Interview with founder Robbin McKinney
by Beth Crowther
You are quite a seasoned adventure traveler – for how long have you been touring the world actively?
In 1983, 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?
I always say my favourite trip is the one I just returned from. To be honest, every trip I have been on that has involved a bicycle 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 way to making places memorable for me. Favourite hotels? – Palazzo Squarcialupi in Castellina, Tuscany; Bastide de Voulonne, Provence, France; Hotel Metropole in Hanoi, Vietnam; Villa Maroc in Essaouira, Morocco…; actually, every hotel we use is special (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?
We receive lots of emails from clients, 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 an email 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?
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, be diplomatic, thoughtful, caring and interesting. Read a few of the bios and you’ll get an idea.
Do you have any new trip ideas planned?
I always have a new trip brewing- In 2019, we have new trips in Cuba, Japan, and something new in Iceland coming. Stay tuned.
Can we expect to see you guiding/joining any GE trips in the near future?
I still guide several trips each year 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