PHOTOS COURTESY OF AMARILLO CVB

“I  can’t think of anything more fun than what we do,” says Kashion Smith, Executive Director of the Amarillo Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We love our city and we go out and tell everybody why.”

After several months as the interim director in 2020, Smith was named executive director in January 2021, and has guided her team through a reorganization. Once known as the Amarillo Convention and Visitors Council, the organization separated from a management agreement with the Chamber of Commerce in late 2020, received a new name, and is now a standalone entity.

Smith’s job—and the job of her team—mostly involves marketing. And the product they’re pushing is the City of Amarillo. The targets of those efforts are individual tourists as well as convention planners, tour guide operators, travel journalists and more. “We’ve always known that pass-through traffic was our bread-and-butter,” Smith says, referring to the incredible amount of traffic barreling down Interstate 40 on a daily basis. “We used to market to people coming into town, hoping to get an extra night out of them.”

But coming out of the pandemic, the thinking changed. “Instead of just yelling at them to stay longer, we’re really talking to them while they’re still on their couch—in the booking window—and making sure we’re being considered as a destination before they book their travel. We’re seeing really good results.”

What does that look like? There’s traditional advertising, of course, from digital ads to the visitamarillo.com website, which is managed by the CVB. But sometimes the marketing takes a more hands-on approach, like a recent invitation to tour bus operators to spend time in the city.

Getting Familiar

Every year, the American Bus Association (ABA), which represents motorcoach-based travel and tour companies, plans its ABA Marketplace convention, gathering more than 400 tour operators from across the United States. The 2022 event took place in Grapevine, Texas, and all participants had the option to book “familiarization tours” with Texas cities around the conference.

The industry calls these “fam tours,” and one of those tours brought operators to Amarillo. 

Group bus tours are still big business and have quickly rebounded this summer, putting the uncertainty of COVID in the rearview mirror. Predominantly filled with Baby Boomers, more than 300 of these tour buses come through the city every year, bringing more than 55 individuals per tour. That represents a significant economic impact—as long as those tourists spend money here. 

“We are a natural overnight stay between Oklahoma City and Albuquerque,” says Smith. “What we struggle with is them having actual activities in Amarillo. We aren’t always on their published itineraries. But if they’re in Oklahoma and then they’re in Albuquerque, then we know they’ve stayed in Amarillo.”

So the CVB works to earn a dedicated place on those itineraries, and the ABA fam tour represented the ideal way to convince tour operators Amarillo was worth more than a hotel stay. “We brought them in and showed them three full days of activities,” says Smith.

Her team worked to provide a balance between expectations—giving these visitors a taste of the “real Texas”—and surprising them with modern shopping, art and culture.

The Amarillo “fam tour” itinerary was purposefully diverse. It included major Old West stops like Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, The Big Texan Steak Ranch, the Kwahadi Museum of the American Indian and Oliver Saddle Shop.

But it also introduced these tour operators to the new film production company Sharpened Iron Studios, to restaurants like Butterlove Biscuits and Cask & Cork, and to unique retailers like Creek House Honey Farm near Canyon, Blue Sage Pottery on historic Sixth, and From 6th Collective near Bushland. 

“The goal of this familiarization tour was to not only encourage participating tour operators to include Amarillo in their itineraries, but to help spread awareness of Amarillo as a destination to the 447 tour operators that attended the ABA Marketplace conference in Grapevine that immediately followed the tour,” says Hope Stokes, director of marketing for the CVB. 

Consider that goal met. The tour was a hit.

“They were shocked—unexpectedly hit with experiences,” says Smith. “I’ve brought in operators from China, travel writers from France, and the ABA tour was a reflection of all those tours. They have a blast while they’re in town and they always want to come back to Amarillo.”

Through a New Lens

It was also fun for the destinations themselves. Anna Parsons, a marketing specialist for Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum and the TEXAS Outdoor Musical, hosted fam tour participants. “My favorite thing about hosting the ABA fam tour was the amazing personalities in one room from different states. They were curious about the museum, and what the local community and weather were like. We talked about Georgia O’Keeffe, the tornadoes that pass through this area of the Panhandle and so many more topics,” she says.

Bobby Lee of The Big Texan is no stranger to tour groups. “Over the past 62 years, we have learned to watch what visitors see and what excites them about the magical experience of entering The Big Texan,” he says. “This group was genuinely excited about getting back to what they love and so enthusiastic about planning for their future travel tours. A couple of members of their group were so enamored with our Shooting Galley that we thought we were going to have to serve their lunch while they shot.”

George Nester, who owns and operates Creek House Honey Farm with his wife, Paige, saw an opportunity not just to educate participants about their apiary and business, but about bees in general. “Our main goal is to educate the public about the plight of honeybees. Without honeybees our world would lose a third of its crops,” he says. “Our favorite thing is getting to meet people from all over and making a connection with them. We love spreading the word about bees and helping the environment to everyone.”

Christy King, director of tourism for the Amarillo CVB, took the lead in putting the tour itinerary together. “My favorite thing was the shock each attendee expressed when they realized all the Amarillo area has to offer,” she says. “We showed them a mix of Western heritage and modern culture topped off with a lot of incredible food.”

She heard plenty of compliments, including multiple comments about the kindness and hospitality of local business owners. 

It also gave CVB team members an opportunity to experience the city like a tourist. Marketing Manager Jackie Phommahaxay had recently joined the CVB staff a few weeks before the tour. “It was a joy getting to see Amarillo through the lens of our fam tour attendees,” she says. “It’s so easy to get bogged down by our routine lives that
we forget just how much Amarillo offers.”

That’s easy for residents to forget as well, and the CVB knows it. That’s why Smith and company also find themselves educating locals—even though that’s not technically in their job description. According to Stokes, being aware of Amarillo’s attractions improves residents’ quality of life, and gives each business owner, restaurant server, family member or anyone else the tools to promote the city.

“Every time a local tells a visitor there is nothing to do in Amarillo, it results in a loss of potential economic growth,” says Stokes. With 60 percent of the city’s annual sales tax revenue generated by visitors, that’s a lot of money. Those funds lower the cost of living and lessen the burden on local municipal revenue, like property taxes.

In other words, the more tour groups, the better.

“We really are a destination,” Kashion Smith says. “People don’t look at us that way, but we know that we are.”