Big wheels are in their DNA

Meet the women behind the company thrice-voted Georgia’s Motorcoach Operator of the Year

In 1992, Brenda D. Tidwell decided to ditch her hospital technician job to start a tour company. The only downside to the plan was that her Leisure Time Charters & Tours didn’t turn a profit until the fifth year.

“We literally ran on nothing the first few years,” Tidwell said. “We ate a lot of macaroni and cheese because you could buy three boxes for a dollar.”

Hard work and perseverance paid off. Along with her partners — mother, Joye Darwin, and sister, Patricia Burton — this women-owned business grew into one of Georgia’s most recognized tour companies. Located in Emerson, Ga., Leisure Time offers school, corporate and senior tours.

“Our goal is to have (people) as passengers from the time they learn to walk to past their retirement,” Tidwell said.

The company’s tour planner, Tidwell fell in love with leading tours as a volunteer for a nonprofit. But the women also joke that big wheels and diesel must be in their genetic makeup. Their dad was a truck driver. When he died, their mom — faced with bills for his rig — decided to get her commercial driving license.

It was Darwin’s excellent credit that allowed the business to buy its first pre-owned MCI coaches. Eventually, the business made it possible for the single moms to pay for their children’s college so they could graduate debt-free. They help others get an education, too, Burton says—through travel.

Their specialty is helping teachers set up unique tours. They came up with the Circle of Georgia tour more than 20 years ago, which is still popular with school groups.

“We don’t do a lot of cattle tours, where everybody does the same thing,” said Burton, who oversees dispatch and payroll.

Tidwell’s daughter, Elizabethe, runs the student tours. One job perk is seeing the excited faces of students when they see something new—like the ocean—for the first time.

The sisters are glad they followed the advice to join industry organizations like the United Motorcoach Association. Being part of a network of operators has proven invaluable, they said.

“You make friends, and some of those people send work your way if they have overflow work,” Tidwell said. “If someone sends us work, we never ever poach their clients. That is the golden rule.”

The company was honored with the 2012 Georgia Motorcoach Operators Association Calvin Cooper Achievement Lifetime Award and voted Georgia Motorcoach Operator of the Year in 2003, 2005 and 2006.

The strong-willed women like to joke they are related only after the workday is over. Tidwell shares the story of a salesman stopping into the office while she and her mother were having a heated discussion.

“He said, ‘I can’t believe you talk to your mother like that,’ and I said, ‘She’s not my mother till five!”



We asked the family:

What’s the best advice you ever got? Always try to help everyone out, and don’t poach any customers.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing? Be a tourist, but it doesn’t pay.

What celebrity would you love to have walking down the aisle? Sir Patrick Stewart because the Star Trek actor is respectful to women.

What apps on your phones get the most use? The Waze. This crowdsourced navigation app helps drivers avoid traffic backups.

What’s your favorite seat on the bus? Opposite the front seat from the driver, in case there is an accident.

Where do you want the bus to be heading? Arches National Park because out west is a favorite destination.

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