The first big solo trip I ever took was with a hippie outfit based out of San Francisco called The Green Tortoise. The idea of that tour was simple: 40 or so itinerant travelers piled into a giant bus, zigzagging across the country, stopping at National Parks, hot springs, and dive bars, driving only at night, while the passengers slept. On my tour, way back in ’99, I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time, hooked up with a Swedish au pair, and made a handful of friendships that have endured the decades.
It was a true adventure and, more than anything, my first real chance to connect with like-minded travelers. It was, to wax poetic, the precise moment when I fell in love with the road.
Clearly, I’ve never forgotten the experience. So I was thrilled when I heard about a new company launching — a distant relative of the Green Tortoise — called Roadies. It’s a similar model, all grown up. It features smaller groups, nicer digs, and a more bespoke experience. Where the Green Tortoise endures as a great way for budget backpackers to see the country, Roadies feels more adult. Meals are prepared for you. Beds are private. Showers… exist. Still, the Roadies crew knows how to have fun and while their coaches are sleek and spacious, the energy and party vibes are very much in evidence.
As Roadies gets rolling across the west coast and American southwest, I raced to get in touch with company’s founders, Lee Roth and Mark Wills. The day they launched, the two entrepreneurs hopped on the phone to talk about the power of road tripping, the joy of finding a truly unique experience, and their desire to create memorable microadventures with a pinch of luxury.
Will you both say your name and your role in the company?
Lee Roth: I’m Lee Roth and I’m a co-founder and Chief Explorer.
Mark Wills: I’m Mark Wills and I am co-founder and Chief Adventurer.
Lee Roth: We have fun with titles right?
It’s perfect. If you look on my Twitter bio, I’m the Uproxx “Vagabond-at-Large.”
Tell me about Roadies, tell me what you’re trying to do, tell me where the inception point was for this idea?
Mark Wills: Well, the inception point was actually on a hike just north of Santa Monica with a buddy of mine and… you know what its like when you go on a hike and its beautiful out and you just start thinking and we started talking about road trips.
I grew up in the Northeast. My buddies and I, we would be these guys who would just like call each other on a Friday morning and be like “Okay, lets get in the car let’s go somewhere.” So we’d go to places like Montreal. We’d go to like North Carolina and Cleveland and stuff. I just thought “You know, in today’s world it’s getting harder and harder to do those kind of road trips.” But there’s something so magical in it that I didn’t want to see it go away. I wondered, “How do we reimagine the road trip for people who just don’t have the time like you used to. It takes a lot of time to plan a road trip and it takes a lot of time to drive.”
So how do you reimagine a road trip to get people that authentic experience? The type where you’re like just really into a town and getting to know the local folks and stuff? So on this hike, I was talking to a buddy of mine and the idea for Roadies was born. Then we just thought… the other thing that was kind of the inspiration is there are a lot of articles out there about buses that have sleep pods and so “God I bet you we could take these luxury buses, these sleep pods and build them out where they’re perfect for this new road trip experience.”
That all came on a hike just north of Santa Monica.
Nice! I have to ask if you guys have ever heard of the Green Tortoise — because I traveled with the Green Tortoise…Is this like a more of a luxury version of that in some ways?
Mark Wills: We have heard of the Green Tortoise and I actually have friends from the UK who have come over. You know 20-30 years ago, traveled on the Green Tortoise. In fact, I remember seeing the Green Tortoise when I was living in San Francisco. Yeah, we see ourselves as a distant relative. Probably sort of a primordial relative compared to where we are.
We feel like we have a far more evolved offering. We did look at a lot of the folks who are sort of doing that life and you know its spectacular. We just love to look at their Instagram stream and just look at those amazing pictures of beautiful people in beautiful locations. We also talked to some folks who were doing it. In fact, Lee and I had a really great conversation with two young German girls at the Grand Canyon when we were up there doing our reconnaissance. They were kind enough actually to show us the van that they hired and they gave some honest talk. Let’s say it wasn’t the Instagram version of what the experience was like.
Right. That’s often lost in the glossy photos.
Mark Wills: And we thought you know, crikey, you know everybody aspires to have that road trip experience but not everybody necessarily can get off the grid and do it. This lets us offer it with just a little bit more comfort. So Lee is absolutely right. We were aware that again from Los Angeles to San Francisco Ride Cabin had launched and they had some beautiful coaches.
We thought why on earth would you do that for a commute? It lends itself more to a tour. So we have commandeered coaches, which are literally are built for the rock stars and we’re working with a company who, the coaches that we are using, where literally Katy Perry had slept on them. Paul McCartney has slept on them. So you can imagine, they are beautiful. They have flat beds. They have flat screen TV’s in each of the sleeping middle areas. They have a full kitchen with a fridge and a freezer and a coffee machine. They even have great bathrooms to shower. We’re basically doing, we’re saying to folks “Hey ya know, The road trip is where it’s at. You can have amazing experiences” and you can do it like the rock stars do.
