Europe Through the Back Door Inc. History
P.O. Box 2009
Edmonds, Washington 98020
Telephone: (425) 771-8303
Fax: (425) 771-0833
Sales: $20 million (2003 est.)
NAIC: 561520 Tour Operators; 624190 Travel Aid Centers
Our mission at Europe Through the Back Door is to equip travelers with the confidence and skills necessary to travel through Europe independently, economically, and in a way that is culturally broadening. We value travel as a powerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live. We strive to keep our travel style, our world outlook, and our business practices consistent with these values. What we do--We teach do-it-yourself travel seminars--often for free; we research and write European guidebooks and produce a public television series; we sell European rail passes; we provide travel consulting and trip planning services; we organize and lead energetic tours throughout Europe; we sell travel bags, guidebooks, maps, videos and other traveler's supplies; we sponsor our Europe Through the Back Door Travel Center and web site; and we travel a lot.
- Rick Steves takes his first trip to Europe with his parents.
- Steves takes his first solo trip to Europe.
- Steves teaches his first travel class called "European Travel--Cheap!"
- Europe Through the Back Door (ETBD) is founded.
- Steves graduates with degrees in European history and business and opens a piano studio.
- Steves leads his first tour and self-publishes his first travel book.
- ETBD produces Travels in Europe, Series I; rick steves.com is relaunched.
- The company starts selling suitcases and other travel merchandise.
- ETBD's mailing list exceeds 50,000 for its newsletter.
- ETBD expands its Travel Center, and leads 130 tours annually; Rick Steves' Europe premieres.
- Rick Steves' Europe, Series I with 16 episodes is produced.
- Tour group numbers peak at 5,000 on 25 tours.
- The 14-episode Rick Steves' Europe, Series II is produced; the company leads 150 tours.
Europe Through the Back Door Inc. (ETBD) is a $20 million enterprise that offers assistance to independent travelers and leads more than 150 tours throughout the European continent annually. ETBD was founded in 1976 by Rick Steves, who is known to many through the public television travel series that he created. ETBD is located in Edmonds, Washington, where Steves grew up, and is committed to helping travelers through its diverse operations. The company's 60 employees teach travel seminars, research and write European guidebooks, produce a public television video series, and offer travel consulting and numerous bus tours. The company maintains a well-frequented web site where ETBD sells travel merchandise including European rail tickets and a host of travel accessories.
European Exposure: 1960s-70s
As a young teen in the late 1960s, Rick Steves reluctantly took his first journey to Europe with his parents. Steves' father and mother owned a small piano importing business and were traveling abroad to select pianos from the continent. Steves was apprehensive at first of travel abroad. The thought of encountering people who did not speak his language and exploring cultural differences were not a teenager's dream summer vacation. The trip went well, however, and opened Steves' eyes to a whole new world, one that eventually became his life's work.
Steves credits his time spent observing backpackers in Copenhagen, Denmark, with changing his mind about travel abroad. He explained his change of heart in a February 1996 interview in the Seattle Times, "I saw other kids with backpacks in the Copenhagen train station, as free as birds. I vowed to go back to Europe. And now I've gone every year since I was 18."
It was not long before Rick Steves began earning his own money and taking trips throughout Europe with his friends. In the 1970s college students were backpacking their way around the world and Steves and his friends counted themselves among them. A friend who accompanied Steves on his first trip without his parents recalled the trip as less of a back door and more of a gutter, but Steves' journeys improved over the years as he learned from his mistakes.
As a student and shortly after his graduation from university, Steves financed his way by teaching piano at a studio in his hometown of Edmonds. He headed to Europe on an annual basis, exploring and gathering information and travel skills that became known as his "back door travel philosophy." It was not long before he realized that his experience qualified him to teach others his offbeat travel tips. He fervently believed that it was information that others would be eager to buy.
Steves taught his first class in 1975 at the University of Washington's experimental college. The class was entitled Travel Europe: Cheap! It was well attended and confirmed for him that he was suited to teaching travel seminars, and that perhaps the travel industry had a niche that he could carve out.
In 1976, Steves founded his company and named it Europe Through the Back Door, in keeping with his particular way of seeing the world. The company began with Steves and a seasonal staff. The "Back Door" approach espoused by Steves was about seeing the authentic Europe and not a tourist's view of things. "Back Door" travel was characterized by visiting towns off the traditional beaten paths and staying at simple yet comfortable family inns and hostels, what the company web site calls "safe, smart, inexpensive travel--low on stress and high on fun."
