The Interview: Kathy Bechtel of ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine
By Ed Wetschler
Most European bicycling trips range from sag-wagon easy to blisteringly hard, but a single ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine trip often features both extremes, and the same goes for the company’s hiking and skiing vacations. Wondering how they manage that, we sat down (on proper chairs, not bicycle seats) for a chat with co-owner Kathy Bechtel.
EW: What’s your elevator speech about what makes Italia Outdoors Food and Wine unique?
KB: We talk with each guest, learn what their hopes are, and we work to make it all happen. We accommodate different fitness levels and interests, and my business partner, Vernon McClure, and I personally lead the trips. For every custom trip we create a unique itinerary. I’m working on one now that includes experts who want to ride 60-90 miles a day, and mellow riders who may be done at 30 miles.
EW: How can you manage a trip whose participants have such a wide range of skills?
KB: We don’t ride as a group, unless that is what the group wants. We supply maps, GPS units, and everything you need to ride at your own pace. Those who wish to race along, can. Those who wish to stop, visit a church, take a picture, enjoy a snack, can do that. If you wish to ride more, we map out another loop.
We do have a vehicle for support, but it doesn’t follow the participants. If someone on a bicycling trip needs to call a sag wagon, than the operator did not design a good route for that individual. Of course, if you have mechanical problems or are exhausted, give us a call and we’ll find you.
EW: You emphasize cuisine. Doesn’t every bike tour operator do that?
KB: Yes, but when companies run groups of 20 or more, the dining options are limited. Our tours include eight participants, maximum, so we’re more flexible. We can even make changes at the last minute if, say, everyone is dying for a good pizza (which seems to happen every trip). Many tours control costs by offering a fixed menu and not including wine. Our guests choose from the menu, and I order local wines so we can taste and learn while we eat. Also, I’m a chef and cooking instructor, so we have real discussions about food. On our culinary bike tours, such as “Chefs on Bikes,” participants actually get to cook.
EW: Is Vernon also a chef?
No, Vernon is a former Airborne Army Ranger and Head of Recreation Programming for U.S. service personnel in Italy. He lives in Italy now and is a certified mountain guide as well as a skiing, snowboarding, scuba-diving, and sailing instructor. He’s an expert in program design and risk management, has designed bicycle tour itineraries, and has a BA in history and Italian studies, and an MA in European literature. He’s also a master at maintaining bicycle equipment.
EW: That’s all?
KB: [Smile] That’s all.
EW: ItaliaOutdoors Food and Wine also offers ski trips. Why might someone book an organized ski trip instead of just traveling alone or with friends or a spouse?
KB: Exploring a new ski area, especially in Europe, can be intimidating for people unfamiliar with the area. A good tour operator will choose the best ski area for the trip – and for each day – based upon snowfall, weather conditions, and crowds. Participants also get the benefit of local guides.
Singles enjoy group trips because they can find other skiers with similar abilities. Couples with differing levels of expertise like groups, too, because they can split up, with each skiing at their preferred pace. And from a safety perspective, I always recommend skiing with a partner, especially when you’re unfamiliar with the area.
EW: Kathy, if you wanted to wow me with your own cooking, what would be on the menu?
KB: The dishes most people love are the simplest. My favorites? Risotto – a straightforward technique, with the right rice, and you can make it so many ways; seafood, mushroom, peas, sausage, radicchio. Also, I like to braise pork in milk. Two inexpensive ingredients, a bit of time, and it’s fantastic. The sauce gets all brown and chunky and delicious, and it doesn’t look at all like milk.
Ed Wetschler, Associate Editor of Everett Potter’s Travel Report, also serves as Caribbean Editor of Recommend magazine and Executive Editor of Tripatini. He has written for The New York Times, Delta Sky, Frommers, Gadling, bank magazines, and other print and new media. He is a past chair of the Northeast Chapter of SATW and former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine who can navigate Greenwich Village without a GPS. In a previous life he played backup piano for Jay and the Americans as well as The Toys, whom he considers the consummate interpreters of Mozart.