Tour Business

By Camille Platt

When your business model is based on providing an experience rather than a product, success comes in the form of smiles. Whether you’re heading out to kayak through the Chickamauga Lock with Outdoor Chattanooga or learning the history of downtown’s Dome Building, the business of tours is made magical by the innovtion, business planning, management, and customer service led by local entrepreneurs and executives.

Staffing & Training

The daughter of a veteran, Briana Garza has lived in three different countries and five different U.S. states. The key to finding community when you move somewhere new, she realized, is to find where the locals eat. She founded Chatt Taste Food Tours in 2019, taking guests for tapas-sized tastings at area restaurants during non-peak hours. “Each location offers a signature dish that meets the guests’ dietary restrictions,” Garza explains.

Food tours are led by Chattanooga ambassadors who own their own tour experience as an LLC, so they have autonomy to create relationships with restaurants and form their own guest experiences. The Downtown Tour stops at Hotel Indigo Bar, Paloma Bar de Tapas, Old Gilman Grill, and Alimentari Café & Market. The Southside Tour stops at Taqueria Jalisco, Main Street Meats, and Gate 11 Distillery. Training to become an ambassador is a shadowing process. A new ambassador experiences a food tour as a customer, then trains side-by-side with a senior ambassador. The final step is to work as an independent guide while the senior ambassador attends as a guest. After completing the graduated phases, ambassadors operate their tours independently.

Located on the corner of Aquarium Way and Walnut Street, Chattanooga Segway Tours has been run by general manager Kevin Shurmer since 2017. Tours are offered four times a day and incorporate historical and contemporary storytelling, plus tips for places to explore and restaurants to try. The Downtown Chattanooga History Tour stops at the Tivoli Theatre, Miller Plaza, The Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, the Dome Building, and the Tennessee Aquarium. The North Shore & Coolidge Park Tour crosses the Walnut Street Bridge to explore the riverfront and shops along Frazier Avenue. Shurmer leads tours with the help of a part-time guide. When he hires, he finds someone with flexibility through the summer, his busiest season. “I’ve hired teachers in the past, university students, people who are more outdoor- or adventure-minded and who have some flexibility through the summer to be able to step in almost at a moment’s notice,” he explains. Learning safety protocol is the number one priority when it comes to training. “There’s a skill set beyond telling the stories and knowing the history and knowing the places to recommend that involves situational awareness at all times.” In addition to being aware of the position of guests on Segways, a guide must be aware of potholes, pedestrians on the sidewalks, and cars on the streets. That’s a skill that takes time to develop. 

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Innovating Experiences

Hosting millions of visitors since the first guided tour in 1930, Ruby Falls is home to the tallest and deepest underground waterfall open to the public in the United States. Guests descend 260 feet by glass-front elevator into Lookout Mountain for a cave tour that includes stories of the cave’s history and a peek at stalagmites, stalactites, drapery formations, flowstone, and the waterfall light show.

While many visitors may not notice nature’s subtle changes to the cave itself, they are sure to notice the advancements in new technology. Over time, Ruby Falls has worked to upgrade its audio, lighting, and media, and in 2009, Ruby Falls began updating the 600 light bulbs in the cave from incandescent to LED, according to president and CEO Hugh Morrow. Before the transition, the bulbs near the waterfall would get so hot that they required regular maintenance because water that splashed onto the bulbs would calcify.

Formerly a game warden and photographer for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Captain Richard Simms says innovating new experiences offered by Scenic City Fishing Charters has come in the form of species expansion. When he founded the organization in January 2006, there were few fishing guides working at Chickamauga Lake and Nickajack Lake. Originally, he worked alone, offering chartered trips on weekends. Over time, Simms looked to his network of friends and acquaintances to guide more customers. The fishermen Simms knew weren’t interested in marketing or managing a website, so Simms offered to serve as a booking agent for guides working as independent contractors under the Scenic City Fishing Charters umbrella. “What we consider our bread and butter for the majority of the year is catfishing,” Simms explains, adding that he also has captains who guide exclusively for largemouth bass. In 2011, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency started stocking walleye near Watts Bar Dam. Captain Scott Lillie joined Scenic City Fishing Charters in June 2020 and specializes in trolling techniques for walleye.

