Mountains, history from ancestral Puebloans to the Old West and unique small towns make Southwest Colorado an attractive destination for more small tour groups of 20 to 50 people, according to a tour operator from Illinois.
Michael Embrey, who operates FunME Events out of DeKalb, Illinois, said the increasing popularity of adventure tourism works to favor locales with unique offerings like the San Juan Mountains, national parks and diverse downtowns.
“Experiential travel is the future; if you can connect culture and history with people, it provides opportunities for travel as varied as the people and the places where they are found,” Embrey told about a dozen people involved in the tourism industry.
Embrey was in Durango to address the quarterly meeting of Tour Colorado Association, which met earlier this month in the chapel of the Bar D Chuckwagon.
With mountains and rivers, Southwest Colorado is tapped into adventure tourism, but Embrey said the area should also be examining culinary travel, faith-based travel and historical travel.
Another benefit of tour groups, Embrey said, is they are often looking for tours in the spring and fall, the shoulder seasons when the tourist industry is looking for bookings to extend the season.
Carrie Whitley, director of sales with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, said marketing to tours has helped the railroad fill seats early and late in the season, when bookings are tapering off.
Tour groups are also less fickle than individual leisure travelers, she said.
“Sometimes leisure travelers hear about a fire near Colorado Springs and they’ll cancel a trip to Southwest Colorado. That’s not true of tour groups. They are going to come,” she said.
Tour operators also enjoy the discounted prices offered during shoulder seasons.
“Pick a time with your clients that works for everybody and make it affordable. They will come,” Embrey said.
Embrey, who has been organizing tours for more than 30 years, began by operating tours for seniors, but he now offers tours to all age groups. He said people are often surprised by the number of people in their 20s and 30s now organizing tours around shared interests.
Gen Y travelers, people born between 1980 and 2000, are the fastest growing group of tour travelers. Embrey said their penchant for “doing things on vacation because they want experiences” makes them a prime group to market for the tourist industry in Southwest Colorado.
The group is often knocked for not having money, but Embrey said they frequently don’t have houses or cars and are making $100,000-plus a year in the tech industry in large cities.
“They have disposable income, and they’re out doing something every weekend because they want experiences,” he said.
Hotel employees and executives should be familiar with tour operators and work to build relationships and a level of confidence in their operations that will reassure tour operators that things will work well.
“It only takes one bad experience and you’ve lost them,” he said.
“Often the best tours are made by small, but thoughtful, perks that don’t have to cost a lot but will ensure people remember their tour,” Embrey said.
Whitley said she recently stayed in a hotel, normal in most respects, but in the lobby it had a puppy up for adoption that guests could take on walks and play with.
“The puppies always get adopted, and I’ll go back to that hotel,” she said.