January 2014

2014 Innovative Operators: Gray Line Tours of Tucson

by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

The company has created high-end experiential tours that have gained them both awards and national media recognition.

The company has created high-end experiential tours that have gained them both awards and national media recognition.
Despite being a part of the business off and on for his entire life, TJ Morgan never saw himself one day running the operation his family started way back in 1916.

Throughout his life, Morgan worked at Gray Line Tours of Tucson in a variety of capacities, including ticket agent, shop worker, driver, bus washer and marketing consultant. He also spent 15 years as a professional musician, trained horses, sold bibles door-to-door, and got both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, before finally finding a home at the operation.

“I am the poster child for the kid who swore he would never work for his father, but I still ended up here,” Morgan explains. “The bus business is a tough industry, but it really gets under your skin after a while.”

Following the Gray Line recipe for success to create high-end, experiential tours that would engage customers and give them some type of educational benefit, Morgan and his team developed the highly popular culinary tour, dubbed “The Best of the Barrio.”

“The Tucson south side is very Hispanic, and people are reluctant to explore that area,” Morgan explains. “There are tons of mom-and-pop-type restaurants, and in the process of developing the tour, we became experts in Mexican food.”

To anchor the tour, Morgan and his team decided to find the best taco in south Tucson. To do so, Morgan, his wife and Director of Sales Christopher Defimone walked up and down 12th Avenue stopping at every restaurant along the way.

“We would order one taco and split it three ways,” says Morgan. “People thought we were crazy. It was definitely the most amusing research I have ever done.”

Aside from stopping at the restaurant with the best taco, the tour also stops at a bakery where customers enjoy fresh tortillas and sweets as well as other restaurants where they can sample burritos, fish tacos and margaritas, before ending the tour with the traditional Mexican version of a snow cone, called a Raspado.

“The goal is not just to feed people, but to give them some culture. It’s about education. It’s about giving them an experience they won’t forget,” says Morgan. “From my perspective, tourism, at its core, is offering experiential memories that our customers can treasure in years to come.”

The success of the tour has led to other popular culinary tours, including its “Global Tapas Tours,” which take customers to various ethnic restaurants specializing in Bosnian, Jamaican, Greek and Ethiopian foods.

“The tours have worked out well for everybody; we’ve developed great friendships with all the restaurants we partner with and find our customers return to the restaurants on their own, which is really the goal,” says Morgan.  “It also works well with Tucson’s newest marketing initiative: ‘Tucson, home of the best 23 miles of Mexican Food!’”

The crown jewel of Gray Line’s tours, however, is their award-winning “Border Crisis” tour.

The tour travels from Tucson to the border town of Nogales and stops at the water tanks in Arivaca, placed there by the nonprofit group Humane Borders for thirsty travelers in need of rejuvenation, whether they’re U.S. citizens or not. The tour also includes discussions about the border’s effects on the area’s produce and livestock economy with area ranchers, a visit to the actual point of entry and border fence, and a discussion with local and federal officials about what it’s really like to work along the border.

The tour took a lot of time to develop, but finally got up off the ground and has gained steam thanks to earning Gray Line Worldwide’s most creative tour of the year as well as national media attention. Morgan says the goal of the tour is to provide customers a total picture of what goes on so they can fully understand both sides of this controversial issue.

“Everybody comes to us with opinions representing one extreme or the other; pro-immigration or anti, far right or left.  By the end of the tour, they realize it is not a simple issue; there are pros and cons to everything,” he says. “At the end of the day, virtually everyone tells us they have moved way closer to center. We love to hear that we opened their eyes a little bit, gave them what they needed to develop informed opinions,  and really, a new perspective; this is a complex issue — it isn’t all black and white.”


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