Context Travel – 10 Years of Exceptional Curated Tours

Context Travel

I am a big fan of Context Travel. I have done tours with them in Paris and London, all of them exceptional. And I've already scheduled a few more for my upcoming trip to Paris in June which I am very much looking forward to. My biggest problem was choosing which tours to do – there were so many that I fell in love with, as my trip is only five days.

Tours cover numerous areas of interest and every tour guide is an expert in their field. Whether it is art, history, architecture, or food, your docent will be local, and extremely knowledgeable. Along with small group size, it is a perfect combination for an intimate experience.

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Now, everywhere I travel I look to see if Context Travel has tours and I seek them out. Even when it is a city as familiar to me as Paris, there is always more to learn. And for new destinations like Kyoto for our trip in November, it is likely lucking into a local friend living in the area and using their experiences to broaden yours.

It is not surprising that this year Context Travel is celebrating its ten-year anniversary. They are a company that practices, and deeply believes in sustainability. They've even created the Context Travel Foundation for Sustainable Travel and operate as a certified B Corporation a relatively new kind of company that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.

I was thrilled when owner Paul Bennett agreed to an interview to help celebrate the company's ten years of success. Please welcome Paul!

Paul Bennett of Context Travel
Paul Bennett, pictured with his wife Lani Bevacqua. (Photo credit: Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer at Philly.com)

[1] Ten years, wow! How did you start (and where) and in what ways has the company changed (and not changed) in the decade Context Travel has been in existence?

Ten years. So, we're still young!

Although we're an urban company, soaked in history, culture, and the arts, the whole thing began on a sailboat hundreds of miles from land. Lani, my wife and business partner, and I lived for two years on a boat and traveled a good part of the globe (Central America and the Mediterranean).

Along the way, we learned the value of connecting with local experts who could give us insight into the places we were visiting. Partly, this was connected to my work as a freelance journalist. But it also just proved really sensible. We wanted to learn about the places we visited, and wanted to immerse ourselves. A local expert became indispensable to this project.

Our trip ended in Rome when we discovered that Lani was pregnant with our first child, and we simply transferred the idea to land. I was working for National Geographic, Smithsonian, and a bunch of other magazines, and I'd compiled a great rolodex of experts in art history, archaeology, and other topics. Many of those sources became docents, and many continue to work for us still.

Context Travel in Rome
Context Travel in Rome (Photo credit: Context Travel)

[2] How did your mission to run a sustainable company and to give back locally come about?

I wrote a big piece for the now-defunct National Geographic Adventure magazine a decade ago on sustainable travel, which exposed me to a lot of the great work happening in this sector. Fast forward many years as Context is taking off and I realized that although we're low impact, we're not really sustainable.

We weren't doing anything proactive to support and nurture the cultural heritage of the cities where we live and operate. And, yet, we have this amazing network of 300+ scholars who adore those cities. If we could leverage that we could make a real impact.

Our Foundation is still in its infancy, and we only have a handful of projects. But, they are amazing, if small, and point to a bright future for us as a B Corp and sustainable business.

Context Tour in London
Context Tour in London (Photo credit: magellanstraits)

[3] Can you give us a peek into the future? Will there be Context Tours in every major city in the world or do you have certain things you look for in a potential candidate city?

We're currently operating in 23 cities and will launch two more before the year's end. I can see us eventually in 40-50 cities worldwide. There is absolutely a set of criteria. First, it has to be a city. Our model of a la carte day tours relies on having a nexus of local experts. A Context walk isn't an escorted tour in the traditional sense. It doesn't last many days or weeks. And we can't send someone a long distance for just three hours. We need someone local, a true local expert. And, so cities are our best bet.

Which cities? Well, it has to be a culturally rich place with deep history, art, architecture, and other capital “C” culture. That's our primary currency and what we do best. It also has to have a sense of place or geo-character. And, of course, people have to want to visit.

We work in Rome, Shanghai, and Washington, DC… These are major urban destinations of the world, and cities of layers that you penetrate more deeply with each visit.

Shanghai (Photo credit: Context Travel)

[4]  You offer so many tours, do you have any tips for selecting the “right” tour?

Ah, good question. This is a tough one. It depends on the traveler's needs. For example, a family visiting Paris for the first time is going to have different needs than the couple who come every spring. It's also very personal. Again, using Paris as an example, some visitors are completely focused on food, while for others it's part of a broader experience. Travelers also have different “levers.”

I'm a connection person. I love learning the timeline of a place and understanding how it is connected to other places. For example, when I take one of our Habsburg walks in Prague and then another one in Vienna or Budapest, and the docent can weave together that story and those interconnections between the cities, I'm enthralled. I'm a complete geek that way.

I think travel depends a lot on rhythm. You have to go at the right pace, have the right companion, and feed yourself the right mix of food, sleep, adrenaline, and inspiration. Our walking seminars play an important role in this. Me, personally, I like to take one walk each day, in the morning. It gets me thinking, and I ride that the rest of the day.

Our walks last three hours, so perfect before lunch; and then lunch can support the ongoing conversation with my traveling companion about what we learned, further questions, and so on. I like to work chronologically, too. So, if I can load the beginning of my visit with antiquities and move toward more modern history later in the visit that's great, though not always possible. And, I love to have one curated meal along the way. This is something unique that we do, and I think it's crucial to understanding a place.

(Photo credit: Context Travel)

I travel a ton and I take a lot of our walks. I go on our popular walks like the Forbidden City in Beijing, Louvre in Paris, and our Gaudi walk in Barcelona mainly to check in and see how we're doing on those. But, what I love are the new, thematic, off-the-beaten-path walks, like the Daoism walk in Beijing, the Immigration and Changing Face of Paris walk in Paris, and the Made in Barcelona walk there about local design. These give you insight into a place far beyond a traditional tour.

When I answer the phones in our Philadelphia office and get a question about which walks to take I always urge people to sprinkle in one or two of these unusual topic walks. Invariably, when they call or write afterward this is the walk that blew their minds.

[5] Do you have tips for impending tour takers? Things that will make their tour more successful?

I'm an advocate of slow travel. Stay in an apartment instead of a hotel. Spend twice as much time in a place than you think. Couple your cultural touring with experiential learning like food tours, curated meals, or learning how to do something—like our fresco-making workshop in Florence. Try to avoid the tendency of being a drive-by tourist. Love it. “If there's life, there's travel.”

Thanks Paul!

Wonderful responses, I wouldn't have expected any less coming from the man who created such a wonderful company.

How about you? Have you been on a Context Travel tour somewhere around the world? Do tell!

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  1. Julie Dubin says:

    Thanks so much for writing about Context Travel! It sounds like a great company. I really appreciate learning about companies that prioritize sustainability and sustainable travel. From my perspective, many travelers are interested in sustainability and travel offers a great opportunity to make intentional choices that support sustainability. I also am a big supporter of the role of experiential learning as Paul describes in his responses – travel provide so many phenomenal opportunities to to jump right in and learn by doing!

  2. lillie-beth says:

    How interesting! I like this idea of tailoring a tour for your group needs and the city you’re in and hosted by natives to the area.. As a newcomer to your blog but as one who writes and has been on media trips, I’ll be looking for more tips and information about all the options available to people who travel. Good points for readers. This almost sounds like spam, but it isn’t. I promise.