Great Explorations

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National Geographic

Interview with Founder Robbin McKinney

With Beth Crowther

You are quite a seasoned adventure traveler – for how long have you been touring the world actively?

34 years ago, at the age of 23, I took some time off after university to go to Europe on bicycle with a notion that I was in for an adventure. I haven’t stopped traveling since and continue to believe that to really experience a place, you need to get out off of the bus, exercise your legs, breathe the air and meet the locals.


What’s your favourite adventure travel destination and why?


France, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Morocco, Turkey, Vietnam, Thailand, Chile, Croatia, Myanmar, and here in North America; they are all favourites. I always say my most favourite is the one I just returned from. To be honest, every trip I have been on that has involved a bicycle or a hike has been amazing.


What key travel gear do you bring on bike tours?


My packing list is much shorter than most. Whether I am traveling for 1 week or 12 weeks, it all fits in a carry-on. I think the choice of gear is not as important as taking a good attitude. Be open, be flexible and be yourself. And, if you love those shoes, and it’s going to make your trip, bring ‘em.


What are your top 3 items that you would never leave home without when traveling?

Sense of humour, a good book and our international staff phone directory.


What special touches make travel more memorable and luxurious for you? Any favourite hotels?

A warm welcome goes a long w ay to making places memorable for me. Favourite hotels? -  Palazzo Squarcialupi in Castellina, Tuscany; Hotel Surazo, Matanzas, Chile; Villa Maroc in Essaouira, Morocco; Tamarind Village in Thailand…; actually, every hotel we use is special or we wouldn’t be staying there (Editor’s note: Unlike many companies in the active travel industry, GE publishes all of the hotels they use on their web site).


How did you end up operating a guided adventure travel business?

I was a seasonal cycling and hiking guide for 15+ years with B&R, the company that started biking and walking tours in Europe. It was an extraordinary time and I learned a great deal; in 1997 I decided to start Great Explorations, frankly, so I could create and lead trips full-time. I haven’t looked back since.


What sets GE apart from other guided adventure travel operations?


I have been guiding trips for a long time, so I am fortunate to have experience to draw from when planning and operating these trips. I have extensive contacts throughout the world, and in the regions we travel we are welcomed as friends.  Compared to other companies, our clients tell us that we charge far less and offer a more authentic experience. We operate all of our trips which allows us to ensure the quality of everything from the hotels to the equipment to our guides etc. Our client testimonials highlight these and other differences.


On what philosophy have you based GE?

We have a lot of personal friends take our trips and every trip we offer I would not hesitate to recommend to a good friend or family member. If it isn’t an amazing trip, we won’t offer it to anyone. We try to encourage interesting people to take our trips because we realize that the people on a trip make the trip. Through our sponsorship of events and donations we give back to our community and those in which we travel.


What is your favourite part of operating an adventure touring company?


I receive all of the amazing letters, usually about our guides or the incredible experiences they have had on a trip with us. We know that vacations are important for people and they have a lot of choices when it comes to travel. When a letter arrives to say, “it truly was a vacation of a lifetime,” we feel we have done our job well.


Describe the most unusual request you’ve received from one of your clients when fine tuning a trip.

A family recently requested that we arrange sword fighting for their kids in the Loire Valley, France. We were able to connect with a famous French fencing master who lived in the region and who agreed to bring equipment and swords to our hotel, a grand chateaux. It was a duel those kids will never forget.


What qualities are important to you when hiring GE guides?


There is no specific list of qualities but most of our guides are engaging, energetic, and generous in their willingness to share their knowledge and passion for regions in which they either live or have extensive experience. They have to be able to think on their feet and be diplomatic, thoughtful, caring and interesting. Read a few of the bios and you’ll get an idea.


Where do you find guides? Any recent hires?


I find guides through other staff and out on the road. A recent hire was Natalia Martinez, a mountaineer who was on the nightly news last year, having survived an earthquake while attempting a solo summit of Mount Logan. We connected and I realized this woman has all of the characteristics we look for in a guide. She guided in Morocco this past fall and will be leading trips in Chile and Argentina for us, among others.


Do you have any new trip ideas planned?


Our newest trips are in Chile, Sicily and the Veneto. I always have a new trip brewing- Japan is coming. Stay tuned.


Can we expect to see you guiding/joining any GE trips in the near future?


I’ll be guiding a New Zealand hiking trip in March, a Prague to Vienna trip and an Ireland trip in June, and Tuscany & Provence in the fall so far and am open to creating (and guiding) a private trip to anywhere a group of intrepids would like to go.  It’s the best part of the job…


Beth Crowther is a freelance writer and avid traveler