Interview with founder Robbin McKinney

You are quite a seasoned adventure traveler – for how long have you been touring the world actively?

In 1983, at the age of 23, I took some time off after university to go to Europe on bicycle with a notion that I was in for an adventure. I haven’t stopped traveling since and continue to believe that to really experience a place, you need to get out off of the bus, exercise your legs, breathe the air and meet the locals.

What’s your favourite adventure travel destination and why?

I always say my favourite trip is the one I just returned from. To be honest, every trip I have been on that has involved a bicycle has been amazing.

What key travel gear do you bring on bike tours?

My packing list is much shorter than most. Whether I am traveling for 1 week or 12 weeks, it all fits in a carry-on. I think the choice of gear is not as important as taking a good attitude. Be open, be flexible and be yourself. And, if you love those shoes, and it’s going to make your trip, bring ‘em.

What are your top 3 items that you would never leave home without when traveling?

Sense of humour, a good book and our international staff phone directory.

What special touches make travel more memorable and luxurious for you? Any favourite hotels?

A warm welcome goes a long way to making places memorable for me.  Favourite hotels? –  Palazzo Squarcialupi in Castellina, Tuscany; Bastide de Voulonne, Provence, France; Hotel Metropole in Hanoi, Vietnam;  Villa Maroc in Essaouira, Morocco…; actually, every hotel we use is special. At Randonnée, we give you options for hotels, so you can choose Casual (often B&B’s and casual inns), Classic (typically 3&4 star); Luxe (typically 4&5 star and on some trips, Premier Deluxe for hotels that are the best of the best (you get the idea).

How did you end up operating a self-guided active travel business?

I was a seasonal cycling and hiking guide for 15 years with Butterfield & Robinson, the company that started biking and walking tours in Europe. It was an extraordinary time and I learned a great deal; in 1997 I decided to start (tour operator) Great Explorations so I could create and lead trips full-time. In 2005, I acquired Randonnée Tours, who pioneered self-guided active travel in 1989. Although the companies operate independently, there are great synergies and provide more options for our clients.  

What sets Randonnée apart from other self-guided travel companies?

We have been designing and leading trips for a long time (+35 yrs), so are fortunate to have experience to draw from when planning and operating trips. I have extensive contacts throughout the world, and in the regions we travel we are welcomed as friends.  Compared to other companies, our clients tell us that we charge far less and offer a more authentic experience. We operate all of our trips which allows us to ensure the quality of everything from the hotels to the equipment to our Area Managers etc. Our client testimonials highlight these and other differences.

On what philosophy have you based Randonnée?

We have a lot of personal friends take our trips and every trip we offer I would not hesitate to recommend to a good friend or family member. If it isn’t an amazing trip, we won’t offer it to anyone.  Through our sponsorship of events and donations we give back to our community and those in which we travel.

What is your favourite part of operating an adventure touring company?

We receive lots of emails from clients, usually about the incredible experiences they have had on a trip. We know that vacations are important for people and they have a lot of choices when it comes to travel. When an email arrives to say, “it truly was a vacation of a lifetime,” we feel we have done our job well.

What type of client books a self-guided tour?

Most people who book self-guided tours want to travel independently, but appreciate that the routes are well planned, the equipment will be top-notch and that there is a local contact, should they need assistance. They want to choose the dates and to travel with their own partner, friends or family. Some have traveled on guided trips previously and feel ready to take the next step of traveling on their own.

Are there any places you can’t offer self-guided tours?

We offer a large number of trips throughout North America and Europe. Clearly, in places like Morocco, Vietnam, etc. it is more difficult to operate self-guided  travel and we feel you will have a better experience on a guided, fully supported tour.  Fortunately, Great Explorations offers tours to many of these locales, and can plan a custom guided trip anywhere. 

Do you have any new trip ideas planned?

We continually introduce new trips. Join our Newsletter list to hear about the latest. 

Can we expect to see you on any trips in the near future?

I still guide and take several of our trips each year.  It’s the best part of the job…