When you think of winter, you might imagine trees enveloped in velvety white snow, marshmallows slowly dissolving in molten hot chocolate, scarves wrapped twice around the neck in defiance of the wind, or the crackle of reds, yellows, and oranges in a just-what-I-needed fireplace.
Lately, when I think of winter, I picture immense convention center halls, labyrinthed ever-so-neatly with countless vendor booths, peppered with performance stages, rock climbing walls and scuba tanks, and jam-packed with people who want to know where to go on their next vacation. I’m talking about travel shows, and during the winter, I (along with Rick Steves and two other amazing people from Europe Through the Back Door/Rick Steves’ Europe) go to various cities to work these travel shows (Travel & Adventure Show, L.A. Times Travel Show, N.Y. Times Travel Show) at the Rick Steves’ Europe booth, letting people know about our tour program. And I love it!
This is isn’t a pitch for tours–I promise. But, especially for those who have never been to a travel show, this is a glimpse into what it’s like to be there.
Because Rick is the big draw, celebrity speaker at these events, we have a high percentage of passers-by at the booth who are PBS viewers. They all know Rick intimately from his TV show (you can watch all his shows free, anytime at Hulu.com), but more often than not, they have no idea that he does so much more. Non-Rick aficionados are eager to learn about him, too. It’s fun to get people up-to-date on our tour program, Rick’s radio program (Travel with Rick Steves), his guide books, his Facebook page, his syndicated newspaper column, his political activism and advocacy, and his iPhone/Android app (Rick Steves’ Audio Europe).
While our goal is to talk up our tours, we invariably find ourselves also teaching hopeful European travelers about cell phone usage, our favorite European restaurants, transportation options, independent travel itineraries, and how to pack smartly. This is what I love the most about these travel shows. We get to engage with fascinating people who are eager to expand their world, to venture off to new-to-them and distant lands, and to experience other cultures as travelers, not as tourists. Don’t get me wrong. From seasoned travelers to those who have yet to venture beyond their home state, we hear the whole gamut of questions–from the profound to the sub-basic. But what every one of these people has in common is their burning yearning to travel. I’m just as excited as they are about their upcoming plans because I know that travel can empower and fulfill them in ways like nothing else can.
The shows generally start at 10 a.m. and go until 5 p.m. Rick usually gives two talks that run about two hours each–one on travel skills, the other on Italy or Travel as a Political Act. (You can watch his travel lectures for free on YouTube). In the fifteen minutes before he starts a talk until about a half an hour before it ends, we get a slight breather at the booth. This is when nearly a thousand people (sometimes more) vacate the vendor area to flock to his talk and learn all they can. But as soon as he mentions the free tour catalog, free DVDs, and free newsletter that we have at the booth, the mad rush begins. It can get pretty grueling, but it’s also very cool to see how excited people are–not just about getting free stuff but about the anticipation of learning more about Europe.
When I get a chance, I like to walk around the convention. Certain vendors are steadily busy: AAA, Yosemite, Disneyworld, Hawaii, and the Turkish Culture & Tourism Office. Some booths rarely have visitors, like Myanmar, Sports Basement (huh?), or Sheboygan Tourism. Many vendors try to tempt potential customers with free pens, candy, reusable grocery bags, or buttons. Some go for the hard sell. Others seem to make no effort at all. You could spend all day (and some people do) wandering up and down the corn rows of vendors, letting your travel dreams meander to natural parks, exotic cities, majestic cruise ships, relaxing spa resorts, and places you’ve never even heard of.
But wait! There’s more! In addition to the myriad stalls, there are aromatic dishes that permeate the air near the culinary stage, tribal drums thump their rumbling beats for the grass-skirted dancers at the cultural performance stage, legs dangle twenty-five feet above the ground as thrill-seekers zoom along a zip line, and a Segway course makes even the most clumsy of us feel graceful.
Rick Steves and Steve Smith show off their Segway skills at the Travel & Adventure Show.
And don’t forget to hone your travel skills at the seminars. You can find out great insider travel tips from Johnny Jet. Or why not learn from a whole slew of other experts about travel photography, the right travel apps to use, traveling with kids, or volunteer vacations? You can also hear about the personal experiences and travel lessons learned the hard way from the likes of Arthur Frommer, Samantha Brown, and Andrew McCarthy. To me it’s comforting to realize that travel specialists like these didn’t start off as experts, that they make rookie mistakes like all of us, and that their love of travel continues to grow, no matter how long they’ve been on the road.
Now I may be biased, but I do love Rick’s talks the best. I learn something new every time, and I think the throngs of people who come to hear his talks glean so much more than the “hottest tips.” He communicates his travel philosophy so effectively and charmingly with humor and truth. He wants people to broaden their perspectives by connecting with other cultures, to see that there are not necessarily right or wrong ways but other ways of doing things, and to share what they’ve learned when they get back home. It seems like such an obvious and healthy attitude towards travel, but you’d be amazed at how expert people can be at being miserable when they travel because “it’s not like home.” One of my favorite Rick quotes is, “Fear is for people who don’t get out much.” And perhaps that’s truer than we realize.
Which is all the more reason to love these travel shows. They offer those who are eager to get beyond their personal frontiers a chance to nourish their hunger for travel with good resources that can prepare anyone for travels of a lifetime. But you have to remember that tourism is not necessarily “good travel”, and you need to equip yourself with the right kind of resources and inspiration to make your traveling worthwhile.
There can be a lot of crass commercialism in the tourism industry, and it can invade Travel Shows just as easily as anywhere else. But if you challenge yourself to be a smart traveler–even when you’re traveling to a convention about travel–you can choose to shape your itinerary to create the richest, most rewarding, most educational, and most enlightening memories. Filter out the tourist traps, avoid the scams, and be selective. Give yourself credit for being savvy and smart. Feed your hunger for travel with options that give you the most fulfilling experience. And ask yourself: Do you want to be a traveler…or a tourist? If you want to be a traveler, do your research. Make well-informed plans but be flexible. Go with an expectation of learning something new and exciting, and then…travel like you mean it.