We have bitter-sweet news. Blue Marble, as most of you know it, is coming to an end. Our last “regular” season, defined by the operation of our full catalogue of bicycle trips, is in progress.
We will then run an “on-demand” season in 2015, specially designed to let our regular riders catch the trains they missed, or to revisit their favorite places, depending. And to let our Trip Geniuses (we call ourselves “Coordinators,” but that is only because we lack Apple’s marketing acumen) revisit, and show off one last time, the places we have so come to love.
And... that will be it, at least for the activity that defines most of us to most of you. Probably ;-)
The Back Story
If you are reading this, you have travelled with us before... some of you multiple times. A few of our most faithful riders have taken 20+ of our trips — and we don’t even offer 20+ trips! One of you has travelled our Tuscany route 8 times. You are many to have been over our Cévennes and / or Basque Country routes more than twice. And, while no one can afford to go to Norway twice, it still holds the record for Blue Marble marriages, despite its once-a-year operating schedule. It can get chilly up there at night!
We love all of our trips, and it is difficult indeed to say which we will most miss ourselves. But we are giving ourselves two years to say good-bye to them, and we intend to make the most of that time! And, if there is one you have been dreaming of, well, this is your chance....
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!
Yes, let us start by thanking you for your company over all these years. From the bottom of our hearts! For all those of us who have worked here across that time, and especially for me, Nicolas, here at the start and still here at the end, Blue Marble has been a truly extraordinary way to earn a living.
It is work, yes. You see us do it, so you know that. But it is work in amazing settings, which we do nothing to harm or change, and with the most interesting, intelligent, curious, and open “clients” it is possible to have!
At my wedding, 16 years ago now, my fiancée / wife (and business partner since) was a Blue Marble client. The justice of the peace who married us was a friend of a Blue Marble client. Blue Marble clients helped us pick the venues and the musicians. Half of our guests were Blue Marble clients. And most of the rest have now become Blue Marble clients. No, indeed, I could not keep better company.
And nor could you! :-) You see the friends you have made on our trips across the globe. You return to us (or travel together elsewhere) at every chance. You marry each other, and we have stopped counting the Blue Marble children.... You are our friends, but you are each others friends even more. There, too, you could not have chosen better!
There are many reasons, but the most important one is this:
The Principals are Moving On
Blue Marble has become essentially my baby over the years, and it is time for me to get a job.
Those of you who know me personally know that I prepared for a very different life than the one I have had. Over the past decade, the pull of that life has become stronger. As the planet struggles with environmental issues of great importance, I have come to feel that my long years of preparing for a career in environmentally sustainable transportation (no, I’m not talking about bikes, though of course they qualify), are what I have to offer, the way in which I can “help.”
Applying for my first job at age 60 is not a realistic option (not that it's going to be easy at 50+), so it is now or never! If anyone knows of a transit system that needs operating....
Of course, I am not the only one who could carry Blue Marble forward. The company was started in 1986, and there were many early contributions as important as mine. Sam Blyth, who funded and framed the adventure. Ethan, Linda, and Brigitte in the early, “creative” stages. In the years since: Jacqueline, Padraic, Lesley, Tim, Jimi, Michel, to name only those who were with us for many, many years, and who had important roles in forming our programs and framing our progress. And, key to our organization, my darling wife and one-time passenger, Laura.
But... running a business is a lot of work, and it requires a varied skill set. We have no current candidates to take on the job, at least none with a passion for our “mission.” Which you could be forgiven for not really knowing, even if you know us well: it is buried in a tiny paragraph, on an obscure page of our web site. But it is nonetheless our guiding light.
We have had take-over / purchase offers over the years, but the trips the buyers would operate would not be like ours, and we have always felt it would be dishonest to let the name carry on without the mission attached. Our trips are unique: we have never encountered another outfitter whose goal is to help you live your experience, rather than to package theirs for you. We still have to constantly explain why the “guide” is the last one to arrive at night....
Left: Blue Marble Headquarters, 1998: Brek, Sue, Tony, Brigitte, Michel, Nicolas, Jacqueline, Laura
Right: “Trip Geniuses” in all sizes: Padraic Kennedy and Jeff Kralik, 1996
Left: Blue Marble Headquarters, 2005. Standing (or being held) Laura, Mathilde, Dave, Fredérique, Francine, Dress-Up Bear, and Michel. Kneeling: Richard and Nicolas
Right: “Zen” Suba, 2003
And the people who have been our road companions for a decade or more are retiring. Lesley, after a couple of years in a reduced role, is leaving this year. Michel, our lead mechanic for 16 years, is ready to hang up his spoke wrench. Jimi left last year... The people on whom we depended, and who depended on us, are spoken and accounted for.
Of course, there are new people. We like them, and they like us. But they don’t need us, or depend on us. And we have reasons to think that our (personal) futures may lie elsewhere. Read on, if you wish to.
Air Travel is Slated to Cost More
We are, frankly, pessimistic about the future of commercial air travel: a problem for a business which gets 80% of its clients from other continents. The world’s collective head-in-the-sand attitude to climate change cannot last, or at least not if the world is to last. By some estimates, the point of no return may be as close as 15 years away.
