items and don't be intimidated by brusque sellers. You are there for the experience-Something I need to work on myself. Also travel smart-know when to travel, times and days that attractions are closed and any discounts available.

Really quite basic informations, though sadly he only had an hour and a half to speak on a 3 hour lecture. The Rick-nicks beside me seemed to be revival mode, nodding and agreeing with him at every turn. Of course, he did push his books and tours(even though he is mostly anti-tour) and the usual speech about how his tours are different and more intimate than others-the hard sell. He's on the road for 100 days a year and travels south of the Alps in the spring before returning home a month and then heading back to the countries south of the Alps. His travels this year include Israel, Palestine(West Bank) as well as Egypt so expect guidebooks to those countries soon.

After his brief talk, he went to the corner to sign autographs. This is where the scramble begins as instead of forming a line, he has us form a circle around him and he just keeps rotating signing book copies. Having borrowed a Rick Steves book from a friend, I thought it would be nice to repay them by getting the book signed. Unfortunately, it soon become a rugby match where people would push and shove to get up front. One woman in back of me actually demanded we move because she "had a book that Rick Steves HAS to sign and [her] husband was waiting outside". Thankfully no one let her through, though I did step aside for a little girl who told Rick she watched his shows on PBS. So cute and Rick actually personalized her book. Sadly being 40-ish and not so cute-I only got a signature.

My lasting impressions-he still has the love of travel and still loves to tell others how to travel light and well. His success comes from coming across like an average guy, someone you could have a beer with-to paraphrase a former president. However, that is also the price of fame as everyone comes up and calls him by his first name-like he's a long lost friend. It must drive him nuts sometimes but the money, travel experience and fame probably make up for that. Really isn't talking about traveling for a living a long held fantasy for many of us. So if Rick ever needs a guidebook writer, I hope he looks me up!