Andy Steves, CEO of WSA Europe (Weekend Student Adventures) was very welcome at ICC on the 26th of January. He operates a rapidly growing and exciting tour company which travels to Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, Prague, Rome, Budapest, Krakow, Swiss Alps, Amsterdam as well as celebration packages for St. Paddy’s Day in Dublin and Easter in Rome. The trips stretch from between a weekend to a week and include such activities as bike tours, foodie experiences and skip-the-line sightseeing. I got the opportunity to speak to Andy about WSA Europe and to find out more about it.
Welcome Andy! So first of all, can you tell us about your early travel experiences?
My dad (Rick Steves) writes a guidebook and runs a big tour company with between seventy and eighty employees in Seattle. It has over one hundred European guides. I grew up coming over to Europe when he was making his guidebook and his TV show. As a little kid I hated it but it taught me how to travel nonetheless.
I can’t imagine how anyone could hate it?
Well our family trips were never vacations, they were always serious work. Looking back on it, he was working really hard, harder than anyone I’ve ever seen work: taking notes, researching his book, meeting with guides, researching new restaurants, museums and itinerary, all these different things. At the end of the day he’d come back and type it all up and so anytime the family came over it wasn’t so much a vacation, more of an opportunity to test whether or not it was good for a family to be there. As a twelve-year-old kid, all you want is a cheeseburger, but we had to go to all these different restaurants and make sure they were good.
I graduated high school in 2005 and me and my best friend came over to Europe on a six-week backpacking trip and it was the first time I went to Europe independently. That was an opportunity for me to cut my teeth on what it’s like to get around Europe and to use public transportation. We saw Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, Nice, Switzerland, Rome, Sicily, Florence, Naples – all these different places and it really opened my eyes to how much fun independent travel could be rather than having my dad.
That mirrors your dad’s story slightly, doesn’t it?
Yes it does, very true. My dad got his start from my grandparents who imported pianos from Germany and sold pianos all up and down the West Coast. They came over to Europe when my grandfather was checking the factories and touring them to understand where they were coming from. My dad hated it when he was coming with his dad because it was a business trip but then he graduated High School and came over with his best friend just like I did and did their own thing on a budget. So just as much as I’d like to do something different I really can’t get too far from the tree!
How did you come to work in tourism as well?
For myself, I fully intended on doing something completely different. I studied Industrial Design and Italian. I really wanted to go into transportation design: cars, motorcycles, but especially boats. I really wanted to go into naval architecture and design. I was halfway through an application to the Politechnico di Milano to do a masters in yacht design but then I studied abroad in Rome and I loved it. My friends and myself travelled every single weekend and then everyone started coming with me because thanks to my twenty years of travelling with my family I knew how to get around, I had friends in all these places that I was going to, I knew how to find planes vs flights and all these different things. At first it was my close friends, and then it was my programme and then it was all sorts of people globbing on because they knew they would have a good time, that they would save money and that they would see a lot. The groups that I was arranging for was multiplying throughout the course of the masters and I was doing it for fun. That’s when I realised there was a need for trips abroad for those studying in Europe. It’s super niche and it’s going really well but we’re not out of the woods yet!
How long has WSA Europe being in existence?
Since 2010. As I said, I was studying abroad in Rome in 2008, then I went back and had two more years of university to finish in the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana. I as working on the business plan for WSA on the side and also working on a website called Andy Steves.com, where I was dumping all of my ideas. It was kind of the perfect storm: I could deliver a service, and there was also the fact that I didn’t having a job otherwise, and also I had absolutely nothing to lose.
In 2008-2010, no new graduates are getting jobs so I decided to see if I could make something of it. I graduated in 2010 and I founded the company as soon as I got back to Seattle. I worked on it over the summer and then I came over to Europe in August and we were running our first trip by October 2010. Since then we’ve had 3,600 students on our trips.
How do you tailor the packages?
It’s a mix of both party and culture. I’ve designed it for someone like myself. This is something I’m trying to encapsulate in two seconds, visually and also on our website and all our literature. I’ve put together these trips with sensitivity to the local culture and that’s the primary way that we’re different from our competition. We have competition for sure and they’re coming after us hard because I think that’s a sign that they respect us and also that they’re nervous!
How is WSA Europe different?
The way we’re different is that we have local guides in all of our cities. We focus on culture but not at the expense of having a good time. We include all of our sightseeing. What that means is with a group of twenty students we’re able to make reservations ahead of time and so that we can include that sight, skip the line into it, and then use those three hours that we saved going off and including much cooler things than just standing in line. If you go to Paris, you’ve got to see the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower; if you go to Rome you’ve got to see the Colosseum and the Vatican so what’s the sense in us not including it? That makes our packages a little more expensive but at the end of the day you’ve got to see it!
Our local guides are amazing, whether it’s Georgio in Rome or Arthur in Amsterdam, they’re all from those cities so they love it and they have awesome neighbourhoods they like to take students to and to explore farmer’s markets.
The fact that we get to skip the lines allows us to build in a lot of free time and flexibility. In the evenings we meet up for a pub crawl or go out to the clubs and do things like vodka tasting in Krakow, absinthe in Prague, wine in Rome or the Guinness Brewery in Dublin.
