Trips That Let You Do It Your Way

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When my wife Liz and I are on a Backroads trip, we ride together most days. But one morning I’ll choose a longer route and tackle that on my own. Then we’ll meet up for lunch, often arriving at the same time. So everyone’s happy!

This is how our trips are designed: you’re free to do your own thing, mapping out the day to include what’s important to you, plus maybe something we’ve organized as well, whether it’s a wine tasting, a private castle tour or a chat with a local artist in her studio. And whatever you opt to do, we support you all the way.

Guests on the same trip often have very different days. Last time we were in Provence, a few of us set out one morning to ride a 70-mile route with a lot of nice hills, while another group biked for a couple of hours, then spent the afternoon at the antiques market in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. And when we all met up again over dinner, we had a great time swapping stories about our adventures, comparing different angles on how the day had gone.

This is what Backroads is all about. We pioneered the concept of active travel, but from the beginning we never assumed that everyone who came on our trips wanted to travel actively in the same way.

Lunchtime on a Backroads Trip

People who bike or walk with us share our belief that exploring under your own power, experiencing new places up close, is the best way to see the world. But the key thing this reveals about our guests is not how physically active they are but, more important, that they enjoy looking at the world differently. They’re people who’ve stayed curious, who want to explore unfamiliar places and immerse themselves in the nuances.

When you join a group of Backroads guests, you quickly see that what they appreciate about traveling together, even if they’ve just met, is not simply the shared interest in biking or walking, but the fact that everyone brings their own unique perspective to the experience. What makes a trip memorable is how a particular group of interesting, funny, thoughtful people from a wide range of backgrounds can connect through a shared adventure.

So for us the challenge has always been how to create active travel experiences that attract people who have a similar curiosity about the world, but who may approach the actual biking, hiking and other activities with varying levels of energy or ability.

Daily route options for mixed abilities on Backroads Bike ToursWe saw early on that we needed to spell out more clearly the level of activity guests should anticipate if they were going to fully enjoy the active travel experience. So once you’d decided on, say, a biking trip, the next step was to consider what level of biking you were prepared to take on. We tried to keep it simple with three basic rating categories – easygoing, active and avid – and worked out typical mileages for each. You could decide how much you were up for and then choose your trip accordingly.

But the problem was, we were asking guests to consider questions they’d never asked themselves ­- most people don’t self-identify as easygoing or active or avid – and they often weren’t comfortable nailing down hard and fast answers. Also, some people were naturally disappointed if they browsed the Backroads website or catalog and found a trip that piqued their interest, then saw it had a higher or lower activity level than they felt was right for them. Or a guest might see a trip that appealed to her but wouldn’t suit her partner or the couple they’d hoped to travel with.

So we began creating more flexible route options within each trip to suit varying abilities, extending the activity levels to wider ranges. And from there it was a steady evolution into what we have today: trips that are created, from the earliest stages of design and planning, for a group of guests with mixed abilities.

Actually, mixed abilities, while convenient as shorthand, is a bit of a misnomer. It’s probably more accurate to say mixed interests, or mixed goals, or maybe mixed inclinations. Whatever label we put on it, this is one of the key quality factors that differentiate Backroads: choice. You choose where you want to go, who you want to travel with, what activities you want to enjoy – and for how long or how far. The leaders are not there to decide your day, but to see what you want to do and help make it happen.

To be clear, we’re not trying to offer trips for all abilities. Even in regions where the terrain can accommodate lots of daily options, we still spell out a range to properly set expectations. We don’t want any guests feeling disappointed that they’ve not been able to enjoy the full experience – or that we’ve not provided the right kind of support for what they assumed was the activity range on a particular trip.

Backroads Trip Leader providing van supportMore importantly, we’ve rethought how we build, deliver and support trips to reflect our commitment to accommodating mixed abilities. Most companies – I’m tempted to say every company – will tell you they can be all things to all people. But it’s a hollow promise without the goods to back it up. This is one of the main reasons we now provide three and even four Trip Leaders, rather than the industry-standard two – and sometimes just one – on nearly all of our departures. In addition to strengthening the attentive, personalized service that’s become a Backroads hallmark, we use more leaders to support guests as they follow various route options at their own pace – and to give them the flexibility to change their minds as the day unfolds. This is also what motivated us to invest in two vans per trip rather than the standard single vehicle: because if we say we’re going to support guests with mixed abilities, we have to be in more places at once, making good on that promise.

The bottom line is with Backroads you don’t have to declare what kind of traveler you are before booking a trip, or on any given day as your journey unfolds, or even during the course of an afternoon if your priorities happen to change. We invite you to share a great travel experience with interesting people – some who may have come with you, others you may be meeting for the first time – and to enjoy it in your own way.

And everyone else is free to do the same. That’s where the Backroads magic lives – in the sheer range of choices, and in the freedom to mix it up however you like.

 


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Tom Hale

Tom Hale

Founder and President at Backroads
A native of Moraga, California, Tom Hale possesses a passion for two seemingly divergent interests—business and back roads—which he has powered into the world's most successful active travel company, Backroads. It was the back roads that first attracted him, as a competitive runner at Campolindo High School (where he still holds the two-mile record at 8:57.2) and at the University of Oregon, where he was a teammate of legendary runner Steve Prefontaine. Armed with a Masters in Environmental Planning from UCLA, Hale was six months into an environmental planning position in Las Vegas when the back roads called again—big time. A middle-of-the-night inspiration to start a bike touring company motivated him to pedal 5,000 miles alone through the West, all the while formulating plans for his new business. Settling in Berkeley, Hale washed fondue pots by night and built his fledgling travel company by day. In true entrepreneurial fashion, he did it all—designed the itineraries, maintained the bikes, led the trips, produced the catalog.
Tom Hale

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