The Interview: Maria Elena Price of ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours
By Everett Potter
Maria Elena Price of ExperiencePlus! is one of those rare people who actually grew up in the world of adventure travel. As a five year old, she helped translate ice cream flavors on the first Venice to Pisa tours of Experience Plus!, the company her parents founded in 1972. She’s led tours in more than 10 countries, specializing in Spain, where she lived for more than a year. In 2011 she and her sister Monica were named as two of the Top 10 Guides in the World by National Geographic Traveler. With a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and International Affairs and an MBA from the Leeds School of Business at University of Colorado, Boulder she manages the business and its development from the Fort Collins office in Colorado. I run into Maria Elena every year at the tribal gathering known as the Adventure Travel World Summit and managed to get a few words from her after the last summit in Chiapas, Mexico.
Everett Potter: Maria Elena, you’re the second generation of a family business. How did ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours start?
Maria Elena Price: Our parents founded ExperiencePlus! in 1972 as a way to get back to Italy so they could visit my mother’s family. They moved to the U.S. after getting married in 1969 and knew that trips to Italy would be few and far between if they couldn’t find a reason (and financing!) to help the travel back to Italy. They had cycled on their own in 1971 between Pisa and Forli (my mother’s home town) after my mother graduated from the University of Pisa –– and my father, ever the entrepreneur, wondered if they could find a few willing adventurers to join them on the same bike ride and in turn have their flights back to Italy paid for. They sold 12 people on that first 10 day camping and cycling tour! The cost was $245, per person, after all, you could get a full 3 course meal (with wine) in Italy for $1.50 back then…After that my parents operated a few more tours before they decided to finish their college degrees, travel on their own, and start a family. In 1985 they decided it was time to resurrect the Bike Across Italy tour – and we have been operating every year since. My sister, Monica, and I have been guiding tours since we were 14 and 15 and finally took over as directors in 2008!. Today ExperiencePlus! offers cycling tours in more than 10 countries
EP: How did you become an adventurous traveler?
MEP: As a kid, I’m guessing? I don’t think I knew I was an adventurous traveler at the time – but we certainly started traveling and cycling early! My sister and I were heading out on tour when we were 4 and 5 years old… We would join our parents for a few days at a time and help with very important things like translating ice cream flavors. As we grew older we started to join them for longer periods of time, and many of our family vacations became an opportunity to bicycle and scout new itineraries in Italy, France, Norway, Greece, and Costa Rica. The full realization that adventure travel, or active travel as we call it, was so important to me was when I was studying in Spain in college. I had already been in Spain for over 2 months and I remember distinctly feeling like I still didn’t know much about this large complex country – in fact I felt like I knew almost nothing. I had seen the main “tourist sites” on our group excursions but I didn’t feel like I had actually experienced or knew how people lived. I realized it was because I hadn’t seen the ‘everyday’ pieces of Spanish life I was so used to seeing when I traveled by bike. Fortunately after that I spent many summers guiding our bicycle tours in Spain so I was able to connect with locals and see all the places in between the typical tourist sites. In fact, I now consider Spain a third home (after Italy and Colorado!)
EP: How would you define the essence of an ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours trip — how does it differ from what your competitors offer?
MEP: The essence of our tours is best described as one of “guided independence”. We’ve found that most people interested in adventure travel and cycling trips don’t necessarily want to feel like they are on a “guided tour.” Most cyclists like the sense of moving at their own pace and not being tied to a group schedule. People choose to go on tours like ours because they want the expertise and local knowledge that is important to creating engaging itineraries, they care about quality equipment, group camaraderie, knowledgeable tour leaders – but there is also an important element of freedom in the way one travels – the ability to make the day their own experience. Our Tour Leaders are also on the road offering van support and cycling but we do our best to stay away from group shuttles because they eliminate flexibility and that way our riders can decide for themselves if they’d like to ride their bike or in the van. We also have a unique navigation system, literally putting chalk dust arrows on the pavement to show riders the way. This means that our routes can be very complex and truly off the beaten path, and cyclists spend their time enjoying scenery not trying to decipher complicated instructions or maps. Each day the arrows lead you to the best places for a snack, point out a particularly lovely view, encourage you up the hills – it makes you feel like the tour leaders are with you every single pedal stroke. In the afternoon the arrows will lead you a very comfortable hotel, often located in the center of town, so you can explore a before a fabulous dinner together.
EP: Why should someone choose an ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours trip over that of another operator?
