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Why we offer tours of the Driftless Area and feature its people.

“Think about what you love to do, and do it on your schedule.”

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These are the words I have shared hundred’s of times when explaining to 40 to 60 year-old public school employees in Wisconsin how one should “retire” today. First the word retire really is completely misleading as to what we do today when we leave our primary employer. What do you think of when you hear the word retirement? For many we think of our Grandmother or Grandfather, sitting in their recliner, looking out the window or reading the paper. Every now and then they probably went fishing or hunting, maybe a coffee klatsch with their friends in the mornings down at the diner, and/or possibly a nap every afternoon. This is not what initial retirement looks like today.

First off, we all have to figure out how to cover health care until we turn age 65, or our first Medicare eligibility. Back when Grandpa and Grandma retired they could afford to self-insure, or they may have had a post-employment benefit from their former employer. I could talk about retiree health care issues until the Brewers win the World Series, (I am afraid they are both insurmountable achievements), but that isn’t where I am going with this. Let’s assume we have figured out the health care issue to Medicare eligibility.

In my “scientific” study of somewhat average Americans that I have rigorously conducted across airport bars, dive bars, and hotel lounges across this great country, a large proportion of Americans do not want to work at the same pace, or in the same work that they are at 40, 50, or 60 years old. It can get mundane, repetitive, and lack any challenge. I also argue that encourages us to get old prematurely. There are many actual scientific studies (none of which involved interviewing people at bars) that have found changing work can stimulate areas of the brain that haven’t been active. Learning new tasks, performing current tasks differently, or switching employment helps activate idle areas of our brain and help prevent dementia or even Alzheimer’s.

In my experience many people want to stay somewhat active working but work on their schedule, doing what they want to do. With Grandson’s, two daughters, and a son-in-law in Spokane, and another daughter in Northern Italy, that is exactly what I decided to do. It was obvious there was no more upward mobility at my last employer, they were happy to have me out in the field, meeting with administrators and the critical public’s doing what they knew I was very good at. Without any plan to advance, remember I get very bored without a new challenge, I decided it was time to go out and find my own challenge.

What did I like best about my previous career? I was able to meet new people all of the time. Hey, I like people! Even difficult people! My favorite is to take a person who is obviously having a bad day, in a position of customer service, and turn them around to where they are smiling, laughing even, and willing to go beyond to make our experience, at whatever restaurant or attraction we are visiting, an enjoyable one. There are a couple legendary stories about this that Teri just shakes her head and wonders how I don’t get punched at some point.

I also loved presenting retirement seminars to participants, I loved the Q & A. Rapid-fire response to questions audience members may have and looking for that opening where I can make a quick joke that everyone in the group finds funny. I enjoy doing the research to learn the information about that topic and tend to retain the information in a mostly accurate fashion……..mostly. I also enjoy educating people on useful or practical information that they can go out and use in life.

When I gave my notice to my former employer back in September of 2018, we did not know what I would do next. We weren’t very worried about it, I have left other careers with less notice before and it all worked out. Teri and I were only financially responsible for each other, our children were all out of the house and college, so this scenario was much easier to manage than they day I left a steady hourly job to go sell real estate, right before Desert Storm was launched. By the way, apparently, everyone decided to stay in their own homes and watch the war on tv rather than buy a new home. There was a bit of a lesson in that decision.

After some discussion, the initial efforts to set up a retirement consulting firm, and a trip out to Spokane, we came to the resolution that I really wanted to be a tour guide and that we wanted to bring it to an unusual location. We stopped the retirement consulting firm discussion and decided to move forward with developing an Agri-tour of the Driftless Area. In the Driftless we have points of interest equal or greater to those on other parts of this Earth. We have toured most major cities and sites in the USA, we have toured the Demilitarized Zone of Korea, we have seen the snow monkeys of Nagano Japan, we have toured Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. Why not the Driftless?

In our little corner of the world that encompasses Richland County and the Driftless Area we have, a winery with the most vines in Wisconsin, a world-class microbrewery facility, natural history in Rockbridge and Elephant Trunk rock that is unique on this earth, cultural history in Frank Lloyd Wright and the only remaining commercial building he designed with a whole unique story to itself. We also have one of the most interesting and intriguing commodities to the rest of the world in the Driftless area, great people with great stories. Probably my most enjoyable moment of each tour so far, the end of the tour where everyone is sitting around a farm-style, or large table, 8-15 people. Enjoying a meal, talking, connecting, and enjoying good fellowship.

