UBS Conversation: My Business, My Legacy with Rick Steves

The travel guru discusses his mission to inspire Americans to venture beyond our borders.

For the first time in thirty years, Rick Steves is spending the summer in his hometown of Seattle. Steves, the popular television host, author and travel guru, is unable to spend this summer offering tours and conducting research in Europe due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Forty years ago, Steves went from piano teacher to travel guide when he discovered he could combine his passion and hobby with his career. He wrote Europe Through the Back Door: The Travel Skills Handbook and his company, Rick Steves’ Europe, was born. Steves joined Jennifer Povlitz, West Division Director, Wealth Management US, and Colin Hawkes, Market Head, Pacific Northwest, for a conversation that was part of UBS' My Business, My Legacy program.

The program brings business owner clients together to share stories about how business and legacy are inextricably linked. Steves touched on a wide variety of topics in his discussion with Povlitz and Hawkes, from the start of his company to answering audience questions, like whether he really uses a money belt, as he suggests repeatedly on his show and in his books. (He does.)

Responding to COVID-19

But it was Steves openness about his dedication and passion for his employees and his customers, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic that resonated across the video chat. Following his company’s best year ever in 2019, with $100 million in gross revenues and more than 30,000 Americans on tours in Europe, Steves is experiencing something that is unfortunately all too common for business owners: the inability to generate new revenue in an environment where people are not traveling overseas. Steves refunded in full 24,000 clients’ deposits for 2020 while avoiding layoffs for his 100 employees. “I know that [tours] will come back,” he says, “but right now, I need to keep my team together. We have sort of a shared sacrifice…I really think there’s something more fundamental right now than my quarterly profit statement. And that’s how we can keep our community together.”    

“That’s the right thing to do, but also I’m really in the long-term business planning,” Steves says. “In the long term, you’ve got to take care of your employees, your clientele, your community, and then we’ll be making good money years down the road.”

When it comes to his legacy, Steves wants to build a company that will live long after him and help broaden the perspectives of Americans through travel. Steves is also focused on what he calls “vicarious consumption” by giving back through a program that houses 25 single mothers and by supporting senior centers in Seattle. “How can I be wealthier when I’ve reached a point where if I consume more, I won’t get happier? I really enjoy taking the money that I don’t need personally and investing it in something that I think will do a lot.”

Steves is hopeful about the future of travel. He expects demand will come back “with a vengeance,” but for now the travel industry is focused on local travel and road trips. He looks forward to packing planes and tour busses one day soon when it’s safe.

“The real essence of good travel is sitting in a bar in Ireland where strangers are just friends you’ve yet to meet and the Guinness costs the same regardless of your net worth and almost anybody can afford a round for your new friends in the pub.”

Considering a trip to Europe?

For those with wanderlust but who cannot travel, Steves recommends you dust off your old hobbies and bring a traveller’s mindset to new activities that you can now do in the current pandemic. For example, Steves has learned to cook and started playing his trumpet at sunset to celebrate his community. “There are so many dimensions of life that we can enjoy now that don’t involve travel.”

Steves spent more than ten minutes taking audience questions in a “lightening round.” He covered topics like travel to Eastern Europe, the French Riviera vs. the Italian Riviera (Steves prefers the Italian), hiking Mont Blanc, small B&Bs vs. large hotel chains and traveling safe and smart.

Times like these in 2020 certainly reinforce the need and value of advice from someone who knows you and understands you, your family, your business and your priorities. Our UBS purpose statement, which is really our core value, is to help our clients improve their lives and create legacies that matter.

Speak with your UBS Financial Advisor and learn more about how your business can navigate the current environment or by visiting the UBS Business Owner Resilience Center. Also, visit the UBS Flight Paths homepage for more on Entrepreneurs and their journeys.

In addition to the questions during the program, Rick Steves graciously offered to answer some that we couldn’t get to.

I only make TV for public television and every two years we produce a new season (Season 11 debuts this fall). I'm thankful to always have programs in the pipeline. Coming up we'll air one hour specials on Egypt and the Alps (both filmed in 2019) and then my big project after that will be a mini-series sweeping through the story of European art from the Parthenon to Picasso. Stay tuned!

Yes, for sure, those who speak the language get a closer and more intimate connection. Having said that, I make it clear in my teaching that it's not a requirement. I speak only English and find that's it's the world's linguistic common denominator. If a Greek meets a Norwegian hiking in the Swiss Alps, how will they communicate? In broken English!

There is a hierarchy of those of us on the road: tourist (with a bucket list of things to check off, just having fun); traveler (interested in getting out of her comfort zone, trying new things, and expanding her horizons), and pilgrim (who knows you learn more about your home by leaving it, someone who is looking for meaning and a transformational experience). The pilgrim brings home the best souvenir: a broader perspective. We can be a little of each in our travels.

India and Japan are my favorite countries to explore, but I've decided to focus my teaching just on Europe. I see it as the wading pool for world exploration. My mission at Rick Steves’ Europe is to inspire Americans to venture beyond Orlando, and Europe is a good first stop. It's a huge responsibility to have the leading guidebooks for all of Europe and I'm very happy to stay focused on that and, with my 100 colleagues, make sure our material--tours, guidebooks, and TV shows--are as helpful as possible.