MEP: We were the first US based company to offer cycling tours in Italy and are still one of the few operators out there who specializes in bicycle tours and bicycle travel exclusively. This means we are able to focus all of our energy and resources to cycling… cycling routes, cycling equipment, cycling friendly itineraries… All of our employees ride and are passionate about cycling and traveling by bicycle. We’ve spent years perfecting our systems to offer the finest cycling itineraries and have invested in some of the best touring bicycles and equipment out there. We have always worked with local tour leaders and they are a very important part of our staff – many companies are just now starting to add the “local” element. Our chalk dust arrow navigation system, and centrally located three and four star hotels round out all the elements you need for a perfect cycling trip. Oh and including wine with dinner doesn’t hurt either!
EP: Do you attract recreational riders, hard core riders, or those who seek cultural immersion? Or all of the above?
MEP: We have tours that cater to all of the above. One tremendous advantage of traveling by bicycle is that you are a part of the landscape, riding along roads and paths with locals, stopping in small towns. There are no barriers (car, bus, train) between you and a conversation with a local. Also, because our tour leaders are typically from the area they provide an enormous amount of historical and cultural information. Each itinerary includes a number of special visits –it may be to a 14th century fort in Croatia, a wine cellar in France, or a cheese maker in Italy it isn’t something a traveler could have organized on their own. As far as the type of rides, we offer 5 levels from 101 to 501 so have something for everyone no matter their experience or interest. A 101 tour is perfect for people who prefer gentle terrain or those who are just starting their cycling career or active traveling experiences. At the other end of the spectrum is our 501 rated ExpeditionPlus! tours which have you riding across continents! Overall though I’d say our clientele are recreational cyclists who are there to get some exercise, meet some fun companions, learn about an area, eat some fabulous food without feeling too guilty. The nice thing about our trips is that no matter what you prefer…ride hard and get to the next destination in record speed, or take a 100 pictures along the way, it’s possible.
EP: Tell me about three places you go as a company, places where you’d gladly drop everything and go this afternoon for an extended stay?
MEP: Emilia Romagna, Italy – where our headquarters is, will forever be my second home and I would drop everything and go there this afternoon – now that I spend more time in the office I don’t spend as much time there as I used to. My sister lives there and now I have a new niece there so it’s even harder to be far from them. I don’t know what it is about Italy that is captivating, but the food, people, history makes it special. I would do the same for Southern Spain. After having lived there for a year it is my second home away from home, I wouldn’t go there in July or August – but any other time of year it is special! Finally I would say the Lakes District in Patagonia, it’s just a stunningly beautiful place (the Chilean or Argentine side – we happen to have a trip that rides from one to the other!)
EP: What destinations are new for ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours this year?
MEP: This year we’ve added new destinations within countries we already know well. We’ve added a trip in the Languedoc in France (a region just West of Provence, known for its wine – surprise – and beautiful medieval towns). We’ve also added two trips in Italy in the Lakes District region, it’s a stunning region with some great bike routes and very unique “off the beaten path” cities, and a new Culinary Delights tour that is based very near our headquarters in Emilia Romagna which includes some gentle rides, and very special visits with our favorite Parmesan cheese and Balsamic vinegar makers.
EP: Where are you scouting for future trips?
MEP: In 2013 we’ll be adding a new tour Catalonia Spain – our 11 day tour will take advantage of a great bike path that will allow us to pedal straight into Barcelona on the last day of cycling! And we’ve had numerous requests to resurrect our trip to Ireland which we retired several years ago. We’re also beginning to scout a tour around the Italian/Slovenian border region.
EP: Do you think adventure travel is becoming less adventurous and more focused on creature comforts?
MEP: I think the brand “Adventure Travel” is becoming an ever increasing broad label. To a certain extent, if a traveler feels like what they are doing is adventurous then who is to say it shouldn’t be considered adventure travel? We generally think of ourselves as more of an active travel company – some might not consider it adventurous unless we were bicycling through lion infested forests – but bicycling 30 – 50 miles a day is very active! I think that travelers just need to make sure they know there are different styles of travel that fall under the broader title adventure travel. Some might like the luxury eco-lodges and high-end safari camps while others may prefer a backpacking trip in Peru – and hopefully others like a trip by bicycle across Spain or Scotland!
EP: With all of your travels, where do you find your center of gravity?
MEP: In Fort Collins, a little town in Colorado at the foot of the Rockies. I’m getting married in August to the most wonderful person possible who helps keep me grounded. He has taught me that there are plenty of adventures just here in our backyard – between the hiking, skiing and mountain biking we are never bored. We have a house and dog – all three are hard to leave when I travel, but it makes coming home that much sweeter!