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Slow Europe shows you how to find vacation rentals in Europe - villas, houses, cottages or apartments that you rent by the week.

What are Vacation Rentals?

Untours, European Vacation Packages

by Valerie Schneider and Pauline Kenny, August 2010

For this month's profile we talked to Brian Taussig-Lux who runs Untours. Hal Taussig started the business in the mid-70s and were one of the first companies to introduce Americans to vacation rentals in Europe.

An Untours vacation rental package is a great way for a European traveler to do their first vacation rental trip. You get to travel independently, but with a little extra help from Untours.

Untours, European Vacation Packages

When Hal Taussig and his wife Norma returned to the U.S. after a sabbatical year in Europe, he had more than a few trinket souvenirs to show for his time abroad. He brought home a passion for travel and a deeper way of experiencing a destination. He had seen that staying in one place and seeing it in depth was much more rewarding than a superficial bus tour. Eager to share this new-found mode of cultural travel, he penned a book, Shoestring Sabbatical. To further nurture the flames of his travel passion he started Untours in 1975, to help others discover the joys of traveling more independently and more consciously.

"As far as we know, Untours was the first U.S. company to promote the concept of vacation rentals," says Brian Taussig-Lux, Untours Manager and Hal Taussig’s nephew. It was an unusual concept at the time, when more and more chain hotels were being built into a world-wide network; yet Hal was certain that he had discovered a more meaningful mode of travel. Untours was originally dubbed Idyll, Ltd. "When they traveled, Hal and his family utilized public transportation, stayed in one place for lengthy periods to really learn about the culture, history and food, and were able to connect with local residents," Brian told us.

Others found the idea appealing and Untours started to gain a small but loyal following. Since Hal has a Swiss daughter-in-law and was familiar with that country, his initial tours focused only on Switzerland. He escorted his first group there in 1975. He quickly realized that on-site support didn't need to be too intensive and that travelers delved more deeply into a place when they were more independent, rather than being led around.

Hydra, Greece

Hydra, Greece

Happy, devoted clients started demanding more locales, so today Untours has grown to include more than 300 properties in 20 destinations on three continents with a site-based staff complimenting the Pennsylvania-based operations. They will expand their offerings to include Quebec City in 2011 and are exploring other European areas for future expansion.

With 35 years in business, Untours is the grand-daddy of vacation rental agencies in the U.S. Untours clientele is made up mostly Americans and Canadians who are well traveled in Europe. "Our typical client is 65 years old, highly educated and interested in art, history, local culture, cuisine and wine," Brian told us.

Unwrapping The Traditional Tour

Hal's idea of a travel package tour really unwrapped the traditional escorted tour. There would be no motor coaches, no regimented itineraries, and no mediocre food in tourist-trap restaurants. Instead, Untours provides everything needed for travelers to enjoy a place on their own: trip planning assistance, a portfolio of carefully selected vacation rental properties and on-call staff, as well as loads of tips, advice, a listing of events for each location during the duration of the guests' stay, and local insider information on what to do and see.

"Untours provides airport transfers, a meaningful orientation the day after arrival, a group activity, and ongoing on-call support as needed," said Brian. They will also arrange activities such as cooking classes, walking tours, and winery tours, as well as offer restaurant recommendations.

Untours has also kept costs low by scheduling their vacation rentals to begin on Wednesdays, so clients can take advantage of lower-cost mid-week airfares. Brian says something potential clients should keep in mind is that there is no maid service, and some properties do not offer internet or cable TV. Some properties may not have air conditioning. "However, there are often opportunities to get to know the owners or hosts."

A Team of Travelers

Untours Staff with Brian top-left and Hal beside him

Untours staff - Brian top-left, Hal beside him

Untours has 13 staff members in Pennsylvania and more than 40 on-site staff throughout their destinations, who are always available to help, to offer recommendations, and to resolve any problems that might arise.

It's the staff that makes Untours stand out. Each team member has a passion for this method of travel and one of the job requirements is spending at least a couple weeks each year visiting the Untours properties and to confer with on-site staff and get a first-hand impression of the destinations' operations.

