Just Start Somewhere

Not many years ago, Merriam did not have a group travel program.  Buses would roll through and take in all the sights of Kansas City, enjoy dinner at a nearby restaurant, stay the night somewhere in the metro and head back home with trinkets and fond memories of the heartland–Merriam excluded.  #sadface

Upon becoming the director of the Merriam Chamber and Visitors Bureau years ago (when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth), I was fortunate to have a board that encouraged learning all that I could about Merriam.  Regular “field trips” became my most favorite part of the job.  Meeting the business owners, touring visitor sites, attending city events and reviewing the city’s history helped me tremendously in understanding Merriam’s past, its development, successes and challenges over its (then) almost 50 years. #lovemerriam

While learning about the Chamber & Bureau’s programs during my first two years, I discovered a HUGE missing piece of the visitation puzzle.  GROUP TOURS.  How could this be?  Group travel creates a monumental economic impact in Kansas ($1.1 billion total, source: ABA).  Surely Merriam has interesting, unique things to see and do, right?  Why do we not have a group tour program?  We are smack in the middle of the metro, we offer affordable and convenient lodging options, and, we are located right on the Interstate.  What else would make buses stop here and stay longer? #unicorns

It was during one of my field trips that I discovered a quaint little shop in downtown Merriam called K.C. Strings, a small space in the main part of town which crafts, restores, repairs and sells string instruments.  Upon entering, I immediately thought, “everyone in the world needs to see this place.”  I’m not musically talented—at all—but, I was instantly and completely enamored with the shop and what they create inside.  Upon meeting Anton, one of K.C. Strings owners, I don’t think it took me five minutes to blurt out, “we need to offer group tours here.”  It wasn’t unheard of to Anton as they had been touring groups for awhile, but mostly orchestras or local groups like Lions and Kiwanis.  Very few groups were coming from outside the region or from a school district within the state.  I knew group travel planners would LOVE K.C. Strings and I needed to get in front of them to share this gem in our town.  But, how?  We didn’t have a formal group program.  #yet

Cellos

Soon after, I attended a presentation about what group travel operators are looking for in a destination.  Step-on greetings, goody bags, discount rooms, large dining rooms, bus incentives—the list goes on and on…and on.  The key take-away from that presentation was to just start somewhere and begin inventorying your community to find out what is unique, affordable and group-friendly.  It sounds cliché, but sometimes, “if you build it, they will come.”  Merriam didn’t need to build anything because when I started my inventory, I discovered a few group-friendly restaurants, hotels that were more than willing to offer incentives to groups, and, a beloved Valomilk candy made right here in Merriam—a great take-home gift for groups visiting our town.  The inventory was forming and the group travel program was already taking shape. #score

After designing our first tour profile (a sad little thing compared to today’s profile), I waited for the phone to ring.  It didn’t.  And didn’t.  Finally, I placed a few ads in group travel publications and attended my first group travel conference.  I created a nice tradeshow booth and greeted my appointments with fingers crossed for a booking.  Little did I know that bookings start 2-3 years out and it wasn’t likely my calendar would fill up with group tours to Merriam overnight.  Just like any sales presentation, it takes time to build trust and interest amongst your niche target market.  Word finally started to spread amongst group planners that this town near Kansas City was offering a tour of this violin shop and the phone did start to ring. #winning

Fast-forward to 2014.  Today, “Tour Merriam” is a robust, continually growing program of the Visitors Bureau.  We now offer six tours and have numerous group-amenities and incentives to encourage visitation in our community.  To-date this year, we’ve hosted nearly 800 people via motor coach or other group travel method.  I’ve learned so much over the years about this industry and currently serve as President of Tour Kansas, the only statewide association marketing directly to the packaged group travel industry.  I’ve met a ton of group planners, provided more step-on greetings than I can count, negotiated dozens of hotel contracts and stuffed infinity goody bags filled with treasured memories of Merriam, Kansas.  And, I wouldn’t change a thing. #truth

Chocolate Tour Collage

If you’ve never traveled by motor coach or within a group setting to discover a new destination, I encourage you to give it a shot.  Let someone else plan all the details and just enjoy the ride.  Some of the greatest friends are made through experiences like group travel.  If Merriam is on your list, assemble your group (minimums apply; please see our profile) and give us a call to schedule. #9134038999

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