The Interview: Erik Blachford, Butterfield & Robinson
I first met Erik Blachford at a dinner in Whistler a couple of years ago, when we got into an extended discussion about the merits of the Burning Man Project. He is a devoted attendee while the jury is till out as far as I'm concerned. No matter, Erik is not the type one might think of when one thinks of the desert free-for-all called Burning Man. He's currently the Chairman and CEO of Butterfield & Robinson, the pioneer of upscale biking and walking vacations, as well as Chairman of Terrapass, Inc. He was formerly president and CEO of Expedia and CEO of IAC/InterActiveCorp's travel division. Very early in his career, Erik spent several years guiding and developing trips in Western and Eastern Europe for Butterfield & Robinson, as well as managing the company's student travel division.
On the other hand, maybe this is exactly the guy you'd expect to find at Burning Man. I recently got around to asking him some other questions in his new leadership role at Butterfield & Robinson, where founder George Butterfield is now the self-styled "CEO of all things slow."
Erik, you did a stint at B&R years ago. What were you up to then?
I started guiding for B&R in 1988, and spent four great seasons guiding bike trips in France as well as in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I also managed the B&R student trips for those years. Four weeks, 30 kids, carrying all their gear in pannier bags –quite an adventure.
Clearly, the company, and the world, have changed mightily since then. What kind of changes have you seen in the luxury biking and hiking market?
Back when I was first guiding, the whole idea of getting a little exercise while on vacation was still a bit revolutionary, especially when combined with the idea of arriving in athletic gear at some of Europe's finest hotels.
These days I think the world is much more accepting of how it's possible to have a top quality travel experience, with all the best hotels and meals and wines, while moving from place to place under your own steam — ably supported by a B&R van and guides, of course!
How have the travelers themselves changed?
Aside from maybe a little more demand for lighter meals, and a little broader knowledge of European wines, I don't think our travelers have changed much since I was guiding. Their defining characteristic is still curiosity: about culture, art, architecture, food, everything really. B&R travelers are a very sophisticated group of people, as they have been for years now. But I always appreciate most how these incredibly experienced travelers, people who have been everywhere and done everything, get their biggest kicks out of serendipitous encounters with locals. There's a terrific openness to new experiences there, and it keeps everything fresh.
What kind of changes are you making at B&R?
After battening down the hatches in 2009 we're putting our R&D hats back on and going in search of some great new trips for later this year and in 2011. The reality is that we've always got a backlog of places we want to explore, and it's great to feel that with the economy picking up a bit we'll be in a better position to get out there and do it. If there's one thing we know our travelers want, it's more places to travel with B&R.
There are dozens of adventure travel companies out there. Why should someone consider B&R for their next trip?
You're right, there are a lot of companies now, and plenty of those companies are top-notch. But when it comes to which company people choose, it all comes down to what they're looking for. Some people are looking mostly for a hard workout on the bike, but we've always stuck to the notion that in most of the places we travel, it's more appropriate to slow down a bit. So we attract people who are a maybe a little more easygoing. And I suppose it's no secret that at B&R we enjoy the finer things in life, so we attract people who like that too. Our basic operating procedure is to find the very best places to stay, meals, wines, and local connections, and use those as ingredients in an overall experience that delivers a kind of survey of the best a region has to offer. That approach means we're a bit more expensive than others, as you would expect, but over and over again our travelers tell us they are more than happy to pay a little more for the B&R experience.
Say there's someone who's had a dreadful 2009 (there seem to be more than a few people out there who answer that description right now). They desperately need to get away recharge. Where would you send them?
I would send them on our new Provence bike trip. We completely redesigned the trip for 2010, so the route is further from the more touristy parts of Provence, but takes full advantage of everything that Provence has to offer. What better way to recharge the batteries that a lazy pedal through fields of lavender, with a crisp Tavel at day's end? And it's a breeze to get to and from given the TGV service from Paris.
When we had dinner a few months ago, you brought up the idea of surfing trips. Given the adventurous B&R traveler's background, that may not be as outlandish as it sounds. Any progress on that trip or other trips that might have been considered too offbeat a few years ago?
We can only do so many new things in any given year, and this year we decided it was time to give self-guided trips a whirl. Maybe that's not as adventurous as big-wave surfing, but it's a fun departure for us. On one of these new itineraries, a small group can build its own trip on a foundation of B&R planning and expertise, where we set up the hotels and bikes, and luggage transfers, plus a few restaurant reservations, and they do the rest. There aren't any guides or vans involved, though of course we're only a phone call away if something goes wrong. We think that kind of structured independence is going to go over really well with a certain kind of traveler, and are trying them out in Burgundy and Tuscany this year, where we have permanent offices to provide support. If it proves popular, we'll expand the concept in 2011.
Name a few of your favorite hotels of the moment.
I'm always happy to check in at L'Hotel in Beaune, near our European headquarters in Burgundy, and had a really nice visit at Locanda Dell'Amorosa in Tuscany this past fall. I should probably only name B&R trip hotels, but I really enjoyed a quick recent stay at the brand new Four Seasons in Seattle. Four Seasons really gets it right. They have the kind of service ethic that we've tried to build at B&R.
What can't you leave home without when you travel?
Well Everett, this isn't the most upscale thing you've ever heard, but in the past few years I've taken to packing a nice coffee mug, with a cover. I just got so tired of the image of all those disposable cups piling up in the landfill that I thought I'd better just go ahead and do something about it. So far the only truly strange look anyone's given me was in the Rome train station; the barista was definitely not impressed, though I think mostly because he thought I should have stayed for a proper espresso. But I had a train to catch!
Where are you off to next?
Bhutan, and I couldn't be more excited. I've been to Nepal but haven't yet made it to Bhutan, and hear that's it's a very different experience. B&R offers a fantastic Bespoke itinerary that I'm doing with a group of friends, so it's a trip for fun not work. After that I'll be heading to Europe for our spring guide kick off. Speaking of which, I'm going to get my guiding helmet back on this year, probably in Burgundy, which will be a blast. After that, I'm not sure. But there's never any shortage of places to go, is there?
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