Three teams sat on a wood floor with a pile of Lego bricks. Every few minutes, a member from each group would race over to a completed structure resting on a chair. They had 15 seconds to memorise the design before returning to their teammates with instructions. The purpose of the exercise was to see how well the participants could replicate the model using the tenets of teamwork: communication and collaboration.
After several relays, buildings slowly started to take shape, as did the personalities of the participants. There were commanders and soldiers, creative thinkers and slow tinkerers.
"I don't care about their Lego-building skills," said Hendrik Broekelschen, who oversaw the exercise, clipboard in hand. "I'm looking for judgment, leadership and teamwork."
Since January, Backroads has been hosting day-long events on two continents, searching for trip leaders to head such active-exotic outings as biking in New Zealand, hiking along Spain's Camino de Santiago and camping in the Canadian Rockies.
The California-based adventure-tour operator, which offers 230 itineraries in 50 countries, has been on a hiring streak for its June-September season. It needs to expand its staff by 200 members to accommodate the growing number of participants. The majority of the openings - 160, or nearly twice as many as last year - are for the plum trip leader position. The remainder of the jobs are for camp crew (the folks who cook and set up and break down camp) and trip prep specialist (the people who clean and organise the gear before and after a trip).
"This is a customer-service job disguised as an outdoor job," said Renee Johnson, a trip leader in Italy who assisted Hendrik during the trials. "We want people who want to make other people happy."
The company started its hiring-frenzy tour in Berkeley, California, and will wrap up in mid-May in Salt Lake City, one of its home bases. In the intervening weeks, the staff will have met with hundreds of prospects at events in Atlanta; Reykjavik, Iceland; Paris; Denver; Toronto; and Calgary, Alberta. In early March, nearly 30 hopefuls landed in Washington, the first time Backroads has held a hiring session in the nation's capital. Backroads' acceptance rate of about 9 per cent is lower than Dartmouth's, but the tough odds didn't seem to faze the hopefuls.
"I am glad I am going through this," said Rafi Bildner, who travelled from Alaska, where he is the managing director of a political consulting firm. "Otherwise, I would be behind a desk and freezing in Anchorage."
The group gathered on a Thursday morning at the Josephine Butler Parks Center, across the street from Meridian Park. The participants had flown in from all corners and midsections of the country: Arkansas, North Carolina, Colorado and the other Washington. A few of the students had taken their college exams early, so they could attend the tryout. At least one participant kept her whereabouts a secret from her boss.
The DC event was the final step on a short-but-steep staircase. To reach this point in the process, the candidates had submitted an online application that included a video introduction and their driving record. A Skype interview followed, and then an invitation to attend the rigorous evaluation.
"Our process can be a little time-consuming," Lauran Intinarelli, a hiring and training manager, said during the 9am introduction. "We have Legos to play with and bikes to work on. The number-one rule is: Please don't forget to eat."
The staff divided the candidates into two colour-coded teams and assigned a pair of facilitators per group. Hendrik and Renee, who directed Team Blue Tag, were familiar with the challenges; they had endured a similar regiment years before, when they sought employment with Backroads. However, the seasoned experts were not there to disperse hugs and rainbow stickers. Their mission was to discover the rare personality willing to go above and beyond for someone else's vacation.
"It's really about the ability to connect with guests on a genuine basis," Backroads founder Tom Hale said. "It's not something you can fake your way into."
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"Is anyone prepared to be bike-tested today?" Lauran asked.
No one raised a hand, even though the guidebook clearly stated: "You'll need to be able to prep bikes for the day and fix problems that arise when guests are on the road."
The yellow group stayed in the Ballroom and the blue group moved across the hall to the South Gallery, a grand space with high ceilings and a piano. Hendrik, a five-year Backroads employee, explained the first challenge, the Helium Stick. The team would have to work together to lower a collectively held pole. Each person had to keep at least one finger in contact with the object, which tended to flop about.
"I saw fingers leave," Hendrik said a few minutes into the exercise. "You have to reset."
While the candidates devised a new strategy, Hendrik told me what the Helium Stick tested: "Who takes charge, engages and demonstrates leadership."
"This is not a skill," said Courtney Devlin, of Springfield, Missouri. "This is about everybody working together."
The stick started to look a bit lopsided. The group decided to standardise the countdown.
"One, two, three," one member shouted.
"One, two, three," the others responded.
They bent their knees and elbows, and the stick dropped an inch.
"Please don't pause at this vulnerable moment," Rafi pleaded.
"Hand drop on three," someone else hollered.
Several people slid down on their bellies, keeping their fingers as still as a coffee table.
"I'm gonna call it," Hendrik said. "This is really good."
The group high-fived as if they had scored an impossible goal.
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Backroads the idea became Backroads the business plan during a 5,000-mile American West trip that Tom biked alone. Nearly 40 years later, the athletic 64-year-old looks as if he could retrace his tracks without spilling a bead of sweat. Holding up an imaginary mirror, I asked him what makes an exemplary trip leader.
"They need to light up a room, have deep emotional maturity and life experience, and can relate to older generations," he said.