This is why we came up with the concept of Ridge and Valley Tours. Bringing new people to visit with exceptional people and places of the Driftless Area. We would love to have you join us soon!

Father’s Day Recognition for all fathers, and a special tour discount.

Our fathers fill a critical role during our life. To be clear, I am not talking about just our birth fathers, but all important male influencers and counselors. They help us develop, navigate the pitfalls of life, and make us into better human beings. I have been very fortunate to have the influence of many great men who gave me the confidence to do what I do. They helped me reign in that “Crazy Marty Energy” (as I have heard it described in the past), brought focus to my mind, and helped me develop into a somewhat functional father myself.

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My Dad, Orlen Richards, is a great man, and almost everyone who has ever met him would agree with that statement. He embodied the term “servant leader” before anyone knew what that term meant. He has shown me how to equip and support my spouse and my children, to achieve levels of success on their own that will continue to serve them well long after I am gone. He taught me it isn’t always about me, it is about guiding their lives to a level of achievement and happiness that they find rewarding and they can then help others.

I had at least two great sports coaches in high school who were extremely instrumental in my development personally. Gary Gutkenecht and Dan Rice were truly “life coaches” for me before that was a term too. Not coincidentally both men have been recognized by their state and national Halls of Fame for their successes as coaches. However, I remember Gary for teaching me to never quit and Dan for teaching me to have a plan, have another plan, and then have yet a third plan. He also taught me to make sure all 3 plans don’t suck. Both Dan and Gary were responsible for motivating me to go on to a 20+ year coaching career in high school football and girls softball. Many of the lessons I learned from them formed the basic philosophy I emphasized to my players, “be accountable to your responsibilities and to your teammates.” This works in life too.

I was extremely fortunate to have a father-type relationship with my business mentor Bill Brown. Bill and I were an unlikely pairing, we could not be more different. Bill is very analytical and pragmatic. I walked into his office one day, without an appointment or a real estate license, and talked him into hiring me as a real estate agent. However, we actually learned we worked well together. Bill taught me the basics of business, how to conduct yourself in a business setting, and how to set up different “streams of income” before anyone used that term widely. I owe much of my professional success to Bill. He is very much responsible for my insurance and retirement investment career and the work I went on to do to help literally thousands of public school employees reach a level of financial success for themselves.

These are just a few of the different “fathers” I have had over the years. We want to celebrate those fathers who have made us the person we are. For our Father’s Day weekend, East Coast Tour, we will extend a 50% discount to a father and their companion. My suggestion, invite your “father”, to go on the East Coast Tour with you. If they are your birth father, awesome, if they are a former coach, teacher, neighbor, father-in-law, even better. We simply want to celebrate all of those who have filled that role and have made us the people we are. This isn’t limited to fathers and sons, it could be fathers and daughters,  fathers and granddaughters, you name it. Just use the code FathersDay50 when purchasing the ticket for 50% off your fare and your “father”. Simply put it is a 50% discount for a father and their companion, whoever they may be.

We hope to see you soon!

Do you do group tours, and what about kids? No, I mean children!

We desire to be “kid friendly” as you can see with the picture of these 4 kids.

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As we have rolled out our guided tours we have learned much. Isn’t anything a work in progress, much as our lives are? To make sure we are always staying true to the goals, we keep coming back and looking for barriers that may exist to potential guests. Our goal is to introduce guests to the people, the lifestyle, and the features, of the Driftless Area. One blind spot we had when setting up the tours, we didn’t think about groups who may have a couple of significant needs or wants. We have been approached by three significant categories that may speak to you.

#1. Do you have kids in your family and think $79 per child is a ridiculous amount of money per child. The answer to that is yes, absolutely that is nuts. Hey, we have raised 3 daughters, 5 German and 1 Swiss child, we traveled the USA with all of them. We would not have paid that either. To clarify our pricing for children, ages 0-5 years are free, ages 5-18 are half-price. If you are interested in taking your family on a guided tour, please contact us directly at ridgeandvalleytours@gmail.com or call us at (608) 630-2452 for a price, registration, and availability.

We really want families to enjoy a Ridge and Valley Tour experience. One of the biggest rewards of the tours so far has been the end. No, it wasn’t a death march that thankfully ended in a dragged out, frazzled fashion. It was the gathering around large tables for a meal, in which strangers started talking, sharing their lives, and talking about the day together, unrushed. Think old farm supper table discussion. If you ever wanted to show your children what life was like before WiFi, personal electronic devices, or hey, even before answering machines, this is a great opportunity.

