Two major travel destinations put out the welcome mat for group tours

Two major U.S. destinations want the motorcoach industry to know they are eager and ready to host group visits.

Joy McNealy of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and Lenni Neimeyer, of Branson, Missouri, recently joined UMA’s Town Hall to give an update on how their destinations have adapted to serve groups during the pandemic.

Pigeon Forge, in Tennesse’s Smoky Mountains, opened in mid-June. Dollywood opened the first week of July. 

Branson has been open since early May.

“We are an amazing drive-to destination. We are a day’s drive for one-third of the country,” said Neimeyer, Director of Leisure Group Sales for the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This makes us ideal for tour groups.”

Warm greetings

She adds that tour buses are getting especially warm greetings these days because they are missed.

Lenni Neimeyer
Lenni Neimeyer

“When we see a bus in town, we all get excited. It’s like we are practically outside waving at them and saying welcome,” Neimeyer said. 

The destinations offer a mix of outdoor activities and entertainment venues, including theater. Branson boasts more than 60 attractions and museums, with a new aquarium opening in October. 

Both require people to wear masks indoors and explain their safety protocols on their websites.

“The rule of thumb is if you are outside and 6 feet away from people, take your mask off,” Neimeyer said. “With nice weather, we have so much for people to see and do outdoors.”

Social distancing

Restaurants are accommodating groups, and theaters are open at less than full capacity to allow social distancing. In many cases, the theaters are adding extra shows to accommodate demand.

“We are very motorcoach friendly, and we’ll try to accommodate any request as much as we can,” said Neimeyer. “We are all adapting to the new normal. Our industry is not going away.”

Branson’s lodging — which is made up of more than 16,000 units — sells out on the weekends, but there is availability on the weekdays.

“Our lodging properties are bending over backward to make any lodging accommodations that groups want,” Neimeyer said.

‘Booming summer’

“We started seeing the business pick up and come back,” said McNealy, Senior Sales Manager for the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. “After that, we had a booming summer. It wasn’t motorcoach groups; it was individual families traveling.”

Joy McNealy
Joy McNealy

Hotels are selling out weekends. 

For safety precautions, Pigeon Forge hotels, restaurants and attractions are following the Tennessee pledge, which requires everyone older than 12 to wear masks in indoor public spaces. 

Half capacity

Theaters are running at half capacity so people, once in the theater, can take off their masks.

McNealy says she tries to personally greet the buses that have begun to trickle in so she can tell them how much they are appreciated. Most are arriving with half capacity. 

“A lot of our theaters and attractions open their doors for group business. It sustains us during the off-season,” she said. “We have five dinner shows.”

Harvest Festival

McNealy told UMA to give her a call so she can help them get into attractions, because some haven’t brought back their group sales staff yet. She added that step-on guides are available for tours of national parks. 

Dollywood’s popular Harvest Festival runs Sept. 25. through the end of October. The amusement park is dressed up with cornstalks, pumpkins and mums. After that, it will be decorated for the holidays with Winterfest lights before closing for the season on Jan. 2.

“I tell people to bring your hand sanitizers and mask and you’ll have a wonderful time,” McNealy said. 

More details are available at and If you have questions, contact McNealy at or Neimeyer at


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