When I was offered the chance to interview Peter Greenberg, author of The Travel Detective series, I took it without knowing what a large personality he is. Then I did some Googling, and was promptly in a nervous frenzy over having to talk to my first celebrity. His resume is more than impressive; it’s downright intimidating. Here’s what Greater Talent has to say about him:
“No one knows international culture and business like Peter Greenberg. With more than 11 million miles of direct experience under his belt, his perspective on globalization, trade and cross-cultural marketing–as well as travel, tourism, and all industries that feed off of them–is unprecedented. Greenberg has covered literally thousands of stories in hundreds of countries across the globe in his many roles, including: travel editor for NBC, MSNBC and CNBC; best-selling author; radio host of a program syndicated nationally and broadcast on XM Satellite; contributing editor for America Online and Men`s Health; and regular contributor to Forbes and The New Yorker.” Yikes!
Thankfully, he was amiable and chatty. Here’s what he had to say:
Enter to win a copy of Peter Greenberg’s New book, “The Complete Travel Detective Bible.” Details at the end of the interview!
You’ve been traveling since you were an infant. Is there a particular trip from your childhood that influenced what you do now?
I was very blessed as a child because my parents wanted not only to introduce me to the world, but to the world’s processes. I was fascinated with how things work: how does a plane fly? How does a ship sail, or float? So that became a preoccupation at a very early age. When I was flying I was always asking questions. And I’ve always been crazy about boats. I’ve actually operated boats since in I was seven years old. I got my first boat at 14, and still have that exact same boat.
So you were always interested in the mechanics of it all, how to get from Point A to Point B? The actual physical journey?
Exactly, because if you can’t understand and appreciate the physical process, how are you ever going to understand the product? And that applies to just about everything you do. Every spa wants to tell you that they get their mud from Madagascar, and I say “Great. But how do you get the mud from Madagascar? Is it dug up, is it trucked thousands of miles?” And they say, “Oh, we’ve got a beautiful photo of a model wrapped in it.” But I don’t want to see that. I want to know how it got here, because then I can really appreciate what you do.
How has your travel style evolved over the years?
Well, remember I was a reporter for Newsweek for many years, so my travel style is really very much my journalism style. I’m always asking questions and always wanting to know about interior workings. We did a 2-hour special for CNBC that I hosted and co-produced on a week in the life of a the world’s largest airline. We had total access to the process. And it got rave reviews, because for the first time people actually saw how something worked! It wasn’t just somebody sitting in the plane putting their seatbelt on.
You’ve taken some pretty high-profile tours, with heads of state. I’m wondering how the insider’s view changes between a political figure and, say, a street vendor.
Well, I’ll tell you how that works: I have a certain M.O. when it comes to [The Royal Tour]. My goal is not to do Robin Leach work; my goal in life is to make sure everything I do is accessible to my audience. I will go to a head of state and get that head of state to give me five days of his or her schedule unencumbered, then we’ll send just about everyone else from the government home, because I don’t want them messing around in the kitchen, and for the next five days it’s really the two of us, on this wild magical mystery ride, as they give me a tour of their country through their eyes — with one important mandate, and that mandate which is nonnegotiable is that everything you see me doing with that head of state is has to be accessible to the audience. They get to do it to. They may not get to do with a head of state but they get to do it. It has to be accessible, or I’m not really helping anybody out.
What languages do you speak?
I speak Spanish, a little bit of French, and a little bit of Thai.
How important do you think it is to know the language of the country you’re visiting?
I think it’s even more important to know the culture. I’m not going to assume that somebody visiting the U.S. from another country is going to know English. Of course, the chances are much higher of them knowing English than me knowing their language. When you can appreciate, and do your best to assimilate, or at least insert yourself into the culture, that’s the greatest sign of respect you can give another culture — that you’ve done enough homework ahead of time, that you understand what’s important and valuable to them, and that you want to learn more. Do this, and you’ll get 10 times that amount of respect back.
When did you start writing about travel?
I started writing about travel when I was 17, as a student journalist at the University of Wisconsin, and Newsweek right after that. Every story involved travel, whether it was about travel or not. I was the guy with the suitcase in the trunk of my car jumping to be the first at the scene of something, and that’s when it dawned on me at a very early age that no one was covering travel as news. Nobody was covering it as a process. Travel was very much a reflection of the happy couple walking along the beach, the senior couple in their bathrobes on a balcony. It was basically a sales and marketing transaction. And I thought the public needed more, because more people started traveling after deregulation (in the 1970s), but they’re all getting abused. And they love to travel but they hate the abuse. There’s got to be someone out there telling them how to finesse the process. And that’s really where I got started.
How did you get the idea for the Travel Detective series?
It goes back to the process versus product idea — the audience doesn’t need me to tell them that the sun sets nicely in the Bahamas. That one they can figure out themselves. What they need me to tell them is that while the sun is setting in the Bahamas, and the airline lost their bag, and the hotel has no record of their reservation, and the cab driver took them on a 40-mile drive instead of two, how can I get them all that information ahead of time so they know what questions to ask, and to whom, so that never happens to them again.
You can tell you’re a bit frustrated with the travel industry, as we all are, but that being said is there any destination that you don’t ever want to return to?
Oh, the answer is none! I get very angry when I tell people where I’ve just returned from and they say, “that’s not on my list.” And I ask them, “who publishes that list? Are you nuts?” There are 314 distinct destinations around the world, and I’ve been lucky enough to go to 146 of them. That’s not even half! But it is 145 more than most Americans, because only 25% of Americans have passports. How embarrassing is that? So the answer is everything that’s on my list is every place I’ve never been to that I want to check out at least once.
I thought it was great that you included visiting Iraq in The Travel Detective’s Bible.
Absolutely. Because most people get propagandized into thinking you can’t go. Of course you can go, to Northern Iraq to a place like Arbil. There are places in Newark where I wouldn’t go, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to visit New Jersey.
Anywhere you wish you could’ve stayed longer?
This is corny, but the answer is everywhere. Because the longer you stay the more you get surprised; your best travel experiences happen when your plans didn’t work — when your car broke down and you met somebody. You open yourself to being spontaneous and more adaptable.
So tell us, what’s in your pack?
I haven’t checked a bag domestically in 8 years; I FedEx them, but I’ll tell you what’s in my briefcase. I alway carry two additional phone lines, two additional extension cords, electrical adapter, two of every kind of battery, two small high-density mag lites, post its, extra rubber bands, an iBook, cigarette lighter plug-ins for my cell phone and Blackberry, extra glasses, three cell phones — my Blackberry is international, then I’ve got my regular cell phone and a backup, so I have three separate systems. You might not get a signal on one system, but you’ve got a one in three chance of getting a signal. I’ve got Sprint and Verizon. Also I have an Altoid tin with one of every kind of medicine I might need — Vicodin in case I’m in pain, a malaria pill.
You’ve got all those labeled, I hope?!
Each one is labeled, but I’ve never had to use any of them!
We’re giving away 10 copies of Peter’s new book, “The Complete Travel Detective Bible.” Enter to win by clicking here. You can catch Peter Greenberg on NBC’s Today show, or visit his website to get more information.