While air travel contributes only a small percentage of the greenhouse gasses that menace our future, their upper atmosphere release makes them particularly dangerous. And the situation is getting worse. The airline industry receives huge subsidies, direct and indirect, largely through the tax policies of virtually every industrialized nation. These encourage it to compete for short-haul traffic that would best move by rail... or by bicycle :-)
These subsidies must stop: we are effectively bribing air travellers to kill us. But, when the subsidies do stop, and if the full environmental cost of air travel is billed to its users, what will those users have to pay? Air travel will (and must, if we are to survive) regain its one-time status as a great luxury, affordable to only a small fraction of the population, not the one we work for.
Already, the cost of a trans-Atlantic air ticket has roughly doubled in the past five years, and that has nothing to do with the environment. With the merger of American and USAirways, there will effectively be only 3 trans-Atlantic “majors” left. Can you say “collusion?” So can they. Capacity is down: routes have closed, frequencies decreased, planes are smaller... and prices are sharply up. Our surveys suggest that the effect on our ridership has been significant. Where a North American rider taking a one-week trip used to spend a third of his or her vacation budget on the plane ticket, it now accounts for half or more.
So... we have flirted with the obvious: re-focusing
our marketing on the British Isles. British travellers will inevitably have to stay closer to home, just as travellers from other continents will have a harder time getting to Europe. And they can easily reach continental Europe by train (carbon emmissions per passenger less than a tenth those of airline passengers, and emitted on the ground). But the British market is not a center of expertise for us. Such a shift would be risky, the outcome uncertain, the timing of the transition unpredictable.
The Middle Class is Slated to Have Less
Which brings us to the issue of income distribution, and the middle class more generally. In the anglo-saxon world, at least, the middle class is shrinking. Over the past decade, our clientele has steadily aged, as we have. We long wondered why, but it is becoming obvious: 20 years ago, when we were in our 30’s, we had the money to travel. People that age today, and of our socio-economic standing, do not.
Part of that is other calls on their resources: fancy telephones, electronic gadgets of all sorts, attendant higher communication costs... these things did not exist when we were spending our leisure income back then. The proportion of income devoted to housing is steadily increasing, as young people move back into once-decaying cities.
But part, it seems clear, is lessened means. If you walk down the aisle of a New York - Paris flight today, and look at your fellow passengers, there are “no” people in their 30’s. Older people are there, children with their parents, even a few university age travellers (we can assume that they had help buying their tickets). But youthful leisure travellers are few in number.
Of course, there are always exceptions, people whose very first priorities include travel. Not to mention the “Google Millionaires,” banksters, and other 1% folk who so contribute to our well-being that they deserve to be compensated with 10 or 100 times the salaries we earn. And taxed less. These are strange choices for democracies, but as elections are increasingly bought and sold, can we really still say we live in democracies? And, who has the funds to buy the elections? Oh, let’s not always see the same hands....
So, why don’t we work for the 1%? Well, 1% ers who are truly interested in the world around them are not that common. They would no more be tempted by us than we are by them. The last thing they want to see in Europe is a European, unless he is dressed in a tuxedo, and is bringing a cocktail, à la Butterball or Fieldroads. Travel separated from our environment by a plate glass window or a garden wall has never been our thing.
But youthful explorers are now few and far between, at least in the wealthy (read “expensive”) countries of Europe. And for those that try, the terrain is mined. Yield-management produces last-minute fares, on both planes and trains, that are exhorbitant. Good-bye, spontaneous travel. When we started, our median “sign-up” was 23 days in advance. Now the figure is more than double that. But the junior employee is rarely the one who can claim his or her vacation dates first.
Thus, our “historic” clientele is becoming extinct. Don’t believe us? We had already written these words when this New York Times article appeared on our screen....
So, for reasons personal, environmental, and structural, it seems time to move on.
Is this a certainty?
No, this is not death, nor taxes. On a very personal level, if I (Nicolas) can’t find a job, well, I need to work. I have two small children, and retirement is not an option. And what I do is fun — there are (far) worse fates than continuing to do it! Watch this space for the announcement of our 2016 season, bigger and better than ever!
Or, one of you could decide on a career change, and take over the business. Want to live in Europe (legally)? Fancy yourself the Director of a little cycle trip outfitter? Love the trips as we do? We’ll teach you all we know, and be your best clients! But, a strategic hint: practise your British accent.
And Blue Marble will continue to exist, providing a variety of Paris-based services, probably with an expanded palette.
In the mean time, the above is the plan. So... if you have a last trip you want to see, this is your year! Pick your trip, your dates, and we’ll schedule it in our “Sayonara Season,” 2015. Follow the link for a discussion. Whichever trip you do, come prepared! For all the beauty, local color, clean air, and great foo, and especially wonderful company, that our tiny footprints lead you to!
With Affection, Admiration, and Appreciation for your Choices Across the Years
Founding Partner and Managing Director, Blue Marble Travel
Paris, February 3rd, 2014