Are you ready for the Olympic luge course in Innsbruck? You never know what will be next on a Competitours trip! Judie Rosenman photos.
Competitours: Adventure, Not Vacation
‘The Exciting Part of the Trip is the Unknown’
By Kathleen Broadhurst
Steve Belkin isn’t a tourist; he’s a traveler. He likes new adventures, spontaneous interaction, cultural immersion and not knowing what is coming next. Steve Belkin is also the owner and founder of Competitours, a revolutionary travel-adventure company that brings you the thrill of the unknown.
Star in Your Own Adventure
Competitours, founded in 2009, is most often compared to the show The Amazing Race, with its unknown destinations and challenges. That’s a poor comparision. It’s true, Competitours runs in a similar vein; unkown destinations, teams of people, and challenges, Competitours is about personal growth and exploring culture, not about hard competions, racing or speed. The challenges are real, and the top three teams with the highest standing at the end share the $7,200 cash prize.
The difference? ( Well, besides a million viewer audience?) “ There’s no drama queens, no humiliations, no gross factor, “ Steve assures me. “ We don’t want you to have a bad time, just nudge you out of your comfort zone.”
Competitours is focused around challenges. During each tour contestants have to face culinary, cultural, soft adventure and historical challenges. These are unique experiences are designed to showcase the region. Contestants travel around a city or area, and delve into the culture in a way they may not have ever considered. “The stakes are high enough to be fun, but not so high that it causes people to be unfriendly,” Belkin explains.
Wendy Chan, a former participant, said “For us, it was more about having fun, completing all our challenges and not embarrass ourselves by coming in last.”
“Over the past five years Competitours has really evolved,” Steve said, “ this is the first year that we are showing our hand about the challenges.” Every trip is unique, and the destinations and challenges change every time. For example, every year there is a culinary challenge, but there’s no way to tell if you will be in a chocolate war, Iron Chef improv cook-off, or a gelato joust.” Belkin said.
Most of Competitours challenges would be impossible to do on an independent trip. Steve has to personally negotiate the special arrangements or exclusive access that are required. Finding ‘must-do’ activities in remote locations that remain untouched by package tours is a work of backstage magic that Steve has mastered.
Steve is constantly working on improving the challenges and the experience of the trip for the participants. He spent 6 hours negotiating with Murano glass blowers to allow him to bring the Competitours into the studio to learn basic glass blowing. “The master was insulted at first,” Steve told me, ” He thought I wanted him to make everyone into a glass master by the end of the day, but what this, and all the challenges, are really about is exploring something you would never have the chance to do if you weren’t on the trip. “
Competitours is full of these one of a kind experiences, from hands on traditional craft making, to ‘soft adventure’ outings. “These soft adventure outings, they are really more mental than they are physical, we do Via Ferrata, which is basically climbing on a leash, that really is amazing, but anyone can do it.” Steve reassures me that his trips are open to all ages, nothing is too extreme or too fast, and winning is based on your own creative interpretations of a challenge not on speed or strength.
The Fun of the Game
The group poses after a Flamenco lesson in Barcelona. The culinary challenges are arranged with local masters and generally center on creating your own version of a famous recipe. Teams are judged by the experts and by their peers, so if it doesn’t look great but tastes delicious you sill have a chance to win the prize. Past trips have included tiramisu, gelato and chocolate competitions.
Steve Belkin thinks hard about the historical challenges, “ I want people to engage with the history, I want them to think, ‘how do I make something from the 1400’s relevant today?’”
Historical challenges often involve interacting impressive historical sights, not just passively seeing them. Conjuring up a commercial to pitch a 9th century Viking ship as a cruise for a 21st century audience. Or creating an impromptu fashion show using other tourists in an abandoned Salzburg salt mine to give an 18th century drab work uniform a contemporary twist.
The cultural challenges usually call for you to engage with the local scene in some unique way. In past trips participants have faced unique challenges, like going to the top of the Eiffel tower and teaching tourist how to do the Can-Can. In Cinque-Terre teams had to ask around for local stories about why the clocks on the two main churches were two minutes apart.
Maskmaking handiwork in Venice, on a recent Competitours trip. Adventure, Not Vacations
Wendy Chan was already an experienced traveler when she found Competitours. “My style is “adventure” not “vacations”. I’ve taken private tours, flown on private planes, slept in jungles of Papua New Guinea and yurts of Mongolia so… I’m pretty well traveled.” Wendy wanted something that was exciting and rewarding, not another main- stream pre-packaged tour.
“The exciting part of the trip was the unknown.” Wendy explained. “We never knew where we were going & what our challenges were ‘until 24-36 hrs ahead of time. We started in Frankfurt, Germany, from there we headed to Salzburg, Austria, Venice/Bologna, Italy and ended in Barcelona, Spain. How can you go wrong with any of these places?”
Judie Rosenman has traveled with Competitours three times, starting with their inaugural trip. She tried the first one as a ‘guinea pig’ but kept coming back. “This trip is an experience like no other. You go places you never would have gone, or even know about. You do things you never would have Steve Belkin with his wife Julie.
done, or imagined.” She readily admits however that the tours aren’t for everyone. “You need to have a sense of adventure and be willing to surrender to the unexpected.”
For Judie, the challenges were the whole point of the trip, and sometimes they were exhausting. One adventure left her and her team in the pouring rain on the side of the road. “We ended up hitchhiking and finally got a ride from a woman who stopped after she saw us waving frantically,” Judie said. But with Competitours, as with all travel, the ups and downs are all part of the adventure.
Meet Like Minded People
While the challenges form the backbone of the trip they are not the whole story. “We always make sure the challenges don’t gobble up all of your time.” Steve said. “ You still have time to shop, or go to a museum or sit at a café.”
“One of the best parts of Competitours is that you are surrounded by people who are really exuberant about traveling,” Steve said, “it takes a really unique person to not want to be spoon-fed and it can be hard for those people to meet others like themselves in their own social circles at home.”
Judie can attest to the staying power of the connections she made. “You start out with a bunch of strangers and end up with a bunch of new friends. I’m still in touch with people from all three trips – a few have even stayed with me when they’ve come to LA.”
Proseco in Venice, enjoying the comraderie of the group.
Wendy liked how flexible Competitours was “My preference is not to do group things. Competitours made it possible to interact or not with the group.”
Whether you want to meet new people, get to know friends better, or bond with a loved one, Competitours allows for all kinds of interaction, unlike many forced social tours.
A Trip Like No Other
Regardless if you are a seasoned traveler like Wendy Chan or craving your first new adventure, Competitors offers a unique experience; a chance for you to explore and interact with the world on a whole new level.
“Honestly,” Steve Belkin said, “ I wish I could be a contestant, this is how I love to travel and I love to watch people’s wonderment.”
Find out more about this exciting and unique travel opportunity:
2531 Claver Road
Cleveland, OH 44118
The next Competitours adventure starts in June
June 15, 2014 – June 26, 2014
July 20, 2014 – July 31, 2014
Kathleen is a writer and photographer based in Boston. She focuses her lens around the globe on issues of sustainability, tourism, and the environment. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @kat_abroad