It’s so important for us to articulate what makes WSA Europe special and that’s efficient sightseeing, fun laidback tour groups, an itinerary that we stick to mostly but if something cool pops up we’re going to go chase it down, like a music festival or an interesting pub crawl or some other event that might pop up. My guides have complete flexibility to go and customise the itinerary based on the weekend and whatever the student’s interest is.
Do you stay in hostels generally?
Only hand-picked hostels that I’ve stayed in myself. I like the social aspect of hostels, you could stay in a nice hotel room, but then you don’t have any interaction with people you’re there to meet.
What are your plans for WSA Europe?
We have a couple of trips in the works such as a sailing trip in Greece. We’re going to charter two 56 foot yachts, that can sleep 13 people and we’ll go cruising for a week.
We started out doing guided weekend trips, and now we do guided week trips. We travel from Friday to the following Sunday during Spring Breaks, the close of Semester and Fall breaks. For example you could fly into Venice on Friday, then go on to Cinque Terre, Pisa, Florence and Rome. We stay for two nights in each of those cities and that helps students make the most of their time while they’re travelling.
Something that’s new and exciting is our unguided detours. These are designed for people to connect and go on their own. What they are essentially is the skeleton of our guided tours: the accommodation and sightseeing. I’ve written up a ten page guidebook including each of the sights. On our guided trips you could come to Amsterdam and we have a one page itinerary with recommended free-time activities, nightlife and practical tips. The guide breaks everything else down for you. For the unguided trips, I’ve blown that into a ten page booklet that’s for a three day guide including where you’ve got to eat and what you’ve got to see. In those PDFs we drop in the barcodes for the sightseeing and the accommodation so you can just take that and go have an awesome time. That’s really popular and I think that’s going to be a higher demand in the long run for the general public than necessarily our guided trips. It’s not something I’ve proven yet but it’s something I’m very interested in exploring.
What about your staff?
We have a complete roster of local guides in all of our cities now. I have a great operations person based in Rome. She’s Norwegian. I have a person back in Seattle who is managing our interns and our social media. I’d love to expand beyond it so we need as much help as we can get. We’re still in the early stages. There is so much work we want to do but we don’t have the budget yet to hire. Maybe that will change this semester?!
Do you go on the tours yourself?
Well I designed and led the trips until I found a local guide to take over. Now, I focus on the administration, I help co-ordinate everything from my computer and I help run the celebration weekends and the longer break trips as well.
How many do you bring on each tour or does it vary?
We cap it at thirty but for our celebration trips we go much bigger. For Easter we’ll have 55 and for St. Paddy’s this year, because it’s on a Tuesday we’ll have 24 but a few years ago it was on a Saturday and we had 97. For the St. Paddy’s trip we also do all the touristy things and all the cliché things, unapologetically! Students have an amazing time, we see the Guinness Storehouse, we catch a dance show at the Arlington Hotel, we go out to Howth, we have dinner in the Irish Film Institute and then we go to Whelan’s, Flannery’s and Coppers.
How do you figure out the places to go? Is it from your own travelling around or does it come from the local guides?
Each of my destinations, I go in and I do all of it and I have a pretty good idea of what students are going to like and appreciate. I have an eye to the most important aspects that I need to reveal of the city to the students about the culture, the sights, the art, the history, the architecture, the nightlife, so I try to get a good mix of all of that. I have three days to work with so I try to focus on the old town; the historic centre on the first day, the renaissance or the modern culture on the second day and then the third day is Sunday so it’s usually farmer’s markets, maybe a museum or some kind of outdoor site that you might miss otherwise.
How do you fill the days generally?
Usually there’s a walking tour in the morning, maybe a sight in the afternoon, and then free time before meeting back up later for dinner and the nightlife. That’s generally the routine for two days and then on Sunday they head out whenever they have their flight lined up.
Does all of this make it very hard for you to travel yourself?
Yeah, I do organising for a living. I’m trying to get out to South East Asia this Summer with my sister to backpack around a little bit and I don’t have the time to organise or plan anything because I’m always doing this stuff so that’s one of the challenges. My vacation is just to go home and just lie on the couch basically!
Do you have any favourite destination?
The first question we always get is what’s the best trip and I honestly don’t have an answer to that because it really depends on what the student is interested in and whatever it is their priorities are. They’re all great cities in different respects. I’m actually working on this project where we make a chart where there’s a fork in the road and just by asking you your preferences we could come up with an idea of what place would suit. On our flyer, we’ve rated all of our cities according to three aspects: action, sightseeing and nightlife.
And finally Andy, what’s your opinion of ICC?
We love getting involved with organisations like the ICC and seeing how we can help. I am really impressed by the ICC operations. There are a number of things that I think make ICC unique. Immediately, upon meeting the team of volunteers, the enthusiasm and welcoming atmosphere is great. It’s clear that everyone, no matter where they are coming from, is enjoying being a part of the team, and that shows. That’s something you just can’t fake, and so I commend Csaba and the team for achieving such a strong team dynamic.
I think it’s very well organized too. The checking in is smooth. The raffle went well. It’s clear people have a good time, and I think the ICC provides great value in helping expats from all countries come out to meet each other. I think there’s a need for something like this in every city.
But overall, I wish you guys all the best because there is real value in the organization as it is now.
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