When Tom Hale decided to launch a guided bike tour company in 1979, the concept was largely unknown in this country, and Hale was a one man operation: marketer, tour leader, mechanic, driver and cook. More than 35 years later, Hale still runs Backroads, but today the company is the best-known upscale active travel outfitter in the nation, if not the world, making vacation dreams come true for nearly 30,000 customers each year – half of them loyal repeat guests.
A California native and athlete, Hale ran track at University of Oregon with legendary teammate Steve Prefontaine. As a result, he literally fell in love the lesser traveled back roads while grinding out training miles. Hale’s original goal was to provide a more rewarding and different way for people to enjoy leisure travel, and he jumped on the now red hot “experiential travel” trend – about three decades before it got a catchy name.
After my recent experience as a guest of Backroads on a guided group cycling trip along the coast of Maine, I’d say Hale has more than succeeded. I’ve traveled with some of the top luxury cycling, active, safari and other kinds of tour operators in the world, so I have an informed opinion of this market. But even before I pedaled one mile, I was impressed, because so many well-traveled people I know who have deep pockets and lots of options, including close friends and relatives, have chosen Backroads over the years, loved it, raved about it, and keep going back. I figured there had to be something to it, and there is. Another friend of mine who is a doctor used to guide for Backroads post college, loved it even as an employee, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t sing the praises of the company – including my fellow Maine cyclists, many of whom were on their second, third or fourth Backroads trips. 80% of all customers have either traveled with Backroads before or had the company recommended to them by someone they knew who had. That’s impressive.
The strategy is seemingly simple: organize active trips in great destinations with first rate lodging, food, and activities, all led by expert guides who make it easy – almost too easy – for guests, who have to do little except show up and enjoy everything. The company started with cycling in California, but its vast catalog of offerings now spans the globe, and includes pure biking trips, hiking and walking trips, and multisport adventures, which typically combine several of the following: cycling, hiking, kayaking, rafting, snorkeling and even surfing. There are trips combining cycling or walking with river cruises, new winter trips featuring snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, even a recent category of “Active Gourmet” trips that combine cycling or walking with cooking classes, wine tastings and the like in top culinary destinations such as Tuscany and Provence. This huge slate of trips is offered across North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa – and just recently added red hot Cuba. The company’s behind the scenes trip designers, the experts who actually choose the destinations and put together the detailed itineraries, have an average of over 15 years experience in a market where many companies doing similar trips haven’t even been in existence that long.
The variety of trips offered is staggering, and to make it even more comprehensive, many itineraries are offered as “classic,” group trips with up to 24 passengers, as well as “family” versions, specifically aimed at groups of parents traveling with children. There are even designated solo traveler departures, great for singles who might feel out of place among ten couples, and in many cases, the same trips are offered at two different levels of lodging luxury, with “premier” or “casual” hotels. While all Backroads trips would be in the category of luxury tours, there is wider range of price points and styles than most similar tour operators can match, in large part because Backroads is the biggest of the higher end players. They also do a lot of completely bespoke trips for families and groups as small as one, and private trips for affiliated groups, including alumni and corporate team outings.