In the case of Anthony Bay, getting to the top of the elite travel industry wasn’t a matter of determination triumphing over adversity. Rather, it was more a matter of embracing the opportunities that came his way. This is a fact he will readily admit: “I think in my case it was 'How to get ahead without really meaning to'.”
Bay put off university to pursue photography, but after three years of struggling, he relented and studied the psychology and sociology of mass communication.
This led him into the British Foreign Service, where he worked on the process of Rhodesian independence – an event that was "the beginning of the end" of his time in politics.
At 28 years old and burnt out from nearly six years of diplomacy, he went to the South of France to “take a couple of weeks off and decompress and lie on the beach and that sort of thing.” He fell into a job managing vacation properties, “and for no other reason than that, I entered the travel industry.”
Fast forward more than 25 years and Bay is now the founder of Anthony Bay’s Europe – a high-end travel agency specializing in European vacations – and he's been recognized as a Top Travel Specialist for the Provence region by Condé Nast Traveler.
In between, Bay helped develop Abercrombie & Kent’s Europe-based tourism brand. “I did from everything to everything,” he says of his time with the company, adding that he ran their European operation for some time out of his bedroom in an apartment in Paris’ 15th Arrondissement.
Bay is a charming man with a gift for storytelling – a gift which has played an integral role in building his reputation as a top-notch travel guide. OnboardOnline sat down with Bay to speak about the changing face of tourism, the finer points of dazzling high-end clients, and the tenuous balance between tourism as a positive or destructive force.
OnboardOnline: How exactly did you end up in tourism in the first place?
Anthony Bay: “After leaving the Foreign Service, I didn’t know what to do. So I came down to the South of France to stay with some friends and the husband said he was leaving his job in tourism and would I like to take it. So for no other reason than that, I entered the travel industry.”
OO: And what was the job?
AB: “It was with a French company tied to the French National Railroads to look after all their various resorts and hotels they had along the coast.”
OO: The National Railroad owned hotels?
AB: “Yes – a tour-operating arm of the French railroads called France Tourisme Service.”
OO: Tell me a little bit more about your time in Africa with the Foreign Office.
AB: “Yes, well, African independence was happening at the time. That was a huge part of my life and, in may ways, Rhodesian independence was the beginning of the end of me.
“When you go in, you have to be totally committed…I found that a little bit difficult to deal with. It permeates your private life and I also felt a little tired of being the cog in the wheel.”
OO: You say Rhodesian independence was difficult for you…
AB: “The real undoing was Rhodesia, because I was involved in forcing the white Rhodesian government to come to Geneva – to the United Nations in Geneva – for the first of what turned out to be two rounds for Rhodesian independence.
“I can’t really go into a lot of detail, but suffice it to say that I came to realize that, in politics, when it starts to get really serious there is some unpleasantness that happens…And you know black Africa was really a big issue in the Western world at that time… And the pressure that was building up for black independence – and South Africa was the one country that we wanted to save. I saw a lot of very serious and not very pleasant things happening.
“If you want to get anywhere in politics, you have to accept that the ends justifies the means…That was a shock to me, because I was an idealist.”
OO: So you left and ended up in the South of France…
AB: “Yes – so I got a dog and off I went. It was a wonderful time. It was mass tourism – all the lower end of the travel business. And in that time I met my first wife. Actually, my dog introduced us. He knocked over this girl and I went over to help pick her up and eventually she said to me, ‘It’s me or the dog.’
“I should’ve kept the dog.
“And then after two years, we moved to Paris.”
OO: This is when you attended the Sorbonne?
AB: “It was part of the Sorbonne setup, but you didn’t go to the Sorbonne the whole time. I was paid to do it by the company I was working with at the time. It was basically a three-year course and at the end of it, you take an exam that’s set by the French Ministry of Tourism. And if you pass it, you then become a national guide of France.
“We had it condensed with private tutors into one year.”
OO: So after some time working in Paris, you wind up with Abercrombie & Kent, establishing their tour operation…
AB: “Right. We expanded the fixed departure group tours, which is a formula that worked really well for a long time, and which still does in some cases. And it is extremely profitable for the operator, because you just set up a template and reproduce the template time and again for each new tour.”
OO: And at what point did you begin to introduce individually tailored tours?
AB: “We introduced that five years later and it’s where you design each time a new trip, reinventing the wheel each time. It’s much more laborious and gives you less money, but is the way most travelers are going now. This is what a lot of the market wants. But for you, the organizer, it is more hassle. Whereas with the group departure template, you just fill in the names each time and off they all go.”
OO: So you ran tours all over the continent?
AB: “My specialty is France, partially because I lived a long time in France and partially because I’m a national guide of France.
“But for 23 years, I was paid to discover Europe. That’s all I did. I would get on an airplane and go to Prague or Poland or Russia or Portugal or Scandinavia and find the lovely places – the lovely towns, the lovely churches, the lovely restaurants. And so I developed an enormous knowledge of Europe.”
OO: So you started Anthony Bay’s Europe around four years ago...
AB: “Yes, we moved back to the South of France – this time with my second wife and our family. A&K were changing their product like a lot at the time and I disagreed with much of it, and was already feeling I couldn’t go on with that.”
OO: How has travel changed with the Internet?
AB: “Travel is sort of polarized. The cheap end still functions because people haven’t got unlimited disposable income, but they still want to travel. And the very expensive is flourishing because there is still a lot of money around – more than you realize – and people want really great experiences. Experiential travel is really big right now. But they also want to be well informed of their options. And at the top end of the market, which is what I’m familiar with, they haven’t got the time to inform themselves.