#2. Maybe you are a corporate, business, or large family group, and have looked at this concept and thought, “Dang, that seems like a great experience for the office!” Or, you are getting the brothers and sisters together, (or “The Fellas” or “The Girls”) and you are looking for an activity………we can accommodate you.

If you have a group of more than 7 we can negotiate a group pricing, and design a personalized tour for you. Maybe you had a traumatic experience with Holstein cows as a youth? Perhaps there are still flashbacks from that time your parents left you home and you got into the Dandelion Wine and the mention of the word “wine” immediately incites you to throw-up just a little bit in your mouth. We are able to design the tour, with the different locations we offer, specifically to meet the curiosities of your group.

Just contact us either at ridgeandvalleytours@gmail.com or by phone at (608) 630-2452,  let us know your thoughts and we will work through that with you.

#3. Finally, you have a group, you know exactly where you want to go, when, and all about the area around you. You just want to get there safe and get back to your starting spot safely. You really aren’t interested in this “Guided” stuff. (Guided=Listening to Marty spout off endless facts about the Driftless Area, facts about cows, cheese, beer, and his childhood working on a farm picking rock.)  We can make that happen too.

Again, feel free to contact us at ridgeandvalleytours@gmail.com or by phone at (608) 630-2452 and we can quote shuttle availability and cost.

When I coached football I was fond to tell my players, “Don’t tell me why it can’t happen, tell me how you are going to make it happen.” That was a horrible coaching strategy by the way, but back in the day, we were a little old school. However, this is your turn to come to us and say, “Don’t tell me why we can’t do that, tell me how you, Marty, are going to make it happen.” I will do my best to accommodate your needs and look forward to challenges.

What are you going to do for your summer vacation?

I have had some very interesting discussions with my former educators about my formative years. What is most interesting is their take on when I was a kid and their view of me in recent years. Consistently then, the typical phrase used by my teachers to describe my middle through high school years is, “Well, you had a lot of potential.” I was not a model student. Heck, I was barely a student. I was one of those people who if sports hadn’t required a minimum GPA to be eligible, grades wouldn’t have mattered to me, at least until I got home.

I couldn’t sit still, I hated listening to lectures, and if you really wanted to set me off give me two pages of math problems, with 50 to 100 problems of doing the same exact thing. I enjoyed English classes, didn’t mind reading books, found history classes somewhat interesting but always, always, was looking for the next practical joke or wisecrack one-liner to pull on anyone. I was in band and choir through high school, by choice-my Mom’s choice. If I was a band director and had a kid like myself in the band, we would have a field trip and that band member would strangely just not make it back. I suspect if I would have been 10 years younger I would certainly have been diagnosed with an attention-deficit disorder of some sort, I exhibited all of the signs and struggled with focusing on any one subject or discussion for more than a minute.

During my time in school, I spent a lot of time just like this young lady below. Well that and the principal’s office, seriously

This might be why my last career led me to serving public school employees with guidance on the State of Wisconsin pension system, their personal retirement savings, and planning generally for retirement. I enjoyed helping public school employees, especially band directors, plan for a comfortable retirement. I think it might have been a little personal penance I felt the need to pay, to make up for the pain and suffering I had caused some of my educators during that time. One of my greatest adult work achievements was when I presented a retirement seminar at a local school district to the staff and following, my former high school band director, (he left my high school shortly after I graduated for another school so you can’t blame me) came up and said, “Marty, you found exactly what you should be doing, good for you.” And I then went on over the next several years to assist him in his retirement plans and eventual retirement. It felt very good to be of assistance and help him comfortably achieve a lifetime goal and he showed great appreciation for the assistance.

With the end of the school year upon us, and my awareness (and personal experience from the other end) of how taxing the school year can be for educators I would again like to offer some measure of appreciation for what they do, and face, every school day. We ask them to not only educate our children in the respective subjects they teach, but they are also caregivers, counselors, and friends to our kids. My kids were very fortunate to have great teachers who not only educated them but also counseled them in day to day life events. Teachers are sometimes faced with un-winnable circumstances, with fewer and fewer resources, but increasing demands on their time.

In a small token of our appreciation, Ridge and Valley Tours would like to offer a 10% discount, to our already reduced price, to all Wisconsin public school employees. Just enter WEACmember at the checkout when purchasing tickets for any tour to apply the discount. We won’t even force you to write an essay afterwards about “What I Did For My Summer Vacation”.