The company continued to offer low-cost tours each season and opened a small storefront on a main street in Edmonds. For someone who loved the independence of travel Steves remained rooted to his town and his first office and home stood across the street from his parents' piano business.
In 1980 Steves self-published his first travel guidebook, Europe Through the Back Door, and led his first tour. The guidebook continued in print and at the time of this writing was in its 22nd edition. His book credits included Europe 101: History & Art for the Traveler, Mona Winks: Self-Guided Tours of Europe's Top Museums, eight Country Guides covering all of Western Europe, City Guides for European top city destinations, phrase books, and Postcards from Europe, a travel biography of sorts.
Steves met his wife and travel partner Anne in 1983 while giving a lecture at the University of Washington. Anne, a nurse and politically active Catholic, brought an added dimension of social and political awareness to the couple's lives. The two had two children who were very well traveled and appeared in cameos on the video series.
Rick and Anne Steves routinely took an active role throughout their marriage to live out their commitment to social justice. The company web site featured links to nonprofit partners including Bread for the World, Mercy Corps, Green Peace, NORML, and Jubilee 2000. In addition, the company gave back to the community in numerous ways.
Getting Established Through Public Television in the 1990s
Steves made his mark in the travel industry by writing and producing a series of video documentaries in 1991 entitled Rick Steves' Travels in Europe. The videos were sent free to public television and helped to launch the company. Produced by Small World Productions and written by Steves himself, the films helped sell books and videos as well as market ETBD's tours and other services. The interest in the series and play time throughout the country's public television network was astounding. Steves got significant coverage from public television and in turn remained one of its most faithful fund raisers, making appearances around the nation during its semi-annual membership drives.
In 1991 the company relaunched its web site, ricksteves .com, and began to market travel-related items. Its suitcases and European rail passes continued to be big sellers through the internet site.
In 1992 ETBD released a series of five videotapes that were made from Steves' original series, Travels in Europe. The tapes were 55-80 minutes long, compared with the original 30-minute segments, and included suggested travel destinations. The videos were London, Paris, and Amsterdam; Germany; Switzerland; Venice and Rome; and Northern Italy.
The video travel guides were not only revered by PBS viewers, who had become a loyal following, but earned recognition for their content as well. The film series segment on Bavaria won the 1992 CINE Golden Eagle Award for Outstanding Nontheatrical Film.
In 1994 Steves wrote and released a travel video entitled, "How to Get the Most out of Your Eurorailpass." ETBD quickly became one of the most successful retail outlets for Eurorail passes in the United States. The video was given free to customers who purchased their Eurorailpass through ETBD.
Steves released Travels in Europe in 1995. The tapes focused on areas in Europe that had never been spotlighted by ETBD before. Steves spent more air time focusing on the cultural nuances of particular areas, particularly those of Eastern Europe from Prague to Turkey. Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, and the French coastline or Riviera also were featured in the series. All of the travel films were hosted and written by Steves and produced by Seattle-based Small World Productions.
By 1996 ETBD led nearly 70 tours of Europe each year. Its newsletter was sent to more than 50,000 subscribers worldwide. The tour business at ETBD was highly regarded. The business offered more than 16 different tours annually. According to the tour description on the company web site, the tour itineraries differed greatly: "Some routes wander through several countries, weaving together Europe's best cities and cozy back door villages. Others dive deep into a specific country or region, with local people as a priority. Tour members can sleep in an isolated Swiss Alpine village, learn drinking songs from fishermen in a rustic island pub, or chat with an imam in a Turkish village." The company had many repeat customers who ascribed to the type of travel Steves promoted. Many returned to the company to tour its other destinations.
Europe Through the Back Door offered a series of travel seminars on countless subjects geared to the European adventurer. The company offered seven travel skills classes that included subjects such as packing light 101, art for travelers, hurdling the language barrier, European rail skills, women traveling solo, writing the inner journey, and getting the most out of your travel agent. In a 1996 Seattle Times interview, Steves related just what it was that made him believe he could be successful at teaching others about European travel. "I realized I could package my mistakes into a class," said Steves. "Each trip I made got so much easier. I was learning from what I did wrong. And so could other people." His hunch that others would be interested in what he could teach them brought ETBD hundreds of thousands of book sales, tour revenues, and merchandise sales each year.
The travel store at ETBD offered a vast array of accessories and apparel. The store did a good deal of its business through online orders and sold reversible travel skirts, money belts, packing cubes, and clotheslines. Its suitcases, day bags, and totes were among the company's top sellers as were its European guidebooks, videos, and DVDs. Helpful maps and atlases also rounded out the company inventory.
