Fast Talk: George Butterfield
Published: May 2009
George Butterfield led his first trip in 1966, a 59-day student bike tour through Europe that promised comfortable lodging, great food, and wine at each day's end. That trip—and that concept—evolved into what is now Butterfield & Robinson, one of the most successful luxury active-travel companies in the world, with nearly 100 biking, walking, and boating trips in more than two dozen countries. As president and CEO of B&R, Butterfield has been to places most of us have never even heard of; swum in the most remote cove of Sifnos, Greece; woken up under the stars in Botswana; and drunk Mojitos in parador courtyards with Cuban musicians. In this installment of 10 Questions, Butterfield divulges some of his dream destinations, counsels couples traveling together (he's an expert), and offers words of wisdom to travel by.
1. How often do you travel, and is it usually for business or pleasure?
I travel about 25 weeks out of the year, including (in a good year) two or three B&R trips. I try to lead one B&R trip a year, always in an area I know well—usually someplace in France. Most of my so-called business travel is pretty pleasurable, since the work I do is all about pleasure. Most of the time, I don't even think I'm working.
2. What's your personal travel motto?
The same as the company's: "Slow down to see the world." Of course, this is best done on foot or by bike. When you're driving by quickly in a car or bus, you're so isolated from the sights, smells, and people along the way. You don't notice the freshly baked bread in the bakery or the ripe grapes on the vine.
3. Do you have any tricks for finding sites and activities that are off the beaten path?
It's all about paying attention to detail, knowing the region, and getting to know people. There's no trick—just careful investigation.
4. What distinguishes B&R from other adventure outfitters?
We don't do group trips. We introduce individuals to incredible experiences, and let them move at their own pace. They choose when to get up in the morning, and whether they want to bike or walk, and how fast or slow. They decide where to stop along the way. With the help of local contacts and lots of backstage planners, our guides ensure that everyone gets to do exactly what they want to do.
5. How will you develop and expand the services of B&R over the next 10 years?
We're not interested in getting big for the sake of getting big; we just want to be the best. People these days are demanding more and more in the way of service, and we're providing it. We have more private trips and family trips, and a new program called Sojourns, in which travelers stay in one place for five days and live like locals. It's the ultimate "slow down to see the world" experience.
6. You married Martha Robinson 38 years ago, and she's been your steady travel partner since. What qualities make a good travel companion? Any advice for couples traveling together?
Traveling isn't so different from living together. In both situations, there's an awful lot of compromise involved. For example, I think Martha's perfect day would be to look at every gallery in every museum in every town; mine would be to sit in every café and look at every person that walks down the street. But I like museums, too, and Martha likes cafés, so we just work it out somehow. It helps to have a shared enthusiasm for life.
7. What are your travel essentials?
I don't need much—just bike shorts, my passport, and my charge card. I mean, it's nice to have a toothbrush and a fresh shirt to change into, but if you don't have one (or if your bag gets lost), it's not a big deal. You can always buy what you need virtually anywhere you go.
8. What does luxury mean to you?
To me, luxury is not about over-the-top things but wonderful, surprising things at the right moments. Getting upgraded from an economy seat to first-class. A perfect bottle of Vernaccio di San Gimignano while somewhere exotic. A great bottle of wine is a luxury anywhere, but it's a bigger one in a place where you'd least expect it.
Also, the fact that I can ride my bike to work every day-that's the biggest luxury.
9. Anywhere you haven't been that you hope to get to some day?
The list is just enormous. I'd love to go on our Bhutan Expedition trip. I'm dying to go to Burma and Cambodia. I haven't traveled much in South Africa or in Cappadocia, in Turkey. There are probably a thousand Greek islands that would be great to visit, but I've only seen about 20 of them.
10. Anything you know now that you wish you knew then?
The thing about growing older is that it seems like there is less time ahead. When I first started this business, I thought it would give me the chance to see every corner of the universe again and again. And I now realize that will not be possible, that there are limits after all. But I keep dreaming!
Interviewed by Jaime L. Gross