I look forward to seeing you all this summer, and hey, if you identify yourself as an educator during one of our tours I will make sure the wine or beer tastings are extra special for you. You have deserved it.

-Marty

Two tours completed, two big lessons learned, and everyone wins!

You can file this blog post under our previous promise to do this in public. The first two “Soft Tours” are in the books, we have learned much from them. The first big lesson we learned, we are trying to jam too much into each tour. Anyone who knows me knows, I, Marty, have an over-optimistic mind. I always think I can do one more thing, and I always expect a positive outcome. This has served me well in the past when we look at the big picture. However, it has also caused some issues in the past as well.

It has served me well as a head football coach who has taken over two different High School football programs that were on the skids and returned them to what I would term respectability, as well as my career as a relationship manager with public school districts during the Act 10 timeframe. It has also caused some problems as I have taken on some projects that were bigger than I first realized and taxed my abilities to the limit and my family’s patience as well. (However, as an aside, those were the times I learned the most.)

Some who know me would say I am as ridiculously optimistic as a hardware store trying to sell swimming pool algaecide, in Wisconsin, this May. That may border on crazy actually. (Actual picture taken this week when the high was 52 degrees.)

With our first two tours we learned we were simply taking participants to too many stops, within the time available, and with the personal energy it takes to take it all in. Both tours went well, we have received some great feedback and will continue to receive more from those participants to continue to make improvements. However, one item is extremely clear, we will need to limit the number of stops to 4 to allow enough quality time at each stop. For instance, I am still getting the “stink-eye” look from tour participants that I pulled from the calf hutches and young kid goat pens as I tried to usher them along in an attempt to stay on schedule. At one farm on the West Coast Tour we clearly could have stayed longer, and even I had a desire to remain to ask a few questions, but we were futilely attempting to stay on the schedule.

Therefore, going forward, we will reduce the number of stops to 4 during each tour in the attempt to stay on schedule and insure the proper time is spent at each spot. We are not considering eliminating any of the farm or business partners, but we will put them on a rotation so as to include all of the current stops as we have found participants are quite fond of every stop.

Also, at Ridge and Valley Tours we are huge fans of the CNBC show “The Profit”. Each week Marcus Lemonis, CEO/Creator of Camping World and now Gander Outdoors, reviews a business to see if they are worthy of his time and money investment to take them to the next level. Sometimes these are business that are in distress, sometimes they are businesses with a great concept but they don’t have either the capital, people, or product to continue as they exist. We find the show extremely entertaining, (I highly encourage you watch the show if you want to understand how a good business and good people can go wrong and sometimes right.) but also we learn something each week about pricing and concept of businesses.

The one question Mr Lemonis asks business owners every show, and surprisingly several of them don’t know the answer, “What is the cost to produce your item?” In “look back” episodes the Executive Producer and Mr Lemonis review past episodes and update how it is going. He has routinely expressed how shocked he is that any business owners do not know what it costs them to produce each product or serve a customer. At Ridge and Valley Tours we took that idea very serious, and some day if a business guru comes along and asks us “What does it cost you to run that shuttle down the road?” We will have that answer immediately so we don’t look like we don’t know what we are doing. (We still may not know what we are doing, but at least it will take more investigation to figure that out?) I am known to say, “I am not trying to get rich, but I am pro-prosperity and if we don’t turn a profit, we won’t be here long.” We have also travelled to many other areas and understood, at a minimum, what a tour should cost.

With this in mind, we originally set our tour price back in March so we could get the tour dates out there, and continue a Social Media presence. Keep in mind, we did not know the actual purchase price of the shuttle, insurance, food, or drink at that point, we could only estimate. And yes, those are most of our costs. We set our tour price back in March based on cost estimates with 5 stops on the tour. Now that we have actual costs we know, good news, we are overpriced, for a typical industry standard profit for each trip.

So, here is the big news, (I suspect you have been wondering where this is leading?) and I think it is great news for all of us! We will be reducing the base cost of each tour effective immediately by $10. Also, for previously purchased tickets those purchasers will see an adjustment for this change in the base price. All discount codes will continue to remain valid and you will begin to see more about those in the coming days.

We look forward to seeing everyone on a tour, we are finding there is a wide interest in our tours and meeting our farm partners. Our farm partners have a compelling story, are excellent at sharing their experience, and our tour participants have walked away with a greater understanding of agriculture, our Driftless Area geography, and how they both rely on each other to work not to mention a full stomach.

-Marty