Groups travel from all over the United States and many foreign countries to experience the history, culture and hospitality of the South. Helping them along the way are the many tour companies that package Southern destinations and help facilitate memorable, authentic travel experiences.
We talked to five tour operators that are active in the region to find out where they’re going, what kinds of activities their travelers are looking for and what it is about the South that resonates so much with travelers from faraway places. Here’s what they had to say.
Let’s Go Travelin’— Judy Johnson, owner
Based in Hermitage, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville, Let’s Go Travelin’ is an inbound and outbound tour operator that specializes in in-depth experiences throughout the South. The company is also a member of Travel Alliance Partners.
Tell us about your company and the kinds of trips you do.
We have a really strong music background. I’ve always been involved in music, and I worked in the entertainment industry for years, so with my groups in the South, I do a lot of Southern music.
We do a lot of unique tours that delve into the history and culture of the music. In Nashville, we go into drum and percussion stores and into guitar stores to talk with those knowledgeable people. We also go to a recording studio to be part of a recording with a new up-and-coming artist. You get to listen to them perform and see what the engineers are doing. We want people to feel like they’re part of it, to understand what makes the people who they are.
What other Southern destinations are popular with your travelers?
We do a lot of music tours along the entire American Music Triangle. It reaches all the way from Bristol in east Tennessee, through Nashville, to Muscle Shoals, Tupelo, over to Memphis, down to the Mississippi Delta and into Cajun country. A lot of that area is untapped in the tour market. A lot of people drive through the Mississippi Delta, but they don’t get to know the Delta. But there’s so much rich music heritage there that we love to share with them.
We also get into the Old South, with Atlanta, Savannah and Charleston. Macon has a beautiful cherry blossom festival that will equal anything in Washington, D.C.
What is it about these destinations that is resonating so much with your travelers from other parts of the U.S. and from international destinations?
The area is just gorgeous, so they come for that. They come for the music. And then they come back because there are new avenues they haven’t explored before. People have been to Memphis, Nashville and Pigeon Forge, but we’re trying to show them everything that’s in between.
We’re really working to get our domestic travelers to understand the history of blues and jazz that came out of the Deep South. We want them to look at states like Mississippi that might be considered poor economically and see that it is one of the richest states in the country in terms of music history. If we can help share that message with them, it gives a whole new view to an area of the country that has been an underdog.
Friends and Neighbors Tours— Patricia Mills, owner
Based in Galena, Missouri, Friends and Neighbors Tours has been in business since 1996. The company services preformed travel groups, many from Canada and Michigan.
Where in the South are your groups going these days?
There’s a lot of stuff in Kentucky that my groups like to go do. We do the horse farms and the Corvette museum. They like entertainment, so they like Nashville and Pigeon Forge as well. We also do the Biltmore in Asheville.
A lot of them are wanting to do fall foliage in the Southern states. Instead of doing the New England states, a lot of them want to spend fall in the South. Also, instead of going to D.C. for the cherry blossoms, we can go to Georgia and see them in Macon. It’s not as crowded, and I get great rates on hotels. It’s a different experience for the travelers, and I can include other things from the Southern states.
What sorts of experiences are they looking for when they travel with you?
Entertainment is the highlight. Also, when they’re in an area, like in the Appalachian area, they want to see the culture. They want to see the crafts. It brings them back to when they were younger because it’s similar to what a lot of them grew up doing. So they love arts and crafts, and a lot of them buy those things to bring back.
What aspects of Southern culture are so attractive to visitors from outside the region?
It’s the hospitality — the kindness of the people and their friendliness. I have people from New Jersey, and at first, they’re kind of taken aback by it. It shocks them that we’re so friendly with each other.
Do their attitudes about the South change over the course of their travels?
Absolutely. I see it through the repeat customers. If I do a similar trip back to the same area, I notice that all the names on my rooming list are familiar. The people are coming back because they enjoyed the previous tour.
Breakaway Tours— Charlene Troggio, owner
Based in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, Breakaway Tours has been in business for 27 years. The company runs about 200 departures annually, focusing primarily on destinations in the eastern part of the United States.
