The Charlotte News - By Elizabeth Bassett
Gregg Marston sounds like a motivational speaker. One you can trust. President and owner of VBT Vermont Bicycling and Walking Vacations, Charlotte’s Marston says, “I like to think we create ambassadors.” VBT operates about 400 small-group, deluxe bicycle and walking tours each year, from Vermont to Patagonia and Europe to the Far East. “VBT makes it possible for people to immerse themselves in other cultures, to meet people without barriers.”
National Geographic Adventure magazine named VBT “one of the Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth,” and, two years in a row, one of the top two “Best Bicycle Outfitters on Earth.” In Travel + Leisure magazine’s 2010 World’s Best Awards, VBT ranked fourth in the “Tour Operator and Safari Outfitter” category. VBT strives to offer value as well, promising that its 2011 prices, including international airfare and fuel surcharges, will be less than or equal to 2010 prices.
‘Twas not always thus. Forty years ago another Charlotter, John Freiden, gathered a group of friends for a bike ride and an overnight at an inn. “I had this flash,” says the retired Middlebury College history professor. “People love Vermont. I could add a nice place to stay and provide mechanical support to take away people’s worries.” Biking in cut-off dungarees and sneakers and without helmets, Freiden and his friends were the first Vermont Bicycle Tour. “That first year 75 people joined us,” Freiden says.
VBT caught the fitness wave. “People began to exercise for health and this was very helpful to our business,” Freiden says. “But the bicycles were not reliable nor as comfortable as they are today.”
Freiden ran the company for 14 years before selling to another Charlotte resident, Bill Perry. Perry in turn sold the company to Grand Circle Travel. In 1999 Marston put 21 years of investment management behind him and joined VBT as its president. In 2005 Gregg Marston and his wife Caroline purchased the company.
Marston’s life experiences have built toward his ideal career. Summer camp and a 26-day Outward Bound trip in Idaho set the stage for experiential learning. While a student at the University of Vermont, Marston took 18 months off to travel. “I put my academic life on hold for what became the adventure of a lifetime.” It was during this trip that Marston realized the importance of relating to others without a filter. “You experience this every day when you travel,” he says. “Just last month, when I was in Amsterdam, I spoke with a number of Iraqi taxi drivers. Even knowing that I am an American, they were welcoming and friendly.” All VBT trip leaders are local, helping travelers decipher the countries they are visiting.
“Our vendors also help fulfill our mission,” say Marston of his recent VBT barge and bicycle trip in Holland. “VBT charters the barge every year. We have a relationship with the owner that dates back more than a decade,” Marston says. “She is a true partner in making the experience the best it can be for our travelers.”
How does VBT keep its prices in check? “We deal directly with vendors so we are not paying third parties,” Marston explains. “We sell via direct mail and don’t use travel agents. Dealing directly allows us to control quality as well. And we don’t make the margin that some of our competitors do.”
VBT Vermont Bicycling and Walking Vacations is a generous community partner, often donating trips to area charity auctions and raffles. Local beneficiaries have included the CVU Nordic Team, NENSA (New England Nordic Ski Association), Kelly Brush Foundation and Ride, Friends of Middlebury Ski Team, Mary Haas Ovarian Cancer Benefit and Local Motion. In addition VBT supports national bicycling and walking organizations. Until June 20 each new member of Local Motion (localmotion.org) and all existing members who increase their donations by $5 or more will be registered to win a VBT trip to Italy. The VBT vacation includes airfare and has a value of more than $4,000.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary, Freiden will be VBT’s guest, joining Marston and others on a September bicycling trip through Hungary. Another celebratory event is a Vermont departure on June 12 for a Champlain Valley and Islands Bicycling Vacation. Bicycle Magazine features this as one of the “15 Trips We Love.” The itinerary will include the former dairy farm in Bristol that serves as company headquarters.
Happy Birthday, VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations. Thanks for keeping it local!