Star Trekkers

Bob and Cindy Maynard of Country Walkers take walking to new heights.

by Larissa K. Vigue

Country Walkers takes 4,000 people on 300 guided walking trips a year. Bob and Cindy Maynard sold the Waterbury company to a consortium last year, but remain as president and vice president, respectively.

From the advent of the wheel to space travel, human beings have continually sought to improve upon their own two feet as a method of covering ground. Nonetheless, walking remains our best contact with our immediate surroundings. Country Walkers Inc. in Waterbury has capitalized on this simple concept by offering upscale walking vacations for a decade.

Each year the company takes 4,000 people on 300 guided trips in a variety of locales: from Italy's Amalfi Coast to Peru's lost Incan city of Machu Picchu -- and spots closer to home like the Canadian Rockies and Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. The Country Walkers catalog offers 47 tours in 22 countries spanning five continents.

What's so special about walking through the vineyards of Burgundy, France, or past the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe that it can't be experienced any other way? On a bike, for example.

"It's that you get to walk with local people," says president Bob Maynard. "You get to really experience how people live. You can't do that in a car or on a bike." He knows what he's talking about: Maynard ran Vermont Country Cyclists with his wife, Cindy, before starting Country Walkers in 1990.

"You see a region from an up-close perspective that you cannot even come close to by any other form of transportation," echoes Cindy, vice president of the company. "You get to stop and visit, see the flora and fauna, smell the flowers. You come upon serendipitous moments that you just wouldn't see otherwise."

Walkers don't cover as much ground as they would via other forms of transportation, but they take home something more precious than a record of their mileage. "We show people a really small part of an area. Like if you go to Tuscany, you see just a few villages, but you really see it," explains Bob.

Testimonials fill the pages of the business's colorful catalog, also accessible at countrywalkers.com. "After traveling with Country Walkers, I would never want to travel any other way," writes H. Neiman of Arizona. "You don't just see the country, you experience it!"

The business employs alternate transportation when it suits the trip -- like trekking by camel across the sand dunes of Morocco's Erg Chebbi -- but the walk is primary. Country Walkers follows a basic formula: combine accommodations full of charm and character with unique dining experiences; visit well- and lesser-known sites; set a reasonable distance to cover each day; and leave the rest up to the experts.

The experts are 75 trained guides. Most have written books about their homelands; all love sharing their knowledge. "We've got great contacts throughout the world that allow us to really give people an in-depth look at an area. These tours aren't staged. You might end up spending an afternoon with a cheese maker who doesn't let anyone come in from a bus company -- it's just because he's the friend of the guide who lives down the road."

Bob's responsibilities include overseeing marketing, primarily a slew of direct mail, and researching new trips based on what's hot. The company, which grosses just less than $10 million a year, places about $200,000 in print ads each year; the business also relies on word of mouth and articles in travel magazines. Bob used to spend time designing trips on-site, but he now lets many of the company's 20 employees do the work -- if you can call it that.

The design process begins two years ahead of time when an employee travels to an area, checks out accommodations by staying in them, samples food, talks to locals, sees the sites, and works with a guide to lay out the route. In any given week, an employee might return from Nepal, only to prepare for a trip to Sweden.

Once mapped out, the trip is offered to previous clients only as a "prototype tour" with no more than 10 walkers. Bob says these slightly discounted dry runs fill up in a couple of days and create a kind of club atmosphere among seasoned walkers. Once the kinks are worked out, the trip shows up in the catalog. These "live" tours accept a maximum of 18.

Overall the trips are successful, though Bob admits to a bust here and there. He suspects Luxembourg, for example, wasn't popular because Americans think it's still the bombed-out country it was in World War II.

The business employs 75 local tour guides across the world. "We've got great contacts throughout the world," says Bob Maynard, "that allow us to really give people an in-depth look at an area." Pictured: John Bond and Gloria Spence

The successes are due not only to smart planning, but to keeping an eye on quality over quantity. "Budget-smudget," says Bob, explaining every trip has a slush fund set aside for celebrating a couple's anniversary, a birthday, or just because the guide decides to spend $400 on wine some evening. "No trip has the same profit margin as the one before. It really doesn't matter. I don't care as long as the trip's great."

Flexibility is built into every tour. If you'd rather take in dramatic views of the pink stone landscape than walk to the Tin Mal Mosque in Oukaimeden on Day 10 of your Moroccan tour, that option exists. Bob says the trips aren't for people who are used to highly structured tours unless they grasp the uniqueness of Country Walkers vacations. Tours last seven to 16 days and range from upwards of $1,900 (Vermont) to close to $6,000 (Tanzania), excluding airfare. Demographics show the company's average traveler is a well-educated, people person with a certain income level.

