I put on a tour operator hat this week, and while it wasn’t a perfect fit, the experience was enormously gratifying.
When a conference for public relations professionals in the travel and tourism industry scheduled a landing in Lexington, Ky., I knew I had to be part of it. I’m the PR guy for the LEX-based National Tour Association, which is composed of people from tour operator companies and the places that tour groups travel to.
Like anybody, I’ve organized a group to meet for dinner. But tour operators orchestrate complex trips. Along with those dinner reservations, they’d also book air and hotel reservations for the group, plus transportation and a week full of activities.
I know what our members do, of course. I read and write about it all the time. But until this week, I didn’t know how they feel.
I joined PRSA, the organization holding the Lexington conference, so I could attend the event and become a more complete PR professional. (Note: It got me up to about 7 percent complete.) But I also wanted to use the opportunity to repay a friend from New Orleans, where my association held our big convention earlier this year. Tara orchestrated a parade of local media to cover our event, and she also starred in a seminar I led that would have bombed without her.
I promised Tara that when she came to Kentucky, I would introduce her to my home
state. The guy I called to fulfill my promise was Shaun Washington, tour guide extraordinaire. He knows the Thoroughbred industry, has incredible access to the farms and is a natural storyteller.
As long as I had a tour guide and a comfy van, I figured I would include more visitors. It was my first PRSA event, though, and I didn’t know anybody. So, like a tour operator forming a group, I had to do some marketing. I sent out a few emails to conference attendees from cities where my association will soon hold events. I gave them plenty of notice and promised them a good time and a great tour. No response. Oh, and it’s free, I added. Still … no replies.
As we got closer to the conference dates, I asked mutual friends to assure my invitees that I was not Random Man luring innocent victims into a van. Most of the mutual friends played along, I guess, as a few conference-goers emailed that they would possibly join the group. Of course, after they arrived in Lexington and had bacon and eggs beside me in the morning (and Bourbon in the evening), they realized I was legit. And they told a few of their friends. I told them all to gather in the hotel lobby at 5:15.
I began worrying at, oh, 12:15. I hadn’t been as nervous since my wedding day. What if nobody comes? What if word spread and everybody comes? What if Shaun doesn’t come? These people were nearly strangers, but I felt an enormous sense of responsibility. I had promised a great tour … what if I couldn’t deliver?
Shaun showed, of course, and he delivered a fantastic experience to the sixteen folks who risked joining the Random-Man Tour. As we cruised beside lush Bluegrass fields, my guests listened to Shaun’s tales. At KatieRich Farm they swooned over the foals and mares Shaun enticed to meet us at the plank fences. Many of them took their first sip of Bourbon from a chilled bottle I brought along. (I took cups, too, BTW.) We were close to Midway, Ky., and when we worked in a visit to Equus Run Vineyards, the smiles just multiplied.
Including a smile of my own. I am never happier than when I make others happier, and with the help of Shaun and Equus Run, I hit the happy jackpot. When the tour concluded, Tara and my new friends expressed their true appreciation for the land and lives that make this part of Kentucky a special place. They enjoyed their authentic experience.
I was filled with pride of place, but also, I felt the immense satisfaction that comes with meeting new people and enriching their lives. It must be like that for tour operators every day. And as much as I enjoyed the warmth of success, I don’t think I could tolerate the chills of uncertainty that lead up to it.
I am enthralled with the group tour experience and more appreciative than ever of the people who work to cultivate and orchestrate travel experiences. Sign me up for the next tour … just don’t expect me to lead it.