The Rutland Herald - By Bruce Edwards
BRISTOL — As a former investment adviser, Gregg Marston always felt an obligation to get the best return on his clients’ money.
Marston and his employees take that same approach at VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations — the 40-year-old tour company.
“I feel a tremendous responsibility to our customers to deliver an excellent experience,” said Marston, who spent 23 years in the investment field before making a career change.
Marston was already managing VBT for Grand Circle Travel in Boston when he and his wife, Caroline, purchased the Bristol company in 2005.
Headquartered in an 18th-century yellow farmhouse off Monkton Road, VBT is among the three largest cycling tour companies in the country, Marston said. And despite the recession, he said VBT has continued to grow, finding its niche in offering biking or walking tours in 26 countries at an affordable price.
“We’ve had excellent growth in the six years of new ownership” with business up year-to-date over last year, Marston said.
Wearing an open-collar shirt and khaki pants, the 55-year-old Marston is the type of laid-back CEO you’d expect to run a bike touring company in Vermont. With an office view of a farm pasture, the former University of Vermont student said his passion for travel was planted during his college days when he spent 18 months traveling the world.
“It wasn’t so much the view from the summits of the mountains, or windows of automobiles that I was hitchhiking or trains I was riding,” he said. “It was the people with whom I interacted, whether it be a little boy running on the beach in Sri Lanka, or some of these smiling faces in the mountains of the Himalayas, or sailing across the Bay of Bengal in a storm with people I didn’t know, it’s all about the people and the cultural interactions.”
VBT (online at www.vbt.com) offers cycling tours of Europe, the United States, Costa Rica, New Zealand and Vietnam.
Europe is big business for VBT, accounting for 60 percent of the company’s sales. In total, the company offers 37 vacation packages in 26 countries, including combination bike and barge tours. Walking tours are also offered in Europe, Peru and Patagonia in Argentina.
All packages, except in the U.S., include airfare. Most tours are 10 days and range in price from $2,945 to $3,895. Marston said packages include fuel surcharges, hotel, most meals, a bike (VBT owns 2,500 Fuji road and hybrid bikes worldwide), helmet and transfers.
All tours are limited to 14 to 20 travelers and include two experienced guides and van support. The company has 150 guides worldwide who are bilingual and trained in first aid and CPR.
The six-day U.S. packages (without airfare) range from $1,395 for the Classic Vermont tour to $2,045 for the Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard tour.
VBT’s most popular bike tour is Italy’s Tuscan coast.
On a typical European tour, customers will bike and stay in one location for a couple of days before moving on by van to the next hotel. Daily bike excursions are about 20 miles with the van shuttling the group back to the hotel. Marston said customers also have the option of biking back to the hotel. He said there is plenty of free time for customers to get out on their own.
One lunchtime stop on the Tuscan tour is an olive oil mill.
“They put together this incredible, incredible buffet of Italian delicacies,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable.”
Marston said the company goes to great lengths to ensure customers have an exceptional experience, from the screening of guides to the selection of hotels. “That’s how we control the quality,” he said. “If it’s not up to standard, and folks don’t like it, we change it.”
The company has 35 employees in Bristol and seven full-time employees in Europe.
Marston said the company has outgrown the Bristol farm campus. Plans are to build a 4,000-square-foot addition to the barn. In the interim, the company has moved eight employees to temporary office space at the nearby Bristol Works complex.
Robin Scheu, executive director of the Addison County Regional Development Corp., said VBT has been a steady contributor to the local economy.
“I know they do a lot of things internationally as well, but they also have tours around here,” Scheu said. “Which means they bring people from outside the region and the state to Vermont, and that’s always a good thing too.”
When Middlebury College history professor John Freidin started the company 40 years ago, Vermont Bicycle Touring, as it was known at the time, offered three-day cycling tours that rarely ventured beyond Vermont’s borders.
Freidin said he gained some experience running a four-week bike trip in Massachusetts for American Youth Hostels during the summer of 1962. The idea for VBT came to him when he and several friends went on an overnight cycling trip.
“Four of us went off on an overnight ride and about the middle of the afternoon of the first day I just got this flash that people would love to bicycle in Vermont, if they knew the best places to ride, had a cozy inn to stay in at night and good food to eat, and somebody along who could help them with mechanical problems, if they needed that,” Freidin said.
He added that starting the company also gave him an exit from the world of academia, “which was not the greatest fit for me.”
At the time, Vermont Bicycle Touring was the first company of its kind in the United States to offer adult-based tours.
“I think he had the notion you could have an adult level of what had just been high school-age kids doing youth hostel tours,” said Greg Gerdel, chief of research and operations at the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing.
Since then, Gerdel said, several companies have picked up on Freidin’s model of setting up van-supported trips as tour members make their way to different inns each night.
“I think the first thing I noticed there was a California company doing Vermont tours in Vermont,” said Gerdel, who describes himself as an avid cyclist.
Freidin, who sold the company in 1986, said the company’s continued success is tied to the reputation it has developed over the years.
“I’m very pleased that it’s continued to be so successful and to run trips the customers really like,” Freidin said, “and to be a place where employees enjoy working very much.”
Marston, who credits his employees for the company’s success, wouldn’t disagree.
“Our guests send an evaluation back to us at the end of their trip, and we monitor what they say and we adjust based on what they tell us,” he said. “And if we’re not doing a good job, we want to fix it.”