Interview with Paul Bennett – founder of Context Travel

I was so impressed by two Context Travel walks I did recently (the Oltrano Artisans walk in Florence, and the Haussman and the Making of Modern Paris) that I asked Paul Bennett, the founder and close friend, if he’d answer a few questions that came to mind about his company, his walks, and his views on travel in general.

First, I’ve done a few of your walks and I often find myself using the term “tour” when describing them to others, and not feeling like it’s appropriate in conveying the experience.  Do you think “tour” is the best way to describe what you do, and if not, what sort of vocabulary do you think expresses it better?

To be honest, I’m not a tour person. I hate following someone around in a large group (or, worse, on a bus) listening to bad jokes and Wikipedia-level, soup-to-nuts facts. I lose interest, can’t pay attention, and find it a waste of time. Context was founded on this idea. We’re sort of the “untour” tour company. Small groups, experts, and an interactive give-and-take. So, we coined the term “walking seminar” to describe them, taking inspiration from Oxford or St. John’s College (in Annapolis/Santa Fe). The idea is that the docent is curating an exploration of a topic or a site or a theme. We use “walks” for short.

As a rather large network where people have autonomy over their subject matter, how do you achieve quality control?  What sort of guidelines do you insist all docents follow so you can ensure a similarly high quality across all your tours?

We spend a lot of time on this. Quality is a core value, and we have to get this right or we’re sunk. First, we spend a lot of time recruiting and talking with docents up front. You have to possess a high level of social intelligence in order to lead a Context walk. We have a series of questions to gauge this. We also check references, and usually ask questions around teaching ability and communication. We’re looking for academics who can make a topic come alive. Each docent goes through some training, which includes shadowing another docent for a while and going through a probationary period. We also follow up with clients immediately and share their feedback in a transparent manner. I would estimate that about a quarter of our time is spent just on quality assurance and taking what we hear from clients and using it to improve in some way. It’s a challenge.

To be a bit of a devil’s advocate here: sometimes it’s hard to justify the value of your walks to someone who doesn’t have absolute certainty of what they will get out of the experience — in other words, the value is unknown in advance and hard to know for sure if it’ll be worth it.  What would you say to a friend, for example, in convincing them that it is indeed worth it? 

It’s unlike any tour you’ve ever tried. It’s like going back to college for 3 hours, at a fraction of the cost.

One issue I can imagine is when traveling with children.  Their involvement and interest is paramount to having it be a good experience for the parents, and can ultimately be a huge waste of money if they hate it.  What do you do to try and buffer this possibility?

For a long time we just winged it with families. We had a group of family-friendly docents, and we matched them with families on private walks. About five years ago we realized that we were underserving this group. So, we hired a consultant who’d worked in museum education and created a separate Family Program. The core of this is recruiting and training. We’ve specifically recruited a group of docents with backgrounds in museum education or teachers who have some knowledge of Visual Thinking Strategies (VLS), which is an approach to object-based learning that we employ. We also meet with this group of family docents once a year, or more individually, and do a family training workshop. A lot of this involves training in VLS, but we also share experiences and strategies for dealing with tricky, crowded sites like the Vatican in Rome, with kids. Again, client feedback plays a role. Lastly, working with these clients we’ve developed a set of specific walks designed around kids and their interests, which include a lot of hands-on activities like treasure hunts for young kids or journaling and sketching for older ones.

Give me an idea of some things you personally do when you visit a new city for the first time?

Well, I’m usually in a city for the first time because we’re opening a branch there. As a result, I usually have a long list of people to meet. I try to meet people on site, for example in a museum where they might lead a walk for us, so that we can immerse ourselves in the culture of the place. I’m more of a landscape person than an object person, meaning that I like to walk a city and get a feel for its layout and pulse rather than move incrementally from place to place in order to just see that place. I like the spaces in-between.

Do you think new technologies such as “google goggles”, which can display information about almost anything of interest by pointing your phone at it, will change your business and the need or desire to have docents involved? In other words, like so many other things, will humans become obsolete and if so, how would you adapt to that?

In last year’s professional development meeting with docents one topic that came up multiple times was the instance of clients googling facts during the walk. Docents found this very off-putting, and it is gauche. Especially when it’s done to challenge the docent on some point. But, in some cases, we may have misinterpreted: some people were probably tweeting or checking in on FourSquare. We’ve talked for years about ways of re-packing what we do and selling it through some digital means—an audio guide or an app. Everyone was talking about audio guides four years ago. But, in the end, the market for those proved very small. Ditto with apps, which are limited by connectivity issues. I assume that will be ironed out, and at that point we’ll have to offer something. But it will be some value-added service. In the end, it’s impossible to replace the human who can read your facial expressions and ask you questions that get you thinking about a place in an entirely new way.

Who is your competition and how do you think Context is better?

We have two different types of competitors: global and local. Global competitors include Urban Adventures and Viator, each of which is in many more cities than us. The first is a franchise. The second is really a distributor. Neither own and operate their own tours. So, their ability to control quality or innovate is limited. The local competitors are the mom-and-pop walking tour companies in each of our cities. Most of these are focused on the lower end of the market: large groups led by actors or traditional guides at a low price-point. We’re different than both. We have a unique model that is scalable and has the potential to transform travel.

You have a foundation you started to help the artisans of Florence and you do a program to send inner city kids to Europe.  What else do you do on the social activism and what other things would you like to do in the future to make a difference?

This is big part of our mission. We also just became a certified B Corp, which is a new kind of company that considers social benefit as important as profits—or, a so-called double-bottomline or triple-bottomline business. The work of the Context Foundation for Sustainable Travel is growing. We’ll launch a project in Venice next month, and have several others in other cities on the horizon next year. We’d like to make these projects, which either give back to the local destination or try to improve travel in some way, more and more a part of our walks—integrated so that participants experience them without it feeling onerous. For example, in Venice we’re adopting and restoring a historic boat, and then will use this as part of our walks there. It will be amazing, and it’s good for the city.

Give me an example of experiences you think many people in your cities miss that you think are transformative in some way.

Wow, too many to count. I’ll just give you a recent one. Two weeks ago I went on our Gaudí in Context walk in Barcelona. It includes some big-name Gaudí sites like Casa Mila, that were amazing. But, we also spent half the walk looking at works by other architects practicing at the same time that, thus, provided the “context” for understanding Gaudí. I went into the walk thinking that Gaudí was this atypical genius who really didn’t fit into the story of architecture, but left understanding how he was, in part, a product of his city in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was wonderful.

We’ve talked about how accountability is a huge element of both our services — tell me a horror story and what you ultimately were able to do to help the client, to give me an idea of the Context experience?

Boy, this has been the year of disruptions. In the last few weeks we’ve had fire bombs in Rome, tear gas in Athens, and wildcat strikes in Paris. We’ve had to alter, re-schedule, or cancel walks. In some cases, we’ve had to map out emergency plans with safety in mind. It’s been kind of crazy. The biggest horror story, in this vein, was the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland last year, which stranded Context clients all across the globe. The phone was ringing off the hook with people stuck in Paris on their way to Istanbul, for example. We had to re-schedule or re-organize a lot of walks. We also gave a lot of refunds, kind of throwing our cancellation policy, which has a disclaimer about “acts of god” out the window; although, obviously, this was an act of a malevolent Viking god.

Context Travel is a network of scholars and specialists—in disciplines including archaeology, art history, cuisine, urban planning, history, environmental science, and classics—who, in addition to their normal work as professors and researchers, design and lead in-depth walking seminars for small groups of intellectually curious travelers.

by Steven Brenner

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>