Long-time tour operator Bob Cline was honored at the American Bus Association (ABA) Marketplace opening operator breakfast earlier this week as the 2019 Innovative Operator of the Year. This year’s Marketplace was held in Louisville, Ky.
Cline founded U.S. Tours in 1996 and has grown and expanded the company to the point at which it is widely acknowledge as one of the most creative and innovative tour operators in the United States. Jake Steinman, founder and CEO of the NAJ Group—it owns and operates the online portal TourOperatorLand.com, which presented the honor to Cline in conjunction with ABA—delivered testimonial remarks in which he both praised, and kidded, the honoree in a presentation that was warmly received by Marketplace delegates who attended the breakfast. Following is the text of Steinman’s remarks.
“Let’s face it, designing tours for domestic travel can be daunting. First, you need a theme that’s fresh, unique, simple to understand and possible to contract and market. Then it has to sell. And if it doesn’t, you don’t know whether it’s because it was just a bad idea or the timing was off.
“This leads me to the old Mark Twain quote: “A cat that sits on a hot stove will never sit on a hot stove again … and he’ll also never sit on a cold one, either.” So many of us, including myself, tend to give up on something because it may have been too early.
“This year, TourOperatorLand in Conjunction With ABA, is proud to honor Bob Cline, founder of U.S. Tours. Bob’s profoundly curious nature has led him to an approach that not only works … but delights the ABA operators and group leaders who buy into his programs. By combining nostalgia with music from a certain era with a unique venue and title, he’s tapped into something dear to the hearts of the senior tour market: Their youth.
“For instance, here’s just a few of the events on he’s putting together for 2019 and 2020:
-Renting the West Virginia Penitentiary for a Johnny Cash Prison Concert
-Race Louisville’s Riverboats with 500 people onboard … on the morning of the Kentucky Derby
-Take over the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for Woodstock’s 50th Anniversary
-And every year he rents Graceland in December for “An Elvis Blue Christmas.”
-In 2020, he’s got The “Soaring 20’s” series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the flapper decade … accompanied by historic air shows, complete with wing walkers, at Aviation Museums across the country.
“While these are all alluring, there’s no guarantee that they will sell, but what make’s Bob’s business model successful is that he—and sometimes his destination partners—take all the risk. While the tours attract between 200 to twelve hundred people … he’s bombed big-time. A few years ago, after he staged a full day Bluegrass Concert at the West Virginia Lunatic Asylum and every bus cancelled and he ended up with about 75 locals and 10 bluegrass bands … he thought seriously about committing himself but he took away a valuable lesson: Crazy doesn’t sell.
“But he continues to commit himself to the industry, the destinations and the operators.
“Let’s hear it for Bob Cline, this year’s Innovative Tour Operator of the Year.”
To view a video of the remarks, click on https://vimeo.com/314072843.
A Deeper Dive into the Mind of Bob Cline: In conjunction with the ABA award presentation, Jake Steinman, founder and CEO of the NAJ Group, which publishes INBOUND—he is also its editor-in-chief—engaged in a conversation with Bob Cline in which the latter answer some questions about how he got started in the tour and travel industry, how it changed, and how he has adapted, and grown, over the years. Following is an excerpt from their conversation.
Q: How did you get started in the tour and travel industry?
Cline: I started in the late 70’s with Park Tours, a charter company in Parkersburg, West Viirginia. I was their tour program manager at a time we were learning how to build and sell tours. It was a new world for everyone, we were all doing things we had never done before. Then in 1996, I opened U.S. Tours selling the packages I created for one bus company to many bus companies. Once I separated the tour package from the bus, I had a national market instead of a small one.
Q: What is the concept behind US Tours programs?
Cline: U.S. Tours has grown ten-fold from those early years. In the process we have done many things including the branding of “Voyages” and “Select World Travel,” one is a cruise brand the other is International tour products. But we still sell to many of the same group tour planners we started with: bus companies, tour operators and now Bank Clubs.
Q: Could you describe how you came up with the model (nostalgia + music+venue)?
Cline: The spark that started our growth spurt in recent has been events. We began producing great big musical events at popular tour destinations. These now operate under the brand “Spectacular American Events.” The first was in Virginia Beach 2012, we had 38 buses and 1200 people. Partnering with the Virginia Beach CVB and TAP, we had three evening events: a Frank Sinatra Show, Tribute to the Jersey Boys and a Bob Hope USO Show – The USO Show actually raised $20,000 for the troops.
Coincidentally, we have re-produced that USO Show a dozen times, including several shows in Palm Springs, California. These have been done both as a group tour events and as fundraisers for many Vietnam Veterans Associations.
Q: What are some of the most unusual programs you’ve developed (i.e. Johnny Cash prison tours, Soaring 20’s)?
Cline: In 2019 we will rent:
-The West Virginia Penitentiary for a Johnny Cash Prison Concert
-Race Louisville’s Riverboats with 500 people onboard the morning of the Kentucky Derby
-Lease the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for Woodstock’s 50th Anniversary
-The Bristol Speedway & Barter Theater are hosts for Legends on the Crooked Road
-We have the Biltmore Estate in Sept for a Candlelight Autumn (Butlers greet the buses)
-We’ve rent The Kentucky Derby Museum on Halloween for “The Headless Horseman’s Party”
-And every year we rent Graceland in Dec for “An Elvis Blue Christmas.”
In 2020 we have:
-Our own version of the Mayflower 400. Others market the history of the Pilgrims arrival, I supplement that history and local sights with evening shows. Our premise is that the Pilgrims landed at the beginning of the British Invasion, which didn’t really hit the high notes until Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles in 1964. Our Beatles tribute is night one, Elton John on night two, and we end with Tom Jones the last night.
-In 2020 we will also introduce a continuing series known as The Soaring 20’s. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of that decade we will begin producing Jazz Shows hosted by our iconic Zelda Fitzgerald (she was the first American Flapper) these will be accompanied by historic air shows at Aviation Museums across the country – by the way we are interviewing for wing walkers.
-Several of 2019’s Events will be repeated.
-And we will introduce two concepts based on new a pair of new Television Shows. NBC is scheduling a 10-episode series titled, “The Gilded Age,” written by Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) and based in New York, is about Robber Barons of the 1880’s. ABC has plans for a fall series titled “The Muscle Shoals Sound.” It is being produced by Johnny Depp and Richard Branson and is based on the studio experiences of musicians who recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. We believe these shows will bring great interest to both destinations and we have itineraries on our website now.
Q: On average, how many people attend your events?
Cline: Audiences range from 200-1,200 people. The only event that has been a flop was a full day Bluegrass Concert at the West Virginia Lunatic Asylum. It was a crazy idea. Every bus cancelled and we ended up with about 75 local people and 10 bluegrass bands.
Q: How do you promote these events?
Cline: Our marketing is a mix between Trade Shows, Email and a small amount of print. We also get support from the destinations where these events occur.
Q: What’s New for 2019
Cline: We’ve created TourSmokies.com a satellite office in a Hotel Management Company. We are 50-50 partners with Smoky Mountain Resorts coordinating tours for 6 hotels, 13 restaurants, and 3 wineries. Plus, we have created a Marketing Consortia with Dollywood, World Choice Theaters, Ripley’s and the Titanic to jointly market the region. This is a first-of-its-kind co-op among a destination’s biggest players.