Being a Leader
The expectations I had about being a Backroads trip leader when I first applied for the position were far from reality. In the first place, I thought the job was about being a simple tour guide with a little activity, but what it is all about is much more than that.
I really have to say that my life changed since I got the job: yes, it is challenging, but it has given me so many rewards so far that I would not change it for anything else in the world. In a little more than six months I turned from a brilliant-but-unsatisfied-fresh graduate to a happy-and-(apparently)-talented-Backroads-leader! Backroads is a place in which what is really relevant is that you do what you do with joy, happiness, excitement and passion. And all of this turns into a great success in your job.
When I entered Backroads in March I didn’t have any background in the field of hospitality. I could never have imagined that in just five months I would have been the only one in my training block given a combined Trip Expert and Regional Support Specialist position (and one of the few Italians given a Trip Expert Position). In Italy, getting a promotion in a company in just a couple of months is considered science fiction; it is extremely rare (if not impossible) to happen without significant connections. I felt so privileged to have, instead, gotten a position of responsibility just for being who I am and for working hard. I owe a lot to this company. They trusted me from the very beginning, they listened to me, they read my mind, they understood me deeply and I will never thank enough Stacy Loucks, our European General Manager or Jeff Cantarutti, our Italy Regional Manager, or Matt Fletcher, our Hiring and Training Coordinator, or my training mentor, Tony Macri, for being able to see all the good I had to offer and pushing me just to make who I am rise up and shine. I see myself among all my Italian hometown acquaintances, university mates and long-time friends and I can really tell I am lucky; I escaped the neon-lighted room I was bound to work in if I had followed my field of studies as a computer science engineer. If I didn’t leave these tracks they would have led to a life that would not have suited me at all.
On the contrary, when I am out leading trips every day, when I go to bed, I acknowledge I lived something extraordinary and I close my eyes and sleep tight.
I like thinking of the life of a Backroads leader as of somebody who turns another person’s life into a dream, even for a little while, for the time during the trip.
I heard so many stories, while climbing up the hills of Tuscany as guests have shared their thoughts, their fears, their emotions, their astonishment for the beauty they were discovering and reaching with the sole help of their own legs and effort. I remember the moment when, by the end of my very first trip as a leader, Ellen and David, a lovely couple from the San Francisco Bay Area, shared with me their happiness for having David ride his bike again for the very first time after a really bad bike accident five years before. David’s eyes filled with tears and emotion when he hugged me. “Thank you,” he said, for supporting him during his journey through Tuscany and his own fears. That moment, by itself, that load of emotions, made up for all the long days of work the whole week.
Part of what makes Backroads trip leaders so special is the strength of their connections with their guests: helping them discover the beauty of a new country, helping them to the top of a big hill. Eating good food with them and being hosted in wonderful locations are relevant aspects of a great Backroads trip, but they are not what makes a Backroads experience the holiday of a lifetime. The key to an active trip with Backroads resides in the emotional bond between leader and guest. And I can really tell there is a strong one established on the last day of each the trip, when I say “arrivederci” to the guests. I see in their faces a bittersweet look–which is shared by me every single time–testifying that we are happy for what we lived together but we are sad about breaking the magic we created together.
Well…let’s just be honest. Sometimes that magic suddenly breaks: you find yourself riding your bike in the pouring rain, just because a couple of guests wanted to keep on riding despite the weather conditions. You blame yourself for choosing this job, with all your clothes soaking wet and a big hill you cannot even see the top of in front of you, because the rain keeps dripping in your eyes through your helmet.
This happened to me on my last trip of the season. The weather was not looking good and I decided to host my picnic indoors at Fattoria la Quercia. My co-leader, Michael (a.k.a. Habs) arrived with new guests from Florence and we commented, “It’s a shame we didn’t set up the picnic outdoors, it’s clearing up and it’s so nice outside!” Great timing for saying that. In ten minutes time, the strongest rainstorm I had ever seen in my life started. Everybody was sitting under an arcade and despite that a waterfall of cold rain was hitting all of us. So Habs, Katie (our van support driver), and I organized a very complex architecture with our tarps to keep splashes from interfering with our welcome talks.
Eventually, the moment of jumping on our bikes arrived. Only five brave guests out of a group of 24 wanted to challenge the weather and the Tuscan hills. I was supposed to ride with them. Of course, they were selected among all the Americans on the whole planet for being the fastest riders ever. “Alright, let’s do it! It’s day one, we have got to give a good impression of the company,” I said to myself while fighting against the growing pain in my legs. Then I realized that my two beloved colleagues were under the pouring rain, too, racking 19 bikes on top of our vans. Well…the famous co-leader love can take the shape of not feeling so alone!
As soon as we all got back to the hotel, Habs and I got into our room, dripping water, tired and cold. We shower–for no more than 10 minutes, this is the average leaders’ free time during trips–and, shiny and beautiful, we go to dinner. Finally, the day comes to an end. Habs and I, on the way to our room, high five: “Good job today!” And we meant it.
Most Backroads leaders are passionate about sports and the outdoors, but we’re even more passionate about people. That’s why we’re always there with our guests on their first long rides ever (sometimes on their very first legit rides too!) That’s why we don’t care if the sentences we hear most often are “my bike doesn’t shift,” “my odometer doesn’t work” or “my chain keeps falling off.” You know what? We will explain to our guests how to shift one thousand times, we will adjust their odometers and we will put the chains back on as many times as they wish, always with a smile on our face.
We are happy to be there for them, any time. To listen to a story, to tell a joke, to share with them the sense of achievement that comes right after a great challenge. Because–no matter the rain, the chains, the derailleur and the tough hills–we want to be the faces our guests will remember throughout the whole winter, we want to build memories together with them, we want to share with them the looks and the laugher of the trip of a lifetime.
At the moment, I see myself in this company for a long time: I would like to keep on growing within the company and have a career at Backroads. However, even if this doesn’t happen, I will always keep within me what this job taught me because it made me grow up as a professional. But, most importantly, I have grown as an individual. I learned how to approach and read guests, life and myself.
All the logistics, the ability to get confident with the famous KOA (knowledge of area), the quick-but-good-looking picnic, the hard skills and interpersonal skills are all competencies that can be shaped to fit any other job in any other field. But the priceless value that the job of a Backroads leader gives you stays within you forever: it is the joy of taking the best of every day, relishing every single moment, living fully without even feeling the need to cross the limits or go too far.
It is an experience I wish everybody could live.