Timo Shaw believes bicycling and walking are fantastic ways to experience the world. As president of VBT Bicycling Vacations and its sister brand Country Walkers, Shaw oversees day-to-day operations, stays in touch with colleagues around the world, and meets with guides and staff around Europe and North America. A New Zealand native, Shaw loves to travel and has visited 53 countries.
We chatted with Shaw to learn more about his companies and his outlook on the group-travel industry.
Q. Tell us about VBT Bicycling Vacations.
A. VBT started in 1971, and we just celebrated our 50th anniversary! It was founded by a professor at Middlebury College who wanted to show people around Vermont’s beautiful farm country. We started out in a barn and have grown over time to now offer more than 70 biking tours in 30 countries. Historically, our bread and butter has been guided biking tours for small groups. However, just a few years ago, we introduced self-guided biking tours, which have been popular. These are fully planned, private vacations where we give you everything you need, including flights, hotels, turn-by-turn GPS directions with voice navigation, and a local host in case of emergency.
Q. How did you get started in the tour business?
A. I started my career in the airline business and worked with many tour operators who were my customers. I appreciated that they made travel safe and accessible for everyone, so I jumped at the opportunity when I was offered a position. Thirty-six years later and I still love what I do.
Q. What appeals to you about the industry?
A. We get to help people responsibly explore the world, opening minds to new communities, cultures, and ideas. I believe the respectful interaction between people and the environment helps us understand and appreciate our beautiful planet. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
Q. What sets VBT Bicycling Vacations and Country Walkers apart from the competition?
A. First, it’s the authenticity of experience. When you travel by bike or on foot, you get out into the countryside and experience places most tourists don’t even know exist. We work exclusively with local guides—not all tour operators do—and there’s a depth of connection that comes with that. You’re visiting their hometown, meeting their friends, and trying their favorite local dishes at their favorite hole-in-the-wall bistro. It’s hard to top that!
Secondly, we put everything together in a complete package. That includes flights, airport pickups, hotels, most meals, and all your gear. You really can leave all the logistics to us.
Q. What industry trends are you noticing?
A. One trend I’ve noticed is that more guests are booking multiple tours in the same year—often back to back. It makes sense. Doing one flight to Europe and multiple tours is more environmentally friendly than going back and forth every few months. Plus, people are eager to make up for lost time after the pandemic.
Q. How have you modified your offerings to meet these trends?
A. Self-guided tours are a great way to put multiple tours together in a cost-effective way. They’re easy to put back to back with guided tours. You can take a weeklong trip to Italy and transform it into a grand tour of Europe!
Q. What’s next for VBT Bicycling Vacations?
A. Without a doubt, e-bikes have been—and will continue to be—huge for us. They let couples with different fitness levels comfortably travel together. They let cautious cyclists try out our travel style more comfortably. They extend the ability for riders to continue to travel. Our fleet is already large, and we anticipate growing it by leaps and bounds over the next few years.
Q. Do you have any key advice to tour planners just starting out in the group-tour business?
A. Do your homework! There are many travel styles and experiences available, and providing your guests with the one that best meets their needs will ensure they have an amazing experience and come back for more.
Q. How do you attract new clients?
A. Word of mouth is big for us—many of our guests are referred by someone who’s traveled with us before. We also have a robust groups program, which encourages people to gather their bike club, alumni group, or extended family and take over a departure.
Q. What travel destination or activity is on your bucket list?
A. We recently introduced biking and walking trips in Greece, and the feedback has been fantastic, so I’m looking forward to going there next. However, I love to travel and get joy wherever I go, so my bucket list is everywhere even if I’ve been there before—I’m a bit of a vagabond.
Q. Is there anything else our readers should know about you or your companies?
A. We have fun! To my mind, there’s no point in being in our industry if you can’t enjoy the journey, as it were. Whether it’s annual trips to meet with guides and staff around Europe and North America, wine tastings in the office, or weekend rides around Vermont, we genuinely love what we do.
Main image: VBT Bicycling Vacations tour, Costa Brava, Spain; credit: VBT Bicycling Vacations