County banking on bus tours
By TERRI HARBER
Baker County officials want busloads of tourists to visit the area. And they’ve contracted with a Portland-based expert to try to make this happen.
Falcon’s Crest Inc. will be paid $20,000 to foster packaged travel to the county and help businesses who want to attract these types of tourists best prepare for their needs.
This would make the county overall more attractive to groups of travelers, especially during what tourism professionals refer to as “shoulder seasons."
The early shoulder season begins as soon as the snow melts in early spring, while the later timespan ends when fall weather turns wintry, said Timothy Bishop, the county’s tourism director.
“This is an opportunity for tremendous economic value,” Bishop said. “Especially for our smaller communities.”
Melody Johnson, owner of Falcon’s Crest Inc., toured the community in June. She is the incoming president of the Oregon Tour and Travel Alliance, has ties to regional government and private tourism interests as well as experience with specialized groups such as the National Tour Association and International Culinary Tourism Association.
Johnson’s broad travel industry background is what makes her the best choice to help the county increase the number of people coming to visit the county this way, Bishop said.
Some travel groups come here to spend the night but only use the area as a “pass through.” This means they arrive in the evening and leave early the next morning — sharply limiting the amount of time and money spent in Baker County, Johnson said.
She said the customer service level here is “stellar.”
Kurt Miller, owner of the Baker Truck Corral, sees one or two tour buses pull into his parking lot each week. People mostly pile out to use the bathroom or, perhaps, buy some food or other small items at the mini market before they quickly jump back in and roll away.
However, “there are thousands” of tourist-laden vehicles passing by the area, said Miller, who also serves on the county’s Transient Lodging Tax Marketing Committee, which supplied the $20,000 for the contract.
Events hosted by local groups and organizations could be included in geographically-based or otherwise-themed travel packages. Target travelers include people born in 1964 or earlier, young professionals, and an array of groups that share interests — hobbyists, religious, social and military among them.
Sometimes group travel is a choice borne out of financial necessity, though others choose it because of other perceived advantages, according to the Oregon Tour and Travel Alliance.
Some travelers feel safer being in a group; others see it as a way to make new acquaintances, travel experts theorize.
A 30-person travel coach tour can yield $12,000 spent by the tour group. And this type of group requires 15-20 motel rooms, the OTTA reported.
The idea is not only to create itineraries that will bring travelers to sites throughout the county. It’s also to help business people best cater to these travelers. Businesses seeking to serve travel groups must keep in mind what these people need and how fast they need it, Bishop said.
This is because planning and providing services to large groups within a narrow timeframe is important. Adhering to pre-planned schedules is necessary for the tour organizers, the people who transport the travelers and the travelers themselves.
Also necessary: understanding what non-English speaking tourists want and correctly providing it to them.
Without the plan for training tourism business across the county, the endeavor would be “doomed to failure,” said County Commission Chairman Fred Warner Jr.
He also likes the emphasis on shoulder seasons.
The Sunridge Inn and Conference Center, for example, offers some travel packages, which will include room, meals and passes or reduced rates to do such things as ski, golf and visit local museums, said Rhonda Hillman, the motel’s conference and events director.
Sunridge receives strong business during the summer when there are annual events that draw people to the area. She believes added focus on shoulder seasons could benefit Sunridge and the county as a whole, however.
It’s a great time to visit Baker County “when it cools down and it’s beautiful, but before it starts to snow,” she remarked about the less crowded mid-to-late fall.
A suggested marketing slogan for Baker County by Johnson is “Eastern Gateway to Oregon” because it’s next to Interstate 84 and only about two hours away from Boise International Airport.