Anything else? They should be smart, service-oriented and active. Maybe speak a foreign language. And feel comfortable wearing a wide range of hats. At any given moment, the leader might be called into duty as a naturalist, navigator, van-and-trailer driver, travel agent, translator, bike mechanic, lunch planner, nurse or human version of a warm glass of milk. If an issue arises - a hailstorm, or lost luggage, or an achy bottom - the lead staff person must quickly resolve it with a skip in her step and a smile on her face.
"Personality is a big factor in our decision," he said.
One of the most revealing tests was a two-minute autobiographical speech about a person, place or event that influenced the individual's personal growth. The orator had to fight the urge to blab for too long, bore the crowd or expound on a Great Life Lesson. Courtney described her year exploring Australia. An Arizona resident spoke about her work at a herpetology center. A Colorado college student enthused about gum.
"Something as simple as offering a piece of gum can build a friendship," Nikki Holzman said. "I really love gum and I love people, and this is a way to bridge them together."
Throughout the morning, Hendrik had been asking himself three critical questions: As a guest, do I want this person as a guide? As a leader, do I want them as a co-leader? And will they get the job done?
He had already answered "no" for several candidates, though he was keeping the names private.
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Scenario A: A guest refuses to wear her helmet. What do you do?
Nikki said: "You must wear the helmet, but we can decorate it with stickers and ribbons."
Scenario B: A leader has left a guest's luggage behind at the last location.
Melissa Luxemberg, of Brooklyn, suggested: "I called the hotel to make sure it is secure. You can borrow my clothes and my laptop until it arrives."
Scenario C: A family of five does not like camping and wants to move to a hotel. There is a lodge 60 miles away.
Thanh Tran, of Oklahoma City, informed them: "Then we'll just go. I'll drive you after dinner."
Scenario C, Part II: The hotel is now more than four hours away from the campsite. The family wants Thanh to drive them there tonight and pick them up in the morning for the day's excursion.
Thanh paused, searching her brain for a measured reply. Then she explained that she can transport them to the hotel but can't retrieve them in the morning, because of her obligations to the other guests. The family could either commit to camping or leave the trip. She looked pained with the tough-love answer.
"These are fun, right?" Hendrik said of the real-life situations before lobbing several more.
A couple has been lollygagging at breakfast, delaying the morning departure. Honeymooners request a sunrise bike excursion for just the two of them. A staff member on a San Juan Islands excursion has forgotten the bike helmets on the mainland. Dinner is going to be an hour and half late.
"Give 'em liquor," a participant recommended, eliciting a round of laughs.
"It's a family camping trip," Hendrik replied, adding another thorn to an already prickly situation.
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Finally, a break for lunch.
The prospects mingled on the balcony and around the buffet table, sharing their histories over fruit, cookies and sandwiches. The scene resembled a college mixer at the dean's house. A lot of the attendees were students or recent grads, and most had led outings in the mountains, down rivers or along bike trails. At least one participant had been on the flip side of Backroads' currency: Rafi and his family had been guests on five excursions in North America and Italy.
"I have spent four or five years thinking about this job," said Rafi, who took a mountaineering course in Wyoming after his sophomore year of high school.
Between bites, the staff approached individuals to test their repair skills on two disabled bikes. Nearly 40 percent of the trips involve cycling, and the company requires at least a basic understanding of the mechanics.
Neal Gibson, a retired researcher from Arkansas, circled the road bike, checking the tires (low), the saddle (off-center) and the brake cables (loose). He didn't uncover all six issues, but he also didn't crumble under pressure.
"We want to see how they handle problems and that they don't freak out," Renee said.
More than five hours after the start of the tryout, the candidates reached the final stretch, a presentation on a subject of their choosing. The topics spanned the Backroads catalogue: the geology of Arches National Park in Utah; New England forests; Incan stargazing in Chile's Atacama Desert; New Zealand figures of speech; beer.
"Cry if you want," Hendrik said after Thanh delivered the final talk, "or jump for joy" because you survived the day.
Shoulders relaxed, faces broke out in grins. Now it was time to learn about the job they had spent weeks pursuing.
Jo Zulaica, a hiring and training manager, seemed to read the thought bubbles filling the ballroom. She explained the schedule: "Two weeks on, one week off, so you can shave your legs and floss your teeth." And the benefits: a 401(k) program, health insurance starting in the second year, Backroads jersey and annual staff ride with all expenses paid, except for the airfare.
"We want you to feel like a professional because this is a profession," said Jo, who has led more than 200 trips in 10 countries.
After a few questions from the audience - Can you live in an RV instead of the employee dorm? Do you stay in the same hotel as the guests? - the staff handed out scheduling forms. Participants jotted down their preferred dates and location for training, an intense two-week session held in Salt Lake City; Pernes-les-Fontaines, France; or Canmore, Alberta. The questionnaire also asked about their areas of expertise in the United States, Europe and Latin America. The candidates would find out the next day if they had wasted the ink.
A few days later, I spoke with Jo about the results. She called from Paris, where she was attending another hiring event. She said they had offered positions for six leaders, two trip specialists and one camp crew member.
I called Rafi in Anchorage, wondering if he was one of the lucky nine. He told me that he had been about to walk into the Russell Senate Office Building to meet a friend when his cellphone rang.
"There was no need to deliberate," he said. He accepted the role of trip leader immediately.