Many of these walkers are aging baby boomers. That market attracted a group of investors that formed a consortium called Grand Expeditions to court Bob and Cindy a couple of years ago. "Because the travel industry is so fragmented," explains Bob, "they saw an opportunity to consolidate, to expand the offerings" for people interested in different methods of adventure travel. Although the Maynards were leery of relinquishing ownership of Country Walkers, Grand Expeditions assured them the consortium would remain small. Each company would continue to operate independently while benefiting from combined marketing efforts, purchasing insurance together, and perhaps sharing guides.

In September, the Maynards sold Country Walkers to Grand Expeditions in Boca Raton, Fla. Other than being asked to start up Country Expeditions, which will cater to those interested in more demanding adventure travel like sea-kayaking and strenuous hikes, Bob hasn't seen his position altered. That comes as no surprise to Gravel and Shea's Peter Erly, who represented the Maynards during the sale (as he did when they sold Vermont Country Cyclists in 1988). "The people who bought Country Walkers understand what Bob and Cindy bring to the business," says Erly. "If the company's profitable, you don't really want to change very much."

The changes that have occurred are improvements. Country Walkers recently added an in-house travel desk and hired a controller to relieve Cindy of financial duties so she can spend more time overseeing office systems and managing personnel. Bob jokes, "She does all the work and I have all the fun!"

"It's been great working with Bob all these years. Fortunately our skill sets really complement each other," says Cindy. "We know what each other's strengths and weaknesses are and somehow it all fits together."

"Cindy has a wonderful way with people, she's very detail-oriented," says Karen Fahey, who's known the couple since 1988. Karen Fahey Advertising Services handles Country Walkers' media. "Bob's got the great ideas and she streamlines them. There's a formula there."

The partnership is mirrored at their Waterbury home, where the Maynards raise Megan, 16; Tyler, 14; and 10-year-old Anna. Each is an experienced traveler, taking two trips a year with each parent. Bob takes them on adventurous outings like fishing in Russia or camping on Baffin Island; Cindy introduces them to European cultural meccas. How the couple met was as serendipitous a moment as those that fill Country Walkers' tours.

Walking in Waitsfield

Bob grew up in Massachusetts, turning to sports and outdoor activity when dyslexia made school "a nightmare." After reluctantly joining the Army, he landed in a Texas prison in 1968 when he refused orders to go to Vietnam. He was pardoned the next year, before he went to Maine to work for the ski racing program at Sugarloaf. Shortly after he secured a job with the 3M Co.

After a few years of exhausting travel, Bob headed back to the slopes in 1978, this time in Vermont. He met Cindy the first night, when he stopped at the Pickle Barrel in Killington where she was bartending to ask for water for his golden retriever puppy. "We've been together ever since."

Cindy had moved to Vermont from Pennsylvania in 1976 to be a "ski bum," says Bob, and the two of them continued that lifestyle as instructors at Killington and then in the Stowe area. Bob remembers 1978 as a year with little snow and how that made them think of running bike tours for children. The idea lasted "about 36 hours" because of liability concerns.

Instead they settled on touring with adults; in 1979 they started Vermont Country Cyclists. "Touring to that point was basically spaghetti-and-meatballs: five guys in a room, dorm-style. We started staying at places like Ten Acres in Stowe and the Inn on the Common in Craftsbury."

The first year they had 110 customers and lost $18,000. To pay back their bank loans, Bob and Cindy worked two jobs each and, until December, lived in a tent by running lengths of garden hose into the mountain stream for drinking water. Impressed with their fortitude, the bank granted them another loan and the following year they had enough business to purchase a small house.

When the Maynards sold Country Cyclists in 1988, they were taking 6,000 customers on trips every year. "Biking was great fun, but it was time to move on," remembers Bob. "People would just blow by these villages, beautiful chateaus, museums. I wanted to do something a bit more educational."

New tours spend two years in planning stages before they're added to the company's catalog. From left: Susan Kelly-Thompson and Jamen Yeaton-Masi

After taking a little time off, the Maynards started Country Walkers, running their first trips out of their house. They again selected upscale accommodations and "the business just took off." They ran 40 trips the first year, all in Vermont and Maine because the Gulf War prevented people from wanting to travel overseas. Soon, they were forced to move the business out of their house and into a restored Victorian. A year and a half ago, they moved into Pilgrim Park Two, a corporate building in downtown Waterbury.

With the new company set to start offering tours in late January 2001, Bob and Cindy plan to retire in two years. Even now they lead a lifestyle that allows them plenty of time to raise their children, travel, and enjoy hobbies like coaching basketball and fly fishing (Bob) and painting watercolors and making pottery (Cindy). They encourage a healthy dose of play in their employees' lives as well, as is evident in Bob's "message from corporate: As long as the phones are covered and the work gets done, I don't care if people go for four-hour bike rides."

Country Walkers' appreciation of the human need to commune with the great outdoors at an individual pace has elevated walking in new lands to nothing short of spiritual pursuit. Bob thinks that's a pretty good company mission. "We always try to take people a little bit higher and a little bit farther than they think they can go."

Larissa K. Vigue is a free-lance writer living in Winooski. She plans to complete her master's degree at Middlebury College's Breadloaf School of English in the summer.