Chet Garner is a famous face in small-town Texas.
His Emmy-winning PBS travel show, “The Daytripper,” has been spotlighting lesser-known restaurants, attractions and historical landmarks across the state for more than a decade, giving people a “reason to road trip” while entertaining them with Garner’s signature humor (and frequent costume changes).
“He's always been an adventurer, he was always headstrong, and he was always willing to tackle anything,” said Garner’s mom, Suzan Garner, on a recent weekday at the Daytripper World Headquarters near the Georgetown Square. “And he's always been funny. That really is his true nature. That's the question we get the most: ’Is he really like that?’ The answer is yes. He is really a funny fellow, and he's very kindhearted.”
We recently sat down with Chet Garner, 39, at the Daytripper World Headquarters to talk travel, Texas and what it takes to build a brand.
You just wrapped up season 11 of “The Daytripper.” What was it like at the beginning?
When we started, I didn't know if we'd get past two episodes. We shot the pilot in 2007 and didn't get on the air until 2009. Our first season was five episodes, and we made it kind of like an EP, just to see if people liked it. We had no funding to do any more than five episodes, and we barely had enough to do five. We just kind of scrapped it together.
How do you describe the show?
We take one-day adventures all over the state of Texas showing you everything you can eat, see or do if you found yourself in some random Texas town. We're giving people reasons to road trip. I want to make a television show that makes people watch less TV, because I want them out with their families or with their buddies going to explore.
What’s changed over the years?
In the beginning I was just this burned-out attorney who had this one little pet project. I didn’t have any employees at the time, I had some freelancers, but I could go into a cave and no one would bother me and I could focus on making this little episode of “The Daytripper.” I was getting really dirty with the editing and the storytelling and moving the pieces around. … Now I feel like I don't ever get five minutes alone with my thoughts. But it's a sign of the growth of the business, which is wonderful.
You now have a staff of eight and recently launched a new app. Tell us about your growth.
Little by little, people started asking our company (Hogaboom Road) if we did anything outside of “The Daytripper.” We’re like, “We have cameras, of course, sure.” So now we've got all this commercial production work that is even bigger in terms of revenue than “The Daytripper” is. Last year we got to make all the commercials for the Texas A&M Forest Service and the Smokey Bear commercials. We make all the commercials for Don Hewlett Chevrolet, and I work with Best Western International a lot. Rudy's Barbecue hires us to do stuff, and Round Rock Honey. It's kind of a big mishmash of all kinds of people. We're just storytellers at heart. Give us a chance to spin a yarn and we can do it.
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What have you learned over 11 seasons?
It's always chaotic. I think that's my nature, because I always change it every season. Rather than find a formula and settle into that formula, I throw giant curveballs at my crew. They may hem and haw a little bit, but it's fun. We keep it fun.
Will you ever get tired of traveling Texas?
Texas is endless. We're 126 episodes in. I’ve got a map where I've marked everywhere I've been, and now the Hill Country is looking pretty cluttered, parts of the coast are looking pretty cluttered and North Texas is, but instead of seeing the dots I'm seeing the empty space, like, man, I've got to fill it in! We've neglected some of the coolest parts of Texas that people don't know about. Our Texas Hill Country obviously is beautiful, but North Texas has its own Hill Country that’s just as stunning around Possum Kingdom Lake and Graham and Mineral Wells. It’s beautiful up there, and we’ve only made one episode about it. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of places.
What are some of your favorite spots?
I like the big cities, but those aren’t my favorite episodes to make. They're logistically difficult, and a lot of times you're telling people about a place they already know. When we go to make an Austin episode, it's like, oh, yeah, OK, everybody’s heard of that place. Austin doesn’t have any secrets any more. I like the secret small towns. When it comes to recent memory, I really liked an episode we did on San Saba. I liked an episode we just did on Salado. There’s just some great, great towns out there. … I can't predict what viewers are going to like or dislike, so I just have to constantly be true to myself and what kind of started the show, which was kind of like me out there having fun, exploring the kind of places I wanted to explore and being Chet, I guess, if you will.