Where are you taking people in the South?
Every year we go to Myrtle Beach. Every year we go to Virginia Beach. We try to do at least one or two trips to Savannah and New Orleans. We do Asheville and the Biltmore. We do Pigeon Forge, and we sometimes do the West Virginia trains. We do a bunch of Northern Kentucky for the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum. We also do Louisville from time to time. We love Louisville — it’s a great city. And we’re in Tennessee all the time: Nashville, Memphis and Pigeon Forge, and we just started doing some of Franklin.
What aspects of the South resonate with your travelers?
Looking out the window today, I would say weather. But it’s also the charm of the South. Life is different in the South: the hospitality, the lifestyle and the beautiful attractions. It’s a beautiful country no matter where you go, but the South is particularly beautiful.
Are you noticing any trends in demand for specific destinations?
Nashville is selling itself right now. Savannah started picking up for us after we added the Paula Deen restaurant there. And our beach trips are doing really well. We do trips to places like Myrtle Beach in shoulder season. We take them down there, drop them off, and then we don’t see them again until it’s time to leave. They have the free time to do whatever they want to do, and it’s a fantastic deal.
How do these trips affect your customers’ perceptions of the South?
I think they know what they’re going to see, and usually their expectations are borne out. There’s a lot of word of mouth about the South. They’ve heard from a lot of other travelers that this or that is great.
Best of Nashville Tours and Beyond— Tammy Beene, president
Tammy Beene’s mother-in-law started Opryland Tours in Nashville in the late 1970s. In 2009, Beene stepped into the business, now called Best of Nashville Tours and Beyond. Today the company operates tours to dozens of cities in the United States.
Where are your groups going?
In 2018, we did 30 tours. We’ve done a lot in Memphis due to the new Guest House at Graceland. That’s been a big selling point for us. We’ve done a lot in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, and definitely a lot in New Orleans and Louisiana.
What kinds of activities are you including in your itineraries?
We add as much local stuff as we can. We go to some tourist places, but we also try to get people involved in the cities and small towns. We like to give them a look at what the locals eat or do. People seem to like that.
How are you delivering fresh experiences in familiar destinations?
Depending on where we go, we try to put festivals into the itinerary so the customers are doing the same things the locals are doing. There’s not much extra expense in that. And they’re also wanting to do more food tours. Lately, my groups are starting to become really good foodies. So I’m incorporating more food tours in 2019.
What elements of the South are resonating with your customers?
I have people come from as far away as Minnesota. They want to experience the grits, biscuits and gravy. And they love the word “y’all.” By the end of the tour, I’ve got everyone saying y’all, even the Minnesotans.
People come because they want to experience our culture. They want what they have seen on TV and what the state tourism offices are promoting up north.
And the No. 1 thing that I always get, even on the first day of the tour, is ““Y’all are all so nice and friendly here.” And we’re taking a leadership role in making that happen.”
Colonial Trailways— Ron Parks, tour manager
With offices in Montgomery and Mobile, Alabama, Colonial Trailways is a charter transportation company that owns 56 motorcoaches. In addition to their charter business, they run 25 to 30 of their own tours each year, focusing primarily on the Southern states.
What Southern destinations do you visit?
We do a lot of Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee. In Tennessee, we go to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. In Kentucky, the Ark is a very popular thing. In Louisiana, we do a lot of Cajun tours and New Orleans.
We do a lot in Georgia, quite a few places. Most of it is in Atlanta or around Atlanta. A lot of people want to go to the College Football Hall of Fame over there. And we do a lot of Branson, too.
What sorts of Southern travel experiences are your customers looking for?
When we put the trip together, we ask people what they want to do. In Tennessee, they do a lot of shows in the theaters there. We also go to a lot of theaters when we’re in Branson. We sometimes take people skiing in Gatlinburg in the wintertime because they can make snow there. And people like to do tours of the mountains, especially in the fall when the leaves are turning.
Are you seeing any trends in consumer demand for Southern destinations?
It varies from year to year. One year everybody wants to go to Branson; the next they want to go to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. We have some groups that have traveled with us for years, and every year they go somewhere different.