We recently welcomed Andy Steves (son of Rick Steves, famous as an authority on European travel) to CAPA London for a MyEducation event with Fall 2013 students. He's followed in his father's footsteps and is the CEO and President of Weekend Student Adventures. Andy has also visited the CAPA Florence office before, passing on his knowledge for those weekend trips around the continent. Below we pick his brains on life in the travel industry, why study abroad is important and a few tips he'd like to pass on to CAPA students.
CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
ANDY STEVES: I hail from beautiful, rainy Seattle and went to high school in the area. I'm a proud Fighting Irish alum, with degrees from Notre Dame in Industrial Design, Italian Language and Literature.
When I'm not enjoying mom's cooking back home during summers and Christmas time, I'm in Europe running our weekend trips for my company, Weekend Student Adventures--you guessed it, a weekend tour company for students abroad in Europe. Over the last three or four years, I've been running the show from my backpack, designing, leading and promoting our trips around the continent. For each city, I design and set up the tour, then try to find an awesome local who can take over for me. Although I've traded off the standard "home base", I've enjoy making friends and connections all around Europe.
When I'm not traveling I really enjoy cycling and sailing any chance I get.
CW: Weekend Student Adventures, was launched in 2010. How did your initial idea develop into what it is today? What are a few of the highlights over the last three years?
AS: It's been quite a ride so far! It's easy to quantify our progress: just 85 travelers our first semester, to 240 the following semester followed by 470 students the third semester to well over 2,000 happy travelers total since we launched. We've gone from five destinations to 10, and we've got a great team of seven local guides now.
But I think the real highlights are in the more intangible subtle details you encounter while leading a tour. For example, there were two 'WSA'ers' who met each other for the first time on tour, then proceeded to visit each other later in the semester. I think travel is all about bringing people together, and it's fun to be doing my small part to help make that happen.
For me personally, the biggest highlight are our positive reviews that we get after each weekend--it really tells me that the WSA concept is working, people are loving it, and our local guides are doing an amazing job revealing a new city to fresh groups of students each semester.
CW: One of the weekend trips you take students on is to Dublin, a CAPA International Education city. What are your favorite hidden gems there and why?
AS: There's a hidden little cafe called Avoca in Dublin just off of Grafton Street. All the locals know about it, but none of the tourists do. It's one of my favorite lunch spots to drop in on and I enjoy their deliciously fresh wraps, baked goods, thick sandwiches and hearty soups. The Arlington Hotel has free Irish dance shows every night of the week, so I enjoy popping in if I have an evening off to enjoy the traditional culture. The Bull and Castle Pub has one of the best steak sandwiches I've ever had - which goes great with a Guinness! And for a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, I'll take a run through Phoenix Park, one of the largest city parks in Europe.
CW: For the past few years, you've come in to speak with CAPA students. Tell us two of the top questions you're typically asked and your response.
AS: I'd say two of the most common questions are 1. Are Eurail passes worth is? and 2. For my Fall or Spring break, I'm planning on going to these 10 cities… what do you think?
To the first, I answer that for study abroad students, Eurail passes are probably not worth it. You can find out how you could make a Eurail pass worth it here.
For the second question, I always say less is more! If you're trying to travel to more than three destinations in nine days, it's too much! The best week-long trips are to farther-off destinations (like Italy for students in England, or Eastern Europe for those in Spain or Ireland, etc.), and then linking three cities which are nearby each other like Budapest, Krakow and Prague, or Rome, Florence and Venice. This way you're using up minimal time traveling in between destinations (because those will suck up days!), and seeing parts of the continent that you wouldn't be able to get to on local excursions or last minute trips with your friends.
CW: What lessons did you learn from your father, travel guru Rick Steves, that you'd like to share with CAPA study abroad students? What is something that you learned on your own independent travels that you'd add to that advice?
AS: I'd say my father really taught me how to leave my American premonitions behind and to go into new and foreign experiences with open eyes as a sponge to soak up as much as possible. It's really the mindset, the mentality that travelers bring with them, which separates those who travel well, and those who go home to complain to their friends about showers not working or poor wifi connectivity, etc.
I'd like to add a quip about making each and every travel experience your own. Leave the judgement at home, but bring your story and your passions and interests with you and experience each city you visit and live in your own by getting involved in the local scene of whatever interests you. Whether it's music, sports, events or more academic priorities, do your best to track down and enjoy those very things in each of Europe's cultural capitals. I've found pursuing one's interest during travel brings like-minded people together. And that makes it so much easier to meet cool, interesting people!
CW: What's your earliest travel memory? Your favorite destination for return visits? And one you'd never go back to again?
AS: I remember being on a ferry from Denmark to Norway with my family in a tiny little cabin where the chairs and desk folded out from the wall.
For return visits, I love Prague and reconnecting with my old friends there.
And I'd have a hard time saying which place I wouldn't ever want to go back to--I always remind myself that negative experiences are usually just a coincidence of grumpy people and bad timing. Naples fit that category once, but I'd love to go back and give it another try!
CW: Tell us about a memorable encounter that you had with a local in one of CAPA's global cities that has stuck with you and why.
AS: In London, I stayed with a local host through airbnb.com, and she was the definition of wonderful British hospitality. Beyond being a great host, it was amazing to hear about her story--she's a community organizer in the Hammersmith district and works to connect people in need with various government programs that suit them. It was fascinating to hear about her life and learn about her work because I think we Americans often label programs like these as "socialist". Of course, no program is perfect, but I love learning about how they actually work rather than only getting the media's take on any given issue.
CW: You studied abroad during university. Why is study abroad important? What has travel taught you about yourself and those around you?
AS: Yes, I studied in Rome during the Spring of '08. I loved it because it gave me the chance to slow down a bit, plug into the local scene and really get to know one city in particular.
I think studying abroad is an opportunity to grow on so many personal and interpersonal levels. You have to take care of the basic stuff (laundry, cleaning, groceries), you've got to deal with adversity and challenges, and you also interact with and have to work with people who don't share your language, background or beliefs necessarily. So it's an amazing way to shake up your world and take on a new perspective before graduating. Employers recognize and really appreciate this worldly perspective and maturity too!
CW: You're bilingual as well as an Italian language and literature graduate. What advice do you have for students trying to learn a second language?
AS: Bilingual is a stretch! But yes, I can get by in French and Italian. I love being able to communicate to others in their own language. When you show that you've put in the sweat and tears to understand a little bit about them and where they're coming from, instantly you're differentiated in their view. You wouldn't believe the doors that open in front of you when you challenge yourself to learn that new language and practice it with locals.
My advice: it's normal to feel like a complete idiot throughout the first months and years of picking up that new language. But keep at it and converse with it every chance you get! Something will click eventually, and it will all make sense! That's happened to me twice now, and I gotta tell you it's so worth it!
CW: Tell us about one of the biggest challenges and one of the best rewards that you've experienced during your travels.
AS: As Americans, we sometimes lump all Europeans in the same boat and just expect variations of the same attitude, same culture, etc. when working with them. But this really isn't the case! Each country--or even region--has strong, unique and distinct culture and identity and Europeans tend to be very proud of their particular regional heritage. It's been a fun challenge for me to recruit, hire and manage Spaniards, Czechs or the French because they all get their professional fulfillment in different ways. As a result, it's really up to me to work with each of my team mates on their level, recognizing their values and priorities and learning how we can highlight those in the international spirit and personality of WSA. And the reward is when I get this multinational team working well together delivering amazing experiences for the students on the ground in Europe!