VBT pedals into fifth decade
BRISTOL — When John Freidin founded Vermont Bicycle Tours in the early 1970s he never imagined that 40 years later the company would grow to annually serve 5,000 travelers in 26 countries. He didn’t know of any businesses at the time that were based on bicycle touring.
A young Middlebury College professor of history, Freidin recently recalled that he was trying to escape the world of academia. On the suggestion of a colleague, he and a fellow professor took an overnight bike trip through Vermont.
“About midway through the first day I had this flash that people would love to bicycle in Vermont if they knew where to go, had a wonderful cozy inn to eat and sleep at and someone to help with mechanical problems,” he said.
This revelation struck Freidin on an early June day, he said. By the end of the month, he had reconnoitered VBT’s first route and “literally mimeographed materials” to spread the word about these trips. By August, the company was off the ground.
Beginning this month VBT is celebrating its 40th year in business. To mark the anniversary, the Bristol-based company is keeping its rates the same as 2010.
In the first year of Vermont Bicycle Tours, now known formally as VBT, Freidin led a total 75 people on 12 separate trips. Based out of the house on Munger Street in New Haven where he lived then, Freidin ran the company by himself, seeking assistance from only one friend in autumn to help guide tours.
After 10 years on Munger Street, VBT outgrew its first home. Freidin, who, among other things, has represented New Haven in the Vermont House, moved the operation and set up shop in the big yellow Bristol barn on Monkton Road where the company is still headquartered today.
Around the same time that Freidin was kick-starting VBT, a young University of Vermont business student named Gregg Marston decided to study abroad in New Zealand. After studying, he traveled to Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. He sailed across the Bay of Bengal and headed west through Sri Lanka, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, then up through Europe and back home.
“I found myself halfway around the world and it wasn’t so much the summit of a mountain or a sunset or a sunrise — although those are beyond description — but the number one takeaway was how important people and different cultures are,” said Marston.
This “takeaway” is important because through a series of twists and turns guided by a passion for travel and understanding different ways of life, Marston would one day wind up the owner and president of VBT, which he still is to this day.
After 14 years, VBT had eight-12 fulltime staff and about 25 leaders, but Freidin was getting weary of the business. In 1986 he sold VBT to Shelburne businessman Bill Perry. Ten years later, Perry sold the company to the Boston-based travel company Grand Circle Travel.
To facilitate this acquisition in 1997, Grand Circle brought in an accomplished investment manager from Portland, Maine, named Gregg Marston. By this time, the young traveler had grown up and found fiscal success. Two years later, Grand Circle asked Marston if he would run VBT. So in 1999 Marston moved to Charlotte and jumped on board as captain of the VBT team.
“Twenty-three years later I determined that just like UVM I didn’t want to go through my working career and get to be 65 years old and say that’s all I’ve done. So I matched my passion for travel experience and people and intercultural exchange with my business background and decided to make a change,” said Marston.
The one problem for Marston was that although he was running the company, he wasn’t necessarily setting the agenda — Grand Circle was. Under a mandate from Grand Circle, he was forced to shut down all VBT tours in the U.S. and focus the company’s energy on Europe.
Then, in 2005, he and his wife hammered out a deal with Grand Circle and VBT was theirs.
“The first thing that we did was bring back the U.S.A. trips, so we have eight trips in the U.S.A. today,” he said.
The two Vermont trips that the company currently runs are its most popular U.S. trips and both roll through Addison County.
In addition to the high approval ratings that the company consistently receives, VBT is a significant Addison County employer with 35 employees in Bristol.
“We’ve more than doubled our staff in the past five years and we’ve added staff during the recession. So when people were cutting jobs, we were adding jobs,” said Marston. “We’re committed to keeping the business vibrant, so as to support the number of people that work here.”
More than just supporting the staff, Marston has turned VBT into a fertile work environment to bring out the staff’s best talents. With competitive benefits, salaries and the freedom to innovate, many staff members say that they are overwhelmingly satisfied with their role at VBT.
“We have a lot of sophisticated technology to help us with our work and Gregg is always right there with us. He gets down to our level all the time and he talks with us and is interested with what everyone is doing all the time,” said Janet Chill, who has worked at VBT for more than 25 years. “Before, we didn’t know anything about the inner workings of the company — the finance and the marketing — and now we share what we’re doing — our successes and our failures. It’s a very cohesive, very friendly and very supportive (working) environment.”
VBT currently runs 28 biking vacations and nine walking vacations. Marston explained that the company’s focus is to bring travelers closer to the culture and people of a region by exploring its landscapes via biking or walking.
“I think of a memorable experience as driven by the stimulation of your senses,” he said. “When traveling by bicycle you’re ‘in touch.’ You can get off your bike and touch that incredible ancient soil that’s been tilled for generations and generations and smell it and see the color … By bicycle or by walking you’re active and you feel good, but you’re really stimulating your senses.”
Although VBT trips are comfortable, they also seek to weave their way into a local fabric. For example, as travelers explore the Tuscany countryside on one VBT tour, they cycle from agriturismoto agriturismo — places where wine, olive oil and food is cultivated and finished on the property’s premises.
How does Freidin view the company that he started?
“I think Gregg is doing a spectacular job and I am enormously grateful that he has made this business into what it is and that his employees like working for him and that his customers really get a kick out of his trips,” he said. “It’s a great organization and he’s doing a heck of a good job.”
As for what keeps Marston going and the company growing, it comes down to a love of labor.
“It truly comes from a passion for enriching somebody’s life through a travel experience,” he said.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].
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