Some of you may know that I work with Steve Belkin at Book Your Award (a service that books hard-to-find frequent flyer mile tickets). He’s also the mastermind behind Competitours, which is a group tour through Europe that he invited me to join.
The ~10 day trip is a crazy adventure. It zigzags to undisclosed destinations in Europe with surprise activities and competitions along the way. I liked it because the whole thing is packed with sightDOING, like Italian folkdancing and Swiss mountain-climbing.
Recently, Steve flattered me by saying he’d choose me to be his Competitours teammate if he was one of the participants on his own tour. Considering I have no competitive streak, that’s a good way to forfeit the cash prize at the end…but it would definitely be a lot of fun. It also sparked an interview to peek behind the scenes as he prepares for the 2017 edition!
What inspired you to start Competitours?
I was participant on the Global Scavenger Hunt in 2002: a 23-day, 4-continent competition which was a once in a lifetime trip. First prize was $10,000 so the competition was very serious. All the teams were so intent on wining (and plotting and scheming) that there was little bonding between the teams. Plus, the scoring was 100% based on speed.
I remember a challenge at the Taj Mahal and I was so incredibly in awe of being there…but after 10 minutes my partner was pointing at his watch because we had other challenges to accomplish before running out of time. And of course, keeping up a race pace for 23 days was ultimately futile. There were fits and starts of burnout, exhaustion, dehydration, sleep deprivation, you name it. It felt more like Survivor than Amazing Race.
Competitours is my attempt to sculpt that round the world team travel competition into something far more user friendly. There’s a smaller prize pot and it’s split three ways to keep the competitive spirit intact without the win-at-all-costs attitudes. That leaves ample opportunity for team bonding.
For the most part, each day is paced to allow for participating in the challenge activity and still having reasonable time to get a modest sense of our destination. Our trip is shorter and cheaper, so more people can afford to the cost and time to join.
On each trip, 80% of the activities are new, but how do you keep the remaining 20% fresh?
Every year is different. If there happen to be a couple of challenges that are absolute team favorites, there is no point denying future participants the same terrific challenge activity/destination experience.
I look for ways to change the routing on when it might be scheduled or we might find a different destination that offers a similar challenge or we might be able to tweak the existing activity to create a fresh angle. But in general, our goal is for at lest 80-85% of each year’s trip to be different from the previous year.
What factors do you consider when planning the itineraries?
My key reference point is always – “will our teams ever be able to replicate this trip“? I want to add value in terms of destinations, challenge activities, the suspense of the mystery itinerary, secret challenges and horserace scoring.
I always make sure to have a strategic mix of well known cities, some lesser known towns/villages, somewhere coastal and at least two destinations that even the locals of that country aren’t exactly sure where our destination is!
The challenges are meant to span a lot of different skill sets so each day there are teams that are feeling pretty cocky and other teams feeling pretty stunned. And so many times, the leading frontrunners get tripped up while the seeming dark horses rise to the occasion. No one stays in first place for very long.
What’s your magic formula for creating such long-lasting friendships between the teams? (Seriously…how does it happen year after year???)
I think the most important aspect is not to force the group dynamic. In fact, we often discourage it by having teams get to local challenge destinations on their own instead of a group meeting point. And we minimize the number of formal group lunches and dinners. So, teams really have to make the effort outside of the challenges to reach out to other teams.
Since the teams are not simply sharing the same bus or hotel or listening to the same tour guide, but actually doing fun, offbeat and quirky challenge activities that really test their boundaries…it turns out that there is A LOT to talk about. Teams are apparently quite anxious to swap ‘war stories’ from each day. Finally, you have to have a mindset of treating the unknown as something to be thrilled about and not feared, so most teams have an inherent sense of curiosity that makes it easy for teams to get to know each other.
What one place (or activity) would you love to add but you can’t? Why not?
That’s whats cool about dealing with a tiny company which is owner operated…if I want to add a place or activity, I simply won’t rest until I have accomplished it. Many of our challenges require significant convincing, cajoling, and reassuring with local partners who are not used to seeing their normal activity structure transformed into a competition.
What’s the hardest part for YOU?
The hardest part is definitely before the trip. Each day has multiple moving parts — is the challenge activity available? how much does it cost? how many people can it accommodate at one time? How many of the teams will likely find it interesting? Is there suitable hotel space? Does it fit our budget? How do we get there conveniently and cost effectively?
It is extremely challenging for me to structure an annual trip that meets my threshold of super fun, super zigzag to keep the mystery intact and within the trip cost. I strive to include enough unique experiences to ensure it remains a no-brainer value proposition for folks paying the trip cost.
Travel throws us hiccups all the time and that’s normal — what was the most challenging to work through?
Since at least 80% of each year’s trip is a new challenge and/or destination, I don’t have the luxury of being a well-oiled machine like tour companies that repeat the same trip over and over. Hence, the saying: This trip’s dress rehearsal is also opening night!!!
Most hiccups are logistical- a late bus, broken equipment at a challenge, nothing that we can’t improvise to fix. The key is that teams come in with the expectation that anything can happen and roll with the punches. For 97% of our teams in the last 8 years, thats the kind of teams we attract. They are ready for anything and nothing phases them.
What has been your favorite challenge of all time?
Like asking me which is my favorite child. Every challenge I have to recruit, then craft into a workable activity, then find the local company that shares my crazy vision. So, each one is precious.
Your tours are known for being packed full of fun with long days…how do you keep up without coffee?
Adrenaline trumps caffeine any day!
Believe it or not, I feel that I am more psyched about this trip than all of the teams! That said, I have learned from each trip from team feedback about how best to tweak for future years. I love to be busy nonstop and in my zeal to create a strong value proposition, I like to cram as much cool stuff in as possible.
Teams have gently told me that this is still a vacation. So, we have made some adjustments so that trip has certain ebbs and flows to ensure that some ‘long days’ are punctuated with some ‘not so long days’ so that everyone has a good energy level over the long haul.
When you travel independently, what aspects of Competitours do you incorporate into your own travel? What parts are different?
Well, I WISH someone would plan a mystery itinerary for me so I could enjoy the thrill of the unknown that I try and instill with Competitours. I like to improvise and be spontaneous with skill sets that I don’t naturally have, so its fun struggling on the other side of the fence instead of my normal watching (and smirking) as the trip organizer of Competitours.
* * *
The next Competitours trip is scheduled for July 4-15, 2017.
While Steve doesn’t share specific details on what you’ll be doing, I can speak from experience that you’ll:
— push yourself outside your comfort zone
— try activities you’ve never even heard of
— visit cities you’ve always wanted to see and others you’ve never heard of
— make connections and friendships with an awesome group of people
— come back with a bunch of crazy stories