Lee Roth: Steve, also about Green Tortoise. I think one of the things that we wanted to make sure is that we didn’t have tons of people on a bus. We want it to be a more intimate experience. It’s our hope that people from all over the world come together and create bonds. We just feel, as a company, that the world needs more people from all over the world to come together and get to know each other. So, we purposely built a more intimate experience than Green Tortoise and a lot of the other tour companies out there and that’s by design.
Walk me through the experience of someone who comes on one of your coaches. First of all, you know, how much are they paying? Who are they? What’s your goal demographic? How many people are in the group? Let’s walk through the whole experience in a fun way.
Lee Roth: So the cost is $1,299. There are 11 guests and one tour manager on the bus. Our average person will probably be in their late 20’s early 30’s. In terms of demo and we are hoping we’ll get people from all over the world. The experience that we built is that every morning as someone is waking up they will be arriving at a new location. So, you know, our favorite location we like to talk about is, in the Grand Canyon, we found talking to a guy who has been playing in a band in the area for 37 years, and we’re drinking beers and having a catch up with the guy. He’s like “Listen, man, if I could give you one piece of advice. I know the perfect place to see the sunrise over the Grand Canyon.”
Mark Wills: Tell him why it was the perfect plain. It’s where he got married.
Lee Roth: Exactly, it’s where he got married.
Lee Roth: Yeah, so we start out with those little nuggets, right. You find that perfect place to wake up and see the sun over the Grand Canyon, it’s pretty magical. And from there in that kind of day. We probably do after we see the sunrise over the Grand Canyon we would have breakfast delivered to the bus, everyone can take showers and get ready and have breakfast.
From there we’d most likely do a hike with everyone probably over the upper rim of the Grand Canyon, but we’d also have excursions for people so if you wanted to take a helicopter ride through the Grand Canyon, we’d hook that up for you, or if you wanted to do a jeep tour through the Grand Canyon, we’d hook that up for you. But again that morning you do sunrise.
You shower; you have a nice breakfast. You then go for a really nice hike or do an excursion. Probably come back, and a lot our locations have a base camp. Then we would have a really good dinner at a great restaurant in the area, and we’d also all pick out bars, and — generally, when we look at different bars and that kind of stuff, we look at bars that either have live music or games or fun. Not just a bar where you drink. Not that I have anything against that. My elbow just wants some exercise. Something that adds to the equation.
We just had some awesome music experiences as we were doing our research, and planning our trips. We wanted to really hit those places up and offer that kind of unique experience. Whether its music, Mark, what was that great bar in Palm Springs? Where they had all the really good themes.
Mark Wills: The Draughtsman?
Lee Roth: Yeah, that place as amazing. They had the live bands and then they had like Jenga and shuffleboard. Just really created a setting to bond in.
Nice and then. How long does the tour last?
Lee Roth: Seven days.
So they’re waking up someplace new every single day. They’re in an environment that’s very comfortable. They are getting to have an experience that, to some degree, sounds like they’re customizing the level of adventure? Is that right?
Mark Wills: Yeah, we want to use travel to open those minds. We will have some free excursions. So our tour manager will leave some degree of free excursions, as we mentioned. It may well be a hike along the rim at the Grand Canyon. But we will also give paid options. It’s entirely as you say: However much they want to jam up or juice up their adventure, they can.
We can offer surf lessons with folks while they’re in San Diego. We can offer helicopter trips when they are at the Grand Canyon. It’s really down to the individual.
Lee Roth: Even if, they don’t do an excursion. We planned out an experience which is just going to be amazing. So, if they don’t spend another dollar on anything. It’s still going to be an awesome experience.
Mark Wills: You know, I think we’ve all been very fortunate in our lives. We’ve traveled. And there are different sorts of travel. There is the superficial travel, the travel when you go to a city. Whether it’s Paris, whether it’s New York, whether it’s Bangkok, whether it’s Brussels. I know the thing that everybody does, and everybody knows about. But you know what, sometimes those things are fine.
But really, I’ve always found that the best experiences that I have had when I have been in the city, I’ve either been with somebody from that city, or I’ve been given what we like to call insider information. That’s really what we’re trying to do. I hate to use the word curated, cause it sounds a bit bullshitty and people overuse it. But, what we want to do is, we would love to be able to offer people an experience which is not the ordinary experience.
I’ll give you one example if I may. So, Vegas. Obviously, Vegas is on everybody’s bucket list, and if you go to Vegas and you want to go to the strip, that’s absolutely fine by us. We are happy for you to do that. But when we went to Vegas, we spoke to people who live in Vegas and they told us that when they go out they go to Fremont Street. That’s an authentic place of experience for them. So that’s where we are going to base ourselves. Our base camp will the Oasis in the Gold Spike, which is part of the downtown project, we got some fantastic local restaurants, which we will have some of our dinners at. And we feel that is a far more unique experience than just walking the strip. But if you want to want to do that… hey, you can do it.
I love that example. You’re making people locals.
Lee Roth: Our best insights, by far, come from bartenders, Uber drivers, waitresses, guitar players… That’s where all of our insights are, and you know, that’s where the great things hide.