Expanding at the Beginning of the 21st Century
In 2000, ETBD augmented its Travel Center in Edmonds, adding a large new building. The travel center, built with a nod to European architecture, stood complete with stone gargoyles. The building housed the corporate offices, an extensive travel library, company store, Internet stations, and staff consultants.
The travel center grand opening led to a semi-annual European Travel Festival that drew large numbers of wayfarers to the site each year. Steves and his staff taught free travel seminars and hosted a variety of travel-related experiences for guests of all ages. Continuing free Saturday travel classes were offered as part of the weekly schedule.
In 2001 Rick Steves' Europe, Series I was produced. The video series included 16 episodes filmed throughout Western Europe in classic Rick Steves style.
September 11, 2001 had an incredible impact on world travel and ETBD tours were not immune from the wake of the terrorist attacks. The company had more than $1 million in tour cancellations after the U.S. disaster. In the following year, travel began to rebound and tours actually stood at an all-time high. ETBD hosted more than 5,000 people on 25 tours, a record high for the company, and sales figures for ETBD's services and products were recorded at $20 million.
In 2003 Travels in Europe, Series II made its debut. The series included 14 episodes with Steves touring destinations throughout Western and Eastern Europe. Once again the videos were written and hosted by Steves but the content grew over time to include more interaction with the culture and traditions of the countries featured.
The ETBD Speakers Bureau offered presentations on many topics. There were eight separate offerings on Italy, four on destinations in France, several on the British Isles, and the remainder focusing on Eastern Europe, Amsterdam, Scandinavia, and Greece.
In 2004 Rick Steves' Best of Eastern Europe 2004 was published by Avalon Travel Publishing. The interest in Eastern Europe had grown after the fall of communism and Steves was there to promote it and give aid to the interested traveler. Such cities as Prague, Czechoslovakia, and Budapest, Hungary, were Baroque landmarks to which Americans would flock in the late 1990s and 2000s.
Rick and Anne Steves made a significant charitable contribution in March 2004. They pledged $1 million to establish a housing complex in Snohomish County, Washington. The housing units, named Trinity Way, were managed by the YWCA and housed women and their families.
Europe Through the Back Door continued its service to travelers from its unique perspective with great success. The response to the company's travel guides and videos continued to grow. The relationship Steves built with public television was to their mutual benefit. PBS gave great exposure to ETBD and Steves became one of PBS's top promoters.
Despite a lagging dollar-to-Euro ratio Americans continued to travel to the continent in record numbers. ETBD, with its recognizable and helpful Rick Steves, appeared poised for future growth. The company had an appeal that seemed to suit the aging baby boomers who once traveled Europe with backpacks in the college years but were more likely to join the ETBD tour groups as they matured. Many such boomers could be seen throughout Europe carrying their Rick Steves bags, travel guides in hand, at all ETBD's favorite destinations.
Principal Competitors: Fodors; Frommers.
- Beauregard, Sue-Ellen, "Rick Steves' Europe: London and Paris," Booklist, September 15, 2001, p. 240.
- Brannon, Jody, "Notes and News," Seattle Times, May 5, 1991, p. L10.
- Clinger, Will, "A Tour of Italy in Rick Steves Ultra-Popular Footsteps," Chicago Sun Times, August 16, 1998, p. 2.
- Jackson, Kristin, "Back Door Savant: Europe Has Become Center of His World," Seattle Times, February 11, 1996.
- Meyers, Susan Laccetti, "Special Europe Section: Eleven Hot Spots: See the Continent Through Expert Rick Steves," Atlanta Constitution, March 26, 2000, p. 11K.
- Molnar, Jim, "Clipped Wings, 1990s Problems--Faltering Economy, Weak Dollar, and Threat of War--Will Shape 1991's Travel Outlook," Seattle Times, p. B5.
- ------, "The Voices of Travelers Who Are Going," Seattle Times, February 24, 1991, p. J2.
- Rhodes, Elizabeth, "Local Travel Businesses Go Beyond Package Tours," Seattle Times, January 27, 1991, p. J1.
- "Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door," Whole Earth, Winter 2000, p. 26.
- Spano, Susan, "The Right Guidebook Earns Its Ticket," New York Times, April 28, 1996, p. 6.
- Tarzan Ament, Deloris, "A Home-Grown Video Talent: Rick Steves," Seattle Times, August 23, 1992, p. J5.
- ------, "More Video Travels in Europe from Local Guru Rick Steves," Seattle Times, June 25, 1995, p. K4.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 65. St. James Press, 2004.