- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2000

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking," announced Tom Brigs in his mock cockpit voice as the D.C. Duck left the roadway and splashed into the Potomac River. "We are now approaching Ronald Reagan National Airport."

Sightseers who took the 90-minute tour of Washington's landmarks last week aboard the converted World War II amphibious vehicle got but a glimpse of the airport's runways far across the river's murky expanse.

But they did get a good look at the innovations increased competition and prospects for growth have brought to the capital's motor tour industry.

"Transportainment," said Mr. Brigs, a tour guide and driver for Old Town Trolley Tours, as he laughed and blew on his duck caller. "That's what we are trying to provide."

Old Town's fleet of six D.C. Ducks is one of the newest attractions for sightseers as the District's top touring companies try to stay on top of the annual influx of tourists and prepare for new business that will be generated once planned waterfront development becomes a reality.

"The mayor's goal is to bring the 22 million tourists off the mall and into the neighborhoods," said Andrew Altman, director of planning for the District. "You have so much when you go down there, people are starting to see that as the undiscovered opportunity," he said.

The city is planning to revitalize the Anacostia waterfront and the banks of the southwest waterfront. Mr. Altman said that anyone in the hospitality industry is wise to plan with that expansion in mind as well as the tourism growth.

"It's a big market," said Sue Porter, director of tourism for the D.C. Chamber of Commerce referring to the hospitality industry. "It's definitely been a strong trend over the last few years."

Washington is one of the 10 most visited cities in the country according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Of the 21 million tourists who visit annually, about half make sightseeing trips with a tour bus company, leaving plenty of room for growth, officials said.

In 1998, the Convention and Visitors Association found that D.C. visitors are more likely to go to an historic site or museum than on a shopping trip or to a cultural festival, nightclub or sports event.

"The available business to transport them hasn't even scratched the surface," said David Cohen, general manager of Old Town Trolley, one of the three biggest companies that carry tourists around town.

Growth industry

One measure of how tourism has grown in the area in the past few years is provided in a study done by the Greater Washington Research Center and released by the D.C. Convention and Visitors Association.

The study showed that the hospitality industry generated $9.69 billion for the area in total spending in 1997, the most recent year for which figures are available.

About 43 percent of that, or $4.23 billion, was collected in the District in 1997, compared with $3.48 billion in 1994.

State and local governments collected just over $700 million in taxes in 1997 from the industry.

Besides Old Town, there are two major tour companies based in the District: Tourmobile Sightseeing, and Martz Gold Line/ Gray Line.

In all, the three companies dispatch a total of 57 trolleys which can be seen driving around the city at any given time, while nearly 200 tour guides educate about 12 million riders annually on the history of the area.

The companies also have other touring modes. The Gold Line/ Gray Line has 58 charter buses for rent and two minibuses in addition to its 10 trolleys.

In addition to its 27 trolleys, Tourmobile has 13 other vehicles, eight of which accommodate only two to three passengers and are rented to handicapped visitors. Old Town Trolley has six ducks, in addition to its 19 trolleys.

Mr. Cohen said he expects more than his 400,000 peak-season riders this year because of the additional visitors coming for the election. "Special events are a normal routine in D.C.," he said.

Mr. Cohen said his company is trying to stay ahead of tourism growth. Introducing the $24 D.C. Duck tours last year was a start, Mr. Cohen said, and the company plans to expand its fleet to about 12 by next season.

The amphibious vehicles have a top land speed of 40 miles per hour and can reach six knots on the water. About 20,000 of them were built for the war effort and a number are still in use in the South Pacific.

Ducks, which begin and end their 90-minute excursions at Union Station, have to be inspected and licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as carrying standard registrations for highway travel.

Mr. Cohen said that Old Town is considering offering airplane or helicopter tours. "There are so many tourists that are not being served," Mr. Cohen said.

Old Town has been the most visible and aggressive in the effort to capture new business and promote organized sightseeing tours, but its two main competitors tout their own strengths.

Tourmobile's monopoly

Tourmobile has a monopoly of the business on the National Mall because of a deal with the National Park Service.

The arrangement began in 1969, when the National Park Service solicited a narrated tour to encourage visitors to learn about the city, but also to help alleviate traffic in the area by encouraging tram use instead of individual cars.

Universal Studios in California won the contract and several years later, in 1981, the company was bought by Tom Mack, chairman of Landmark Service, the parent company of Tourmobile Inc.

