Rick Steves is an explorer at heart, so it should come as little surprise that he is finding unexpected joy in the midst of an awful situation.
So far, he has refunded about half of the 24,000 reservations made this year for tours led by his Edmonds-based travel empire, Rick Steves’ Europe, in what had been shaping up to be its best year. And his travel guidebook sales — he had 18 of the 20 bestselling European guidebooks in the U.S. last year — are off 90%.
This is all terrible. But at the same time, he’s finding happiness while learning the pleasures of domesticity and discovering daily delights in his hometown.
“Actually for me, I kind of feel like I’m cheating a little bit, because I’ve got a wonderful coronavirus partner and I’m learning how to cook,” Steves said of his girlfriend, Shelley Bryan Wee, a bishop with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “She’s got dogs. I never thought I’d have dogs in my life and I’ve been loving having dogs. I never would ever let a dog in my house. I’ve never turned on my oven. I’ve used the stove, but I haven’t turned on my oven in the 10 years I’ve lived in this house. I’ve never cut into an onion. People give me olive oil all the time, but I didn’t know what to do with it. So, there’s more to life than selling tours and writing great guidebooks, and I’m enjoying that other half.”
Wee has a picture of Steves lying on the floor curled up with her Labradoodles, Gracie and Jackson — something his friends might once have thought impossible.
“I was gearing up for a summer of missing him because he was going to be gone for several weeks,” Wee said. “He’s gone almost three months of the year. And so I was geared up for that and then suddenly he’s here, which is great.
“And it’s surprising because really his whole being is about travel, so that he’s made this adjustment is pretty amazing,” she said. “I think it’s the idea that he’s traveling at home, kind of exploring new things at home.”
Their relationship is fairly new. Steves and Wee began dating in December, but the coronavirus pandemic has sped up the pace at which they’re learning about each other. Wee, for instance, got to see exactly what Steves is made of as he dealt with the fallout from the travel restrictions over the last two months.
Steves is one of the most well-known tour-industry figures in the U.S., with an annual company revenue of $100 million. Most folks who daydream about traveling the world have seen an episode or two of his PBS series “Rick Steves’ Europe.” On the show, he shares his love of exploring the continent he fell in love with as a teenager. He founded his company in 1976 and it has grown steadily, weathering the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2008 recession.
Not long ago, Steves hosted more than 100 European guides at his house. There was a lot to celebrate: It would have been, without question, his company’s biggest year. He expected to host more than 30,000 tourists on more than 1,000 bus tours through October.
Since, he’s returned millions of dollars to his customers and is determined to keep his staff of more than 100 at work while many tourism-related businesses are withholding refunds and furloughing or laying off employees. If there’s no revenue this year, his staff’s salary will cost him $14 million out of pocket.
“When I first met him and was interested in him, he was Rick Steves, and I knew him from that,” Wee said. “But one of the things that attracted me to him was his ethics and his moral grounding. And I think that that comes through in this, in his decision-making in this, and I have to admire him for it because it’s not easy. He does make it sound like it’s easy and it’s not. He has anxiety about it, but in every conversation that we have about it, he says this is the right thing to do.”
Steves hopes to have a little bit of a fall season, but has resigned himself to a complete cancellation of tours in 2020. He’s refunding customers two months out, which means July is next — including a trip scheduled for his own extended family that he said would have been “the joy of my lifetime.”
“Every time I try to get ahead of the curve, I wake up the next morning and I’m behind the curve,” Steves said. “Things just change. And I don’t think even, quote, experts know how long this is going to go.”
One thing he is sure of is that things won’t get back to a semblance of normal quickly.
“It’s wishful thinking to think we can just raise the curtain and we can rekindle all the tourism,” Steves said. “I think it’s going to be an incremental thing and it’ll take months for normal tourism to get up and running. It’s complex.”
Steves sees tourism as a multilayered entity, and all parts must be functioning for the business ecosystem to work. That means before anything can happen, both the U.S. and Europe have to be past the curve and open again. And transportation and lodging have to be functioning normally, after furloughing or laying off much of those industries’ workforces.
“There’s independent travel and then there’s organized travel,” Steves said. “I think independent travelers will be a little more adventurous at first. But organized tourism is a complicated thing, and you don’t want to have a bus with 25 people deep in the middle of a European itinerary and all sorts of reservations and all sorts of promises and expectations. That could be wishful thinking and overly confident. Then you have to consider the bailout.”
Steves has built his company on the idea of person-to-person travel that emphasizes small businesses and the local economies. He’s not sure how many of his partners overseas will survive the pandemic.
“What breaks my heart is all these broken dreams from hardworking entrepreneurs that have worked hard to put their businesses together,” Steves said. “And how many of them would be able to survive this shutdown? I don’t know. So if we lose that, we lose a lot of the fabric of our community. And it just scares me. I have a friend who runs a museum and he thinks that a third of the museums in the United States that have closed down will not reopen. And I think the same may be true with small shops and cafes and restaurants.
“On the other hand, we don’t know,” he said. “The demand is pent up, it doesn’t dissipate. The demand will come back and what was viable in the past, we can only hope will be viable in the future.”
That sense of pragmatic optimism will drive his decisions no matter how long the pandemic keeps him off the road.
“I’m a privately held corporation,” he said. “Publicly held corporations are legally obligated to protect the financial interests and maximize the financial gains of their stockholders. And we’ve only got one stockholder, and that’s me. And I’ve got different priorities. I have a staff that is mission-driven and the mission is not to maximize the return for your investors. Our mission is to inspire Americans to venture beyond Orlando. We owe it to our mission to still be around after this is done, so America can be less fearful and open to the world with a mindset of building bridges instead of building walls.”
This article has been updated with the correct month Steves and Wee began dating.