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Marketing Strategies

Shurmer says an online presence is key for advertising Chattanooga Segway Tours, specifically banner ads within a three-hour radius of Chattanooga. “We’re drawing from Birmingham, Atlanta, Nashville, and Asheville,” he explains. “We also make a concerted effort to encourage guests to post online reviews if they felt it was worthy of a good review.” Shurmer asks guests specifically to post about their experience on Facebook, Trip-Advisor, and Google. When he became general manager more than five years ago, Chattanooga Segway Tours was ranked by TripAdvisor as No. 7 out of 30 different tours in the Chattanooga area. Since actively encouraging tour guests to review their experience online, Shurmer says, the tour has maintained the No. 1 position in TripAdvisor’s recommended Tours & Rentals in Chattanooga.

Outdoor Chattanooga also looks to digital marketing, utilizing social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to promote tour opportunities. The company also offers introductory skills classes like How to Ride a Skateboard and tours such as the Chattanooga Classic Hike Series. Additionally, Outdoor Chattanooga partners with Get Out Chattanooga magazine and

Outdoor Chattanooga’s biggest marketing asset, however, is its building in Coolidge Park. Customer relations specialist Erik Hancock says people walking through Coolidge Park will enter the building to ask questions about where to hike, paddle, or ride a bike. The foot traffic naturally brands Outdoor Chattanooga as the information hub for all things outdoors and the place to turn for outdoor experiences.

By contrast, Chatt Taste Food Tours has no brick-and-mortar home base. Because each ambassador operates an LLC, Garza gives each Chattanooga ambassador an individual discount code to recruit guests for Chatt Taste Food Tours. As the company owner, Garza advertises primarily through co-op opportunities with the Convention and Visitors Bureau, which matches all of her out-of-town marketing dollar-for-dollar, she says, and her primary market for advertising is Atlanta.

Tradition also plays a role in the business of Chattanooga tours. Morrow says Ruby Falls invests in hundreds of billboards in four states, in relationships with tour bus associations, and in print and online media, but it’s the generational aspect of a tour that can bring people back again and again. “If you’ve been here as a child, when you’re an adult, you bring your children back,” he explains. “If you bring your children back, then you’ll bring your grandchildren back.”

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Navigating Challenges

Ruby Falls utilizes anywhere from 85 to 100 guides in the summer months, doubling the staffing needs from the wintertime low. However, Morrow says workforce accumulation has been his biggest challenge since just before the pandemic began. “Many members of the Ruby Falls operations team are cross-trained and float between roles based on staffing needs,” says corporate communications manager Lara Caughman. “This agility helps us pivot successfully during peak tourist and high-demand seasons, shoulder seasons, and less busy periods.”

Simms, on the other hand, has the guides he needs but simply cannot meet the demand placed on outdoor experiences during the last two years. Scenic City Fishing Charters guides consistently stay booked up two months in advance. “The demand was already big, but it’s grown tremendously, and sadly even booking for five or six other guides, we turn away people routinely,” Simms says. Particularly in the summer, Simms fields calls from tourists who read about Scenic City Fishing Charters on TripAdvisor and would like to fish during their time in town. If they didn’t book in advance, however, they often cannot secure a guide.

Hancock says Outdoor Chattanooga’s biggest challenge when it comes to innovating tours is creating an experience that can be attended by anyone in the community. “Accessibility is a huge issue in the outdoor industry as a whole, and that’s something that we’re facing as a city entity. We want to be able to engage our entire community,” he says. “Some people do not have transportation to go to the Ocoee River or to mountain bike on Raccoon Mountain. Sometimes the outdoors almost have to be brought to them.” Crafting tours accessible to guests of all socio-economic backgrounds will remain a focus for Outdoor Chattanooga in the coming years.

Defining Success

At times, success in the business of tours means creating an experience that not only provides a positive guest experience, but also allows all Chattanooga tour companies to thrive. Hancock says Outdoor Chattanooga is unique in that the organization intentionally avoids competing with other tour opportunities in town. “Our goal is to be an economic generator. We send people to take tours with other companies, and the tours we do, we try to make them different or unique from other private entities because we want to grow the outdoor industry in Chattanooga, not compete,” he explains.

Simms says that in the business of tour operations, success is evident in the photos he takes of his customers. “Happy people. Smiles,” he says. “I want to be able to introduce and share with people our plentiful and bountiful natural resources and impress upon them the importance of those resources and provide opportunities for great photos.” Simms manages his own website and posts photographs of guests with their catches from every tour. Morrow agrees that the responsibility of a tour guide is ultimately to create that magical moment. “When we go down and turn on the light in front of the falls, and I see the children grab their parents’ leg with one arm and point up at the falls with the other one, I know we’ve connected and created a moment they will remember for a very long time.”

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