Opportunities abound in a niche market

Tour West America keeps Arizona winter visitors on the move and coming back

By David Hubbard

The 250,000 retired winter visitors, otherwise known as snowbirds, who reside in southern Arizona four to six months out of the year are busy looking for entertainment and travel opportunities. Arizona-based Tour West America has been filling their needs for 29 years. Company representatives work lights-out November through February answering requests from the expansive menu of tour programs. In spring and summer the focus turns to charters and no one in the tour division is on from May to August.

Founder and President Peter Shelbo continues to build on the business he and his wife and company vice president, BJ Brooks, started in 1983 with one bus from Yuma to Laughlin, NV, the West’s newest gaming resort destination at the time. His plan took off and the business grew. On the busiest days, every bus in a growing fleet would be in Laughlin.

Peter Shelbo, founder and president of Tour West America, serves Arizona’s winter visitors with a mixed fleet of motorcoaches and minibuses.

“For the past 29 years, our tour division has marketed tours solely to winter residents,” says Shelbo. “This is our niche and it has evolved significantly over the years. We are continually adding new programs, destinations and packages that keep our tour operation interesting and entertaining.”

Shelbo says the proliferation of Indian casinos in so many communities throughout southern Arizona had necessitated the company to search out tour opportunities in all travel and leisure areas. It is safe to say no other motorcoach company in this region offers a seasonal tour program as varied as what Tour West America has put together.

Shelbo and Brooks moved their coach operations from Yuma to Phoenix in 1999, where they now run a mixed fleet of MCIs, Prevosts and Setras, as well as minibuses. Today, Tour West America serves Arizona’s winter visitors from three departure communities: the Sun Cities and the East Valley communities in metropolitan Phoenix, as well as Yuma, where the call center is still reservations central for seats on all coach tours.

“The winter visitor market is a perfect scenario,” he says. “Our customers have come to Arizona to relax and enjoy themselves. Some have traveled long distances to get here and want little to do with additional driving. Our vast array of quality tours covers a broad range of interests and offers convenient, affordable fun vacations-within-a-vacation. We handle all the arrangements.”

Customer choices include many day trips for shopping, quilting and crafts fairs, sporting events, theater, agricultural excursions and sightseeing. Tour West America typically offers overnight jaunts and three-day excursions throughout Arizona, southern California and Nevada. Tours into Mexico take in the Sea of Cortez and Baja California. Longer outings include a seven-day trip to San Francisco and a 10-day tour to Branson, MO.

Charter demand is off peak during the winter season, allowing the packaged tour department to keep bus utilization up at good margins.

“Only a few tours run longer than three days,” says Shelbo. “We find this to be the comfort zone for the majority of our customers. They are already on vacation and mostly looking for entertaining and interesting side trips with opportunities to explore different points of interest.”

Scrolling the menu on the Tour West America website, customers could hardly want for more. A sampling includes the favorite attractions in San Diego such as the USS Midway and Balboa Park as well as Hollywood for live tapings of TV game shows. Shelbo says National Parks tours are popular, as well as the Tournament of Roses Parade package in Pasadena, CA. He says Canadian winter visitors are especially keen on catching their NHL home teams in action against the Arizona Coyotes.

Operating in conjunction with Tour West Travel, a full service travel agency, group cruise vacation and FIT packages include bus transfers.

“We are always open to suggestions and new ideas that help us maintain flexibility in our itineraries,” says Shelbo. “In many instances our representatives and customers pass on ideas for a particular outing that eventually finds its way onto our list of scheduled trips. We are able to adapt quickly to market demand, and we take pride customizing our itineraries for larger groups.”

The company will arrange special pick-ups for groups of 10 to 20 passengers. In some instances minibus or shuttle service is available for delivery to the motorcoach departure.

The Tour West America seasonal tour staff consists of several full and part time operations and reservation specialists working out of the Yuma reservations center. Additionally, the company employs a cadre of approximately 60 affiliates in the departure communities who arrange and coordinate trips on a commission basis. Most Tour West America programs are escorted tours employing certified guides with International Tour Management certification.

“We simply are not interested in a year round tour operation,” says Shelbo. “After 27 years, the winter tour season has clearly become our unique tour market niche.”

He says charter demand is off peak during the winter season in the Southwest. During this time the packaged tour department keeps the bus utilization up at good margins.

“We have looked at this from every angle, including whether we would be better off discounting the fleet for charter service throughout the winter and drop the tour program,” says Shelbo. “But we have come to understand our niche so thoroughly, and because we have honed our approach to this niche service, this operation clearly creates more value for our customers and boost to the bottom line.” BR