Company Profile from the Charlotte Citizen
Ever dreamed of sipping Burgundy wine in the vineyards of Côte de Beaune? Or perhaps tasting fresh pressed olive oil under the Tuscan sun? Or maybe just exploring the Lake Champlain Islands for the first time?
VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations has your ticket. Based in Bristol and founded in 1971 by Middlebury College professor John Freidin, VBT offers 37 bicycling and walking tours in 26 countries around the globe. Some of them include France’s famous wine country, Italy’s historic Tuscan coast and – as part of this year’s 40th anniversary celebration – Vermont’s scenic Champlain Islands, where VBT owner and Charlotter Gregg Marston and other VBT associates will join cyclists.
Marston became VBT’s president in 1999 after a two-decade career in investment management. He and his wife, Caroline, purchased VBT in 2005, successfully combining his business acumen with a passion for travel that began in earnest when he journeyed around the world in the late 1970s while on hiatus from his undergraduate studies at the University of Vermont.
“I didn’t set out to go around the world,” said Marston, 55. “I set out to go to New Zealand and come home. But once I got there I realized that once you expand your own comfort zone, you can continue to do more and more.”
Instead of going straight home from New Zealand, he travelled to Australia, Indonesia and Thailand. He sailed across the Bay of Bengal from Malaysia to Sri Lanka – a 10-day voyage. He was in Afghanistan during the period of political unrest preceding the Soviet invasion. He experienced the tension in Iran before the fall of the Shah. He hitchhiked across Europe.
“Everywhere I went, sure, geographically they were beautiful places, but I always came to the conclusion that it was the people who made the difference,” Marston recalled, citing his crash course in cultural immersion as the impetus for his decision to differentiate VBT from its competitors by hiring only local tour guides.
“When you’re in Italy, you’re being led by an Italian. When you’re in Hungary, you’re being led by a Hungarian, and they have fantastic life stories,” he said. “They’re real people who have a passion for the experience, a passion for their country and a passion for people.”
Another feature that sets VBT apart from the competition is the inclusion of air travel in all of its travel packages, including fuel surcharges, which Marston said are hurting the company’s bottom line, but which he refuses to retroactively pass on to customers once they’ve booked their trips.
“My commitment to my customers is that we’re the best value, guaranteed,” he said. “I’m not going to re-invoice our guests for a fuel surcharge because I committed to value for our guests.”
VBT’s bicycling vacations typically last 10 days and include hotel accommodations, meals and scheduled sightseeing tours and local cultural activities. A support van always follows the group, meaning that cyclists can ride as much, or as little, as they want.
And for those who prefer a more leisurely pace, VBT introduced walking vacations to its tour offerings last year, with trip destinations ranging from the 40 shades of green of Ireland’s Iveragh Peninsula to the sprawling glaciers and crystal clear lakes of Argentina’s Patagonia region.
Reflecting on his decision to leave his comfortable lifestyle as an investment manager to pursue his dream in the travel industry, Marston likened it to his prior choice as a young college student to delay his graduation by a year and see the world.
“I didn’t want to look back at 65 and say, ‘Gee, that’s all you’ve done?’” said Marston, who has three children, the youngest of whom is a senior at Champlain Valley Union High School.
“My hair’s a little grayer than it otherwise might have been and my golf game has suffered as a result,” he added, “but my kids have seen a lot of the world. My kids saw me take risks and through that perhaps they’ll learn that it’s good to take risks when you know what you want to accomplish.”