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Outback Tours adds shorter Turquoise Trail tour package

May 20, 2005

