To gauge the health of downtown Asheville’s tourism industry each weekend, LaZoom Tours General Manager Kyle Samples implements a highly scientific experiment: Can he find a parking spot close to his Biltmore Avenue employer?
“I can’t — ever,” he says.
In turn, Samples was surprised by Asheville Watchdog’s recent article on numerous local businesses reporting significant decreases in revenue compared with previous summers. He experienced a similar shock when he conducted his monthly check of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s most recent data and saw that June’s lodging sales were down 7.3% from the previous year.
“I just assumed maybe people are choosing alternative lodging or something like that because our little section of downtown is still seeing about the same level of no parking,” he says.
LaZoom and other mobile tour companies experiencing business as usual this summer — or seeing only slight decreases in sales — is a testament to the industry’s enduring appeal.
“Visitors to Asheville like to learn about the city they are vacationing to,” says Laban Carvell, manager at Tukit Tour Co.
However, such enterprises aren’t immune from the struggles facing their fellow Asheville employers. While buses, trolleys and even three-wheeled tuk-tuks offer a street-level view of what’s happening across the city, various adjustments to operations are necessary to remain relevant and continue to attract customers.
Hop on, hop off
Founded in 2007, the same year LaZoom launched, Gray Line Trolley Tours of Asheville operates out of the Asheville Visitor Center and takes riders across the city and into the River Arts District and Biltmore Village. Patrons can remain on the trolley and enjoy a full 90- to 100-minute narrative, or they can hop off at any of the tour’s 10 stops and hop back on when a different trolley swings by every half-hour.
“Since it’s an on/off tour, [most people are] going to experience multiple guides,” says General Manager Jonathan Helmken. “They’re all going to be great, but I want them all to be a little bit different, too, so you get different takes on things.”
Helmken describes the tour’s script as “kind of a living document” that changes a little bit each year to maintain up-to-date information and address Asheville’s various additions and subtractions. He notes that the full script would take roughly four hours to narrate and that a good tour guide is sharing about a third of it, adjusting to their personal interests and those of their riders.
“It’s structured where we have supplemental information about different topics,” Helmken says. “With Grove Park [Inn], for example, there’s a section on E.W. Grove and one on Fred Seely. If they get a question about one of them, then they can dive into that.”
Guides also balance historical information with current news and city regulations. For example, updates on the Asheville Tourists normally make their way into a script. Also, drivers will let riders know how long graffiti tagged with its artist’s name is allowed to remain on the exteriors of Foundy Street businesses in the River Arts District before being painted over. Adapting to such developments — and recently adding a second stop in the increasingly popular RAD — has allowed Gray Line to remain an in-demand tour despite 2023 being somewhat of a down year for business. The company declined to offer exact figures, but Helmken says sales are roughly down overall in the mid-single digits.
“We’re not untouched by any of the changes that others are seeing. We see all of that,” Helmken says. “After all this pent-up demand from the pandemic that we’ve gone through, essentially I think it was kind of inevitable that things leveled out a little bit.”
Helmken adds that European tourism is significantly up. A recent study by the European Travel Commission notes numbers are nearly back to 2019’s pre-pandemic levels, and Samples thinks that increased draw may be impacting local numbers more than people may think.
“I have some relatives that had to use a lot of credits from overseas trips that they couldn’t use during COVID,” Samples says. “They’re expiring now, so some of my relatives had to take a lot of trips this summer out of the country just to use those up. And I imagine there’s a lot of other people that are in that same boat that maybe would have gone to Asheville that aren’t.”
Though Samples frequently recommends Gray Line since it’s an all-ages tour and most of LaZoom’s are not, his company and its iconic purple buses have largely weathered the dip in tourism thanks to their quirky offerings. The company declined to offer exact figures.
Samples describes LaZoom’s flagship “Hey Asheville” city comedy tour as “an elevated, absurd version of a history tour.” While the route stays consistent and guides work from a base script along the way, they’re also playing characters that they’ve created, which allows them to take the jokes in whatever direction they want.
“The [history] stories basically stay the same from guide to guide,” Samples says. “But there’s so many factors. If there’s a bunch of red lights, then there’s a lot more history. Or if there’s a crowd that’s a little bit more boisterous, then we might tone the history down and do more crowd work. It’s a lot of thinking on your feet because the crowd is part of the show.”
Samples says LaZoom’s adult customers are primarily locals entertaining visitors but that the “Lil Boogers” kids comedy tours on Saturdays have been the easiest to fill this summer. LaZoom also offers the “Fender Bender” tour, which includes live music by a local band and stops at local breweries. He says the company caters to and openly invites bachelorette parties on that tour “because it’s a great experience for them and for us.” That’s one area where numbers were slightly down in early summer but have picked back up in August.
“There was a backlog of weddings and bachelorette parties that had to get postponed for two years [due to pandemic restrictions], and then they all happened last summer,” Samples says. “We’re still seeing a lot of bachelorette parties, but not as many as we did then.”
Same as it ever was
Samples often works behind the bar at the LaZoom Room, which puts him in direct contact with many of the business’s customers. He says that feedback from visitors this summer about their general Asheville experience hasn’t been noticeably different from what he’s heard in previous years.
But development across the city has led to some minor changes in daily operations. Construction of the River Arts Apartments at 146 Roberts St. has resulted in some minor rerouting of tours that go through the River Arts District.
“We like to point at things outside and talk about them, and it’s tough to do that with the rebar sticking out,” Samples says.
And with the construction of the Moxy Hotel across Biltmore Avenue putting an additional strain on downtown parking, Samples says LaZoom has relaxed its cancellation policy “to better help those that couldn’t find parking or got stuck in traffic.” In turn, LaZoom has been doing more rescheduling than usual.
“It’s tough on business, but part of the equation is customer service, so we have to keep that in mind,” he says.
As long as finding parking remains tough to find, Samples isn’t worried about LaZoom’s continued success.