Aspen Times Weekly: Celebrating 50 Years of Adventure Travel
George Butterfield, who will be 77 in February, has been at the helm of Butterfield & Robinson since its inception. Born in Canada and raised in Bermuda, George practiced law in Toronto before dedicating himself full-time to the business of biking and walking in 1969. He still plays an active role in day-to-day operations and serves as B&R’s spiritual leader, resident travel sage, voyageur extraordinaire, and CEO of all things slow.
Taking a personal interest in each trip’s success, George and his wife and company co-founder Martha guide at least one trip a year — which George claims is the best part of the job. This year, George and Martha will travel back 50 years to 1966 in order to meticulously re-create B&R’s very first biking trip through the hills of Bavaria — Munich to Salzberg.
I spoke with George Butterfield recently as he reflected on his past as founder of Butterfield & Robinson and a look ahead at the adventure travel industry.
Amiee White Beazley: How did that first trip come together?
George Butterfield: That first trip, well I was born in 1939, and planned it in 1966, so I was 25. Sydney Robinson and I were best friends in high school and I ended up marrying his sister, Martha. We worked (in Europe) giving talks in museums and galleries to students through our University. Then we left and went to law school, but we wanted our jobs back, we missed the cappuccino fix and all the stuff you couldn’t get here in (Canada and the U.S.) in the 1960s. So we decided we were going to start our own business and take students to Europe.
We had not planned the biking section, so Sydney and Martha went with the group to Italy and I flew to Munich and got a map. I saw a whole lot of green stuff and a little town called Steinberg. So I went there and I found a guy who had bikes, so that’s where we went. The first trip cost $1,500 for 60 days, with 40 kids. It was one of those things, when it was all over we had taken in $50,000 revenue with $12,000 left over. So we said, “Let’s do it again.”
AWB: Has the original route changed, or is it as you remember it?
GB: It has changed significantly. The route that I did down the Steinberger Sea, that road is not bikeable now. So it will be different, but a great throwback. It’s hard to believe. You pinch yourself. What we did no one had done before, it was a new spin. It was a great education touring the museums and getting the students to learn. We wanted those kids to experience it — not just the youth hostels and more affordable things, but how to solve problems. That bike route I put together the first year didn’t have accommodations, so one night we spent in a hay barn. We got creative and it was just having great fun doing it. You are always using your wits because it’s not like driving a train on the tracks. You have to be resourceful and creative. I had 10 words of German then. I got a group of students on bicycles, begging people with the 10 words I had. Sometimes you go down on bended knee or you use your personality. Whatever you got, you use it. I strive on those things, the unpredictability of it. You have to come up with something.
AWB: What are some of your favorite trips?
GB: My favorite trip, it’s that last trip that I took. Burgundy has always been a favorite of mine. It’s perfect biking. Throw a dart in France, and there’s great biking anywhere. You really can’t do that in Italy, it’s mountainous; not England because of hedges; not Vietnam. But in France it’s just wide open and we do what we do. There are so many choices it’s just getting the bits right and not going to areas that are industrialized or ugly. We go to pristine parts of the world. We are showing the gems of the planet whether in Africa or Europe — they are the gems of the world, for sure.
AWB: You are described as B&R’s spiritual leader. Can you tell me why?
GB: I’m here a lot. I am the founder and I care a lot about it. Everyone sees me around as the older guy here now, but I care immensely about what goes on. I have my finger on where things are going, and I’m in touch with what goes on, what’s important. And I still love to bike. I’ve gotten use to biking back and forth on my city mountain bike, and I have a bike I use up in the country. It was for my 50th birthday. I still ride — a lot.
AWB: What’s next for you?
GB: We are in the process of publishing the book “Slowing Down to See the World” — the history of Butterfield & Robinson. I drink wine. I love French wine. My son, David, makes brilliant wine, Butterfield Wine, in Burgundy. But right now my passion is to save the planet. I work with a lot of environmental companies, investing in cleaner ways of operating, of doing business. I’m involved in four different venture capital groups and with our local university to make it greener, more environmentally friendly.
George and Martha Butterfield will lead Butterfield & Robinson’s 50th anniversary trip, Munich to Salzburg Biking, Sept. 11-16, 2016.
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Jazz Aspen Snowmass will hosts its annual June Experience and JAS Cafe concert series in-person this summer, releasing details and lineups Monday.