You frequently dress in costume on the show. How do viewers respond to that?
We certainly get our share of hate emails telling me to take off all the stupid costumes. I'm like, “Hey, sorry man, those shows are out there. There’s guys who don't wear any costumes, you can go watch those if you want.” You have to have really thick skin to do this. You’re never going to please everybody, so don’t even go down that road to attempt. One of my favorite quotes is, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” I love that.
What’s the hardest part about filming this show?
The time away from family, for sure. I've got five kids now (Fielding, 11; Wren, 9; Cannan, 7; Laurel, 4; and Shepherd, 11 months). They’re getting older, and it’s endless activities, so every time I go I’m missing something. My wife, Laura, is an absolute saint, but it is tough. When we’re filming the show it’s a whirlwind of a million small decisions that lasts for two to three days where your brain is literally firing on every piston for 14 hours a day. You see the glamour of the road because it does look glorious — we look like we're just going swimming and eating barbecue — but people will come out with us and by hour two they’re like, “When's the break?” You can get road weary. You really can.
Has there ever been a place you couldn’t justify making a show about?
We research everything well in advance, so everything is really scheduled out, but I will say when I go scouting and I’m feeling out whether or not a town has an episode, there are times when I’m like, “Not yet.”
What’s the best part of the job?
We had a family come up to me at an event and say, “Chet, you have saved us thousands of dollars. We've been saving for Disney for five years, and when it came time to book the trip we asked our kids, ‘Are ya'll ready?’ They said, ‘Wouldn't it be fun if we just did those things the guy on the TV show does?’” Instead of going to Disney they made a trip to Palo Duro Canyon and saw the Panhandle and did a bunch of other stuff, and the parents came to me and said, “That was by far the best trip anybody could have ever given us, so thank you.” That right there is enough inspiration for the next 50 years.
You’re on commercials and even billboards. How often are you recognized?
I’m not swarmed by any stretch, but every time I go to South Congress or East Austin or even the small towns, I'll take a few selfies with people. I love it. As much as I don’t consider myself a celebrity, I know what it was like to meet Big Bird as a kid, and, funny as it is, to some people I’m their Big Bird. I have to constantly keep that on the top of my mind. I always love being gracious with my time and giving people an opportunity to interact, take a picture and share stories. And some of my best ideas have come from tips that I just randomly got from people.
You speak frequently to groups. What do you like talking about?
I get asked to speak to small towns a lot about storytelling and how a town that maybe has a downtown and people aren't down there, how can they get the ball rolling on helping people feel proud of their downtown, renovating downtown buildings and really embracing this sense of place. Telling the stories of Texas towns and helping a town find out their own story is really gratifying.
You live in Georgetown and own several buildings along the square. Why is Georgetown a good fit for you?
Georgetown has all the things that inspire me to go and travel. When we moved here in 2012, it was under the radar. I saw a place with tremendous potential. It’s, like, a town of 70,000 now, but it feels like 2,000.
Your office includes a Daytripper World Headquarters shop filled with “Daytripper” swag and Texas memorabilia. Why did you want to open a store?
The vision behind the shop is, yes, we sell our merchandise, but we also sell a lot of stuff from Texas makers. Our most popular items are candles, postcards, the “Vaya con Dios” T-shirt, by far.
What’s your ultimate goal with the show?
I don't want to just make throwaway TV. If we got any bigger than just Texas, my fear is it would turn into just another travel show. I love what we’re doing because anybody can turn the show on and then they can turn the TV off, get in a car and re-create everything I did, which I think is pretty special. I’m showing you places you didn't know were literally an hour from your back door, and hopefully that will inspire you to go and follow in my footsteps. I wouldn’t mind doing this show until I die.
Looking back, are you surprised by how successful the show has been?
If you'd asked me 10 years ago, never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would be here right now. I hate to put any limitations about what the next 10 years will bring, either. By nature, I'm not a planner. Just like all of my day trips are only so well planned out, my life is kind of the same. I’m waiting to see which back roads present themselves and which way I want to go.