Tourmobile is the only company that is licensed to solicit business on their home court, the National Mall.

The trams travel exclusively on the National Mall to the memorials including Arlington National Cemetery. It is the only tram allowed on the grounds of the cemetery.

Karolyn Chaffin of Tourmobile's group sales and marketing department, said of the 4 million to 6 million people that visit Arlington National Cemetery annually, 80 percent come in on Tourmobile's trams.

The company also has another separate shuttle that travels to other key sites in the city, such as Ford's Theatre and the MCI Center.

Mr. Mack of Landmark that runs Tourmobile service said because of his company's relationship with the federal government, there are limits on its growth plans.

"There isn't anything that we may do on our own without permission from the government," Mr. Mack said. "We accepted that, we knew that coming in."

Mr. Mack, on the other hand, confidently said his company's goals are the same as they have been for the past 30 years, to provide efficient, friendly service to its annual 1.6 million riders.

Gold Line/Gray Line

Gold Line/Gray Line's specialty is its route, which extends as far as Gettysburg, Pa., and it's multilingual tours.

Connie Buck, director of sales for Gold Line/Gray Line, said the company's focus is "to find drivers and to continue to refine and hone our skills."

Gold Line/Gray Line serves about 430,000 riders annually, with the highest ridership between March and June and again from September through October.

Gray Line started in Washington in 1910 for individual sightseeing. In the late 1940s, the Gold Line portion began as a charter bus service. By 1978, the companies were joined to establish Gold Line/Gray Line.

However, it wasn't until the mid-1990s, that the company introduced the popular trolley service. "Every year there is a growth in one aspect or another," said Ms. Buck.

"We're the best," Ms. Buck said. "Our services are very different."

Like the Old Town Trolley, she said, Gold Line/Gray Line loops around the city. The company also travels as far as Gettysburg, Pa., Williamsburg, Va., Monticello and Busch Gardens.

Gold Line/Gray Line also has a daily multilingual tour where each passenger can wear headphones and pick one of nine languages.

All of the trolleys allow passengers to get on and off all day for the initial fee.

Branching out

Sue Porter of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce said entrepreneurs of tour companies should respond to the growing number of tourists using alternative touring methods as well, such as boats, bikes or even the Ducks instead of the traditional buses.

Brian Ullmann director of marketing for the D.C. Convention and Visitors Association, said because the number of tourists is increasing annually, companies should expand their services or at least offer initiatives to compete in the area's tourism industry.

"Those companies that have positioned themselves to handle demand are going to be successful in the marketplace," Mr. Ullmann said.

"The number of visitors keeps going up, so all types of tourism services will have to expand, especially when the new convention center opens," Mr. Ullmann said.

Mr. Ullmann was referring to the new D.C. Convention Center scheduled to open in 2003.

Ms. Porter of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce said that the existing companies and new ones should also consider, aside from the mode of transportation, the destinations or the sites visited in their growth plan.

The D.C. Chamber, along with neighborhood economic development associations such as the D.C. Heritage Tourism Association and the People's Involvement Corporation, have started their own bus tour from Ronald Reagan International Trade Center to neighborhoods around the Anacostia area and Georgia Avenue. It's a new concept," Ms. Porter said. "It is to give people a little different experience while they are in Washington. It's not just riding a bus."

For $39.95 each, riders get lunch, musical entertainment, and a 4-hour trip to the Shaw Neighborhood around U Street in the District as well as through Anacostia. The tours run using several charter bus services and also Gold Line/Gray Line.

"Our mission is to get economic development for the rest of the city," Ms. Porter said. "This is part of our mission, to bring the tourists in so they spend money."

The neighborhood as a whole benefits when those tourists spend money in those places instead of just around Capitol Hill and downtown Washington.

The Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District has been planning for the area's tourism growth for the past year by creating a plan to offer a free bus service called The Circulator, that would take visitors around town either for free or for what Mr. Ullmann calls a modest fee.

Seamus Houston, director of marketing and communications for the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District said the project is expected to cost the city about $25 million, and is designed to bring tourist dollars to the downtown area.

"It should also be a little bit fun, and it should help bring those 22 million visitors on the Mall up into the city," Mr. Houston said.

The buses which should start running in 2002, will be low to the ground with big windows and run every five minutes.

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