Untours was started 33 years ago by Hal Taussig. After living in and subsequently falling in love with Switzerland, Taussig decided to start a company that would allow clients to do what he did — live locally and not in a packaged, predetermined way.
Over the years, the company has evolved into a much larger operation, but it retains the kind of hands-on approach championed by Taussig from the very beginning. Now, most of the profits from Untours goe toward the Untour Foundations, which, in turn, makes loans to projects that address poverty and the greening of the planet. Even in his 80s, Taussig still bikes to work every day and takes a yearly trip to Switzerland.
Commission: 5 percent
The first time I took an Untours trip, I went to Switzerland.
After landing in Zurich, I took a train south to Lucerne and then boarded another, more rickety local train to the small village of Meiringen where, as fictional legend has it, Sherlock Holmes was murdered by his arch enemy, Professor Moriarty. In Meiringen, I was greeted by an affable, older gentleman on a bicycle — Hal Taussig, the founder of Untours — a retired rancher-turned-college-professor-turned-tour operator.
Taussig then took me and my traveling companions to a local bicycle shop where we were outfitted with mountain bikes, helmets and all the equipment we would need for our adventure. And then, the fun began. We set out on daily tours of the countryside by bicycle,
returning every night to apartments in Meiringen and sumptuous meals at a local eatery.
It was not, to say the least, a typical European package tour. But then again, Untours, as the name implies, is not your normal tour operator.Untours marketing manager Kim Pachen agrees.
“We have personalized the experience of traveling in Europe and offer a specific product in a specific niche. If someone is expecting a traditional tour, we’re not for them. We don’t try to stretch our product to fit all clients. If someone says, ‘We want three days in Paris, then three days in Rome,’ we say, ‘No, we’re not the right company for you.’”
Untours packages include airfare, accommodations and, in most cases, transfers to and from airports for more than 20 destinations in 10 countries, including Switzerland, Italy, France, Greece, Spain and Germany. Untours also runs trips to Austria, Holland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
According to Pachen, a major key to its appeal lies with its affordability.
“Let’s face it,” she said. “Paris is wonderful with or without Untours, but it’s certainly cheaper with us.”
Clients stay in apartments, cottages and, in some cases, even farmhouses that have been handpicked by the staff.
“If someone calls us and says, ‘I want a two-bedroom apartment but not in the middle of town,’ we can help them find it,” said Pachen who previously scouted apartments in France before joining the 25-person Untours home office in Media, Pa.
“People call us because we have seen the apartments, so we can give them good advice and tailor to their needs accordingly. Also, all our overseas staff knows at least one other language, which is especially helpful in an emergency.”
On the ground, the company has a network of more than 60 employees to make sure its travelers are comfortably settled and instructed in the ways of the local community, be it transportation schedules, local markets or the best — and most affordable — way to see the sights. Then they’re on their own or as much as they want to be. This business model has worked quite well for the company that does not advertise and relys instead on word-of-mouth and repeat clients.
“Forty-five percent of our client base has already done one tour with us,” she said. “And we have people who keep coming back and have done 10 or 15 tours.”
Untours’ success can also be attributed to their ability to follow trends and holistically research each destination they serve.
“We see where the demand goes [in terms of our destinations],” said Pachen. “We tend to be a little ahead of the curve on this. For example, Umbria is now a very popular destination, but four years ago, we were afraid we’d have to shut it down. Now, it’s almost passing Tuscany in popularity.”
The company’s most popular destination — Switzerland, especially in the summer.
“Because we have a Kids Stay Free program and school is out in summer, parents can take their kids with them. Tuscany is very popular and, of course, Paris is Paris.”
And it’s a fairly good bet that Taussig — now in his 80s — will be waiting to personally greet clients at one of those destinations.