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The Group Travel Leader Small Market Meetings Going on Faith

Mystery tours: Anybody’s guess

Imagine this scenario: You walk into Macy’s, slap down $500 on the counter and say to the sales clerk, “Pick me out a wardrobe. I’ll take anything you choose, no questions asked.”

Keeping in mind that there would be no return or exchange policy, the whole idea is unthinkable. Yet that is exactly what bank club members do on a regular basis when it comes to travel. What they receive, after often slapping down a considerable amount of money, is a mystery trip.

The customer paying for something unknown — well, it’s truly a remarkable concept and perhaps unheard of in any other industry.

“Mystery trips are all about trust,” said Patti Manville, director of the Summit 55 Club at Heber Springs State Bank in Fairfield Bay, Arkansas. “What my members are saying when they put up $500 and not know where they are going is, ‘I trust you.’ It’s not only flattering, but it also makes me feel like I’m doing my job the right way.”

Mystery trips, excursions where only bank directors know the destinations, can be described as wildly successful for many bank groups.

“I might have 16 people sign up for a well-known Broadway play, but 36 will sign up for a mystery trip,” said Manville, who leads at least one three- or four-day mystery trip every year. “In 2008, we didn’t do one, and believe me, people complained.”

Mary Ann Gelven, director of the Advantage Club at Legends Bank in Linn, Missouri, agreed. “Our annual mystery trip, typically a day trip, is one of our most successful ventures and always a sellout. I’m proud that people have the confidence in me to pick a good place with various points of interest.

“For directors who feel timid about trying a mystery trip, I understand; but I would highly encourage them to network with their colleagues and destination contacts, and just do it,” she said.

Destination contacts are paramount
Not only is the whole idea of people paying upfront for an unknown product remarkable, but those mystery destinations are also often a mystery even after the motorcoach pulls into town. The destinations are typically not well known, and few are on customers’ must-see wish lists.

But these little jewels, as Manville described her mystery destinations, all have two things in common: They are teeming with cool things to see and do, and they have convention and visitors bureaus who ensure outstanding experiences.

Manville admitted that her members would probably never have signed up for a trip to Clarksville, Tennessee. “But after people spent four days in this town on the Cumberland River on a mystery trip, Clarksville is now one of their favorite places,” said Manville.

Clarksville, home to wineries, Civil War history and the U.S. Army’s Fort Campbell, offered Manville’s group the red-white-and-blue carpet.

“We not only had a tour of the base, where the men in our group climbed on tanks, we ate at the mess hall, we had a canine unit demonstration, and we even had a biscuit bakeoff,” said Manville. “In town, we ate a steak dinner, and walked across the street and saw a production of “Cats,” and then had dessert at the same restaurant, who stayed open late just for us.

“Most importantly, the Clarksville CVB, who arranged everything, was incredible. They were there from the moment we arrived until the moment we left — just unbelievable service.”

Gelven’s mystery trip experiences were described in similar fashion. “These little destinations go overboard to make us feel at home,” she said. “In Hannibal, Missouri, we were entertained with venues that starred icons like Norman Rockwell and Mark Twain and a riverboat banjo player.

“Lexington, Missouri, just overflowed with Civil War history, beautiful scenery and architecture. The CVBs made their destinations shine.”

Check out the prison tunnel
With star-studded surprises around so many corners, the folks at the Mansfield/Richmond County CVB in Ohio describe themselves as a great mystery Get Away.

“One of this country’s favorite movies in recent times, ‘The Shawshank Redemption,’ was filmed in Mansfield, and we theme an itinerary the Shawshank Trail,” said Jodie Puster, group tour/media director for the CVB.

“Our restaurants and hotels all get in on the theme, while groups, with a step-on guide, visit 13 sites where Hollywood filmed the movie, including the prison where Andy [Tim Robbins] and Red [Morgan Freeman] spent years together and the home where Andy is first filmed sitting outside in his car.”

That house is located in Malabar Farm State Park, where another home, nicknamed the Big House, was where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall tied the knot.

“Visitors not only tour the home but are also offered wedding cake. They even choose a man and woman to walk down the same stairs that Bogie and Bacall walked,” said Puster.

“We pride ourselves that we are not just a ‘stop, stand and stare’ kind of place. Groups here get hands-on, behind-the-scenes experiences.”

Entry-level mystery trip
For hesitant bank directors wanting to simply test a mystery trip, Manville suggested throwing in a mystery day on a planned tour.

“We did a Christmas trip to Nashville and did all the things our members know, love and expect in the Music City. But for one day, I planned a surprise, and we went to nearby Sumner County, where we visited places where Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston and other founding fathers dined and danced. Their CVB met us on arrival and took us everywhere.

“That mystery day, because it was such a delightful surprise, was a highlight of the trip.”