“The Net is there, but there’s too much information on it. You don’t know where to go on the Net. Everything looks enticing.
“People need to be steered through that huge amount of information that’s available to everybody. People are looking to beat the trend and have that extraordinary experience that no one else had.”
OO: Can you give an example of what you offer?
AB: “On the last trip that I mentioned to you, I took a family to a friend of mine, who is a princess in a castle in the heart of the Italian countryside, where it was just them. And it was just absolutely magical. The gardener filled in as the wine waiter and he limped around the table, sloshing wine everywhere. It was absolutely charming. And then we stayed at another castle that belonged to another friend of mine that has been in their family for a thousand years.”
OO: Has tourism always been like this? With the cheap and the high-end and little in between?
AB: “I think it has always been around but it’s getting more polarized. At the bottom end you have a market that can and will travel if the prices are cheap enough, and prices are being made cheap. And at the top end you have a lot more money around since the Big Bang and the dynamism of economies since the 80s, which wants to ‘brag’ about their exclusive vacation experiences. And in between, the middle market is being polarized by changing economic patterns. And now we’re beginning to see the Chinese and Indians.
“And I think one of the great problems is that tourism destroys the very thing it discovers. This is a real problem. You go to Venice and it is just an absolute mess. If you want to have a really exclusive time in Venice, you’ve really got to work at it – or someone has to work it for you. Whereas 30 years ago, it was much easier to have an exclusive time in Venice. There were just less people around. Less people trying to get into your restaurant.
“So I don’t think what people want has changed. I think the demand has increased enormously and the availability hasn’t increased proportionately at the top end.”
OO: How do you manage that problem – operating tourism in a way that isn’t harmful?
AB: “Well, I think that sustainable tourism is a big issue which I think everybody must try and take on. There are examples. I heard the other day – I don’t know if it’s true – that the French government are thinking of rebuilding the Palace of Versailles away in the gardens. And there would be two prices – one to go to the real palace and one much cheaper to go to the replica.
“And they’ve actually done this already down in the southwest of France in the historic caves: Lascaux. There’s Lascaux One and Lascaux Two – and I’ve been to them both and I challenge you to tell the difference. One’s replicated and the other is authentic. You know, Versailles wasn’t made to take five- to six-thousand people tromping through every day.
“Also there are certain countries – West African countries and Southeast Asian countries – that depend on tourism 100 percent. And why should you deny them the benefits of mass tourism?
“People are aware of this. It’s a very fine balance.”
OO: Are you seeing that a lot of the superrich are wanting to give back? That there’s less playboying and more conscientious travel?
AB: “I think there’s a lot of wanting to give back, but they still want to get as much as they can get out of a holiday. You know, we contribute a certain percent of our turnover to an environmental cause. And it’s almost got to the point that if you’re not doing that then you’re a non-starter now as a company. Also a lot of Americans are afraid of going high-profile because of the danger of terrorism – or for not wanting to be seen as the ugly American.
“Having said that, if we now got on a helicopter to Saint-Tropez, the whole place would absolutely be exploding with champagne bottles being shaken all over the place and an orgiastic atmosphere dominating. But that’s the new money.”
OO: Looking back on your career, what do you think made you so successful?
AB: “I would say enthusiasm. I’m very enthusiastic by nature. And liking people. I’m very quick to like people. That helps me not only when I take people, because very quickly they realize that I’m going to make sure they have a good time. But also, I might visit a fabulous chapel in the middle of Italy, and I come away thinking: Ah, who could I give that to? Who would enjoy that?
“So I think enthusiasm, liking people, and, in my particular case, having a broad view of Europe. Seeing Europe in the whole. And I have a good sense of what the American market wants. If you’re indifferent, this is not the industry to be in…It’s a people industry.”
OO: Taking a family on a tour of Europe is a very intimate thing. How do you do your job without intruding and giving them space?
AB: “You have to be sensitive to how people are reacting. Their faces will tell you a lot, and in many cases they will say that they need downtime or space. That said, I have a big following of people who would go anywhere with me. And I’ve always said that when I’m taking a trip, no one is having more fun than the guide. And I think they feel that. They sense that I’m having fun and I’m wanting them to have a good time. And that almost always has worked. I think if the guide is bored or disinterested or so worn out by doing the same thing every time, I really do think it becomes infectious. People pick up on enthusiasm. And they like it. They feel relaxed about it.
“You have to be slightly neurotic. It’s hopeless to have a guide who is so relaxed that you aren’t getting your food served. You’ve got to worry about what’s happening – is the waiter bringing the food fast enough. And I think people really appreciate that. They see I’m gunning for them, I’ll kill for them to get it right.
“Being able to talk also – I can talk a lot. And I have a lot to draw from when I talk. I think doing that second degree in the culture of Europe is an enormous advantage, because it gave me the ability to talk and to explain things clearly.”
OO: I’m sure you have to be especially tuned in to whether they want you to keep talking or to shut up. In many ways you are both entertainer and facilitator of creating family memories…
AB: “I can talk for three hours about a subject that will start on the first World War and the next about my dog having a poo and my grandfather nearly getting shot by a sniper and then Martin Luther – but it’s all somehow connected and people fall off the bus from enjoyment. My more regular clients, will just say, ‘Give him a few more hours and he’ll get there.’
“But you have got to be attentive too. There’s no point in boring people. And there’s a very easy way to do that and that’s to say, ‘Listen: if you don’t want me to talk, tell me.’”