We asked Brian to highlight two of their employees to tell us what they do at Untours.
"Dodge is fluent in French, Spanish, and Portuguese. He has traveled countless times to Spain and France to visit our locations and has even been inducted into a prestigious order of French wine lovers. Dodge is our team leader for France, Italy and Argentina. He is available for phone consultation to our clients traveling to those regions."

"Andi is fluent in Italian and comes from an Italian family background. She has traveled all over Italy and has helped start a number of Untours. Andi is co-team leader of our Italian team and is available for phone consultation for clients traveling to Italy."

Untours Offerings

Thun, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

Thun, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

Their most popular areas are Switzerland, Tuscany Italy and Provence France, though Brian says that some less popular places that are off-the-beaten-path are still great destinations, such as Nafplio Greece, Umbria Italy, and Leiden Holland.

Untours wants to maintain a high standard for their offerings, so someone from their staff has personally visited every property. They now have a portfolio of more than 300 properties. "We look for clean, comfortable accommodations with owners or agents who understand our needs and are responsive to any issues that could come up, at a reasonable price." He says they find them from various sources, such as local tourist offices, online, word of mouth, and through their on-site staff.

They search specifically for properties in good locations that offer excellent day trip possibilities, but that are also near a town or a village with good amenities. "The locations are intentionally selected not to be a getaway for someone interested in sitting by a pool or on a beach for a week or two, but for travelers interested in experiencing as much as possible of the local history, culture, and cuisine."

The Right Vacation Rental

In 2006, they started a separate product line that offers only vacation rentals without the additional services, The Right Vacation Rental. They trained and sent a researcher to find properties that would meet their needs and sought insights from trusted colleagues and staff. "It is different from Untours in that we do not include on-site support in the price. In some locations, however, we do offer the services of a local expert for an additional price," said Brian.

The Un-Corporation

Untours founder, Hal Taussig, is a simple guy. He had been a cattle rancher and a professor of history who came to realize that he enjoyed a simple kind of life and wanted to maintain that self-set standard. He also realized he made more money than he needed to be comfortable and started giving away funds, first by sending rebate checks to clients and offering profit-sharing to his employees. As the company grew that became impractical so he started a foundation to distribute his wealth. He wanted Untours to benefit society. In fact, the company gives away the majority of its profits.

"We found a socially responsible way to run the company, and to do so with attention to our employees as well as the environment. We maintain a balance between social benefit and profit for shareholders," said Brian. They focus on the "Three Ps" of People, Planet, and Profit, he said.

Untours is a "certified B corporation," demonstrating their dedication to being a socially responsible company by meeting comprehensive and transparent social and environmental performance standards.

Hal devotes most of his time to the foundation, which provides low interest loans and champions equitable fair trade. "Loans are issued to individuals and organizations in order to create jobs among disenfranchised populations, build low-income housing, and support Fair Trade Certified products all through the most environmentally friendly means possible. The foundation's interest rate on loans is one of the lowest in the world: normally the U.S. inflation rate."

The company has also instituted eco-friendly measures in their office in Media, Pennsylvania. Not only do they recycle and compost, they have solar installations that provide one-third of the office's electrical needs.

Untours name is appropriate for an un-corporate model such as this. Their tag line indicates that travelers will get much more than a quality, meaningful travel experience: "Your money goes to work while you go on vacation!"

Thank you Brian for taking the time to tell us about Untours!

Resources

  • Untours Cafe - Untours community with forums and photos. Started in 2007 and now has over 1500 members sharing travel information.
  • Twitter - Untours | Facebook - Untours
  • YouTube - Untours: Video about Untours and their vacation packages.
  • YouTube - Hal Taussig: Video profile of Hal Taussig, founder of Untours. Produced by Bill Charette and Nancy Mills, Boomer Media Properties, Inc. It aired in 2006 on their PBS series, Boomers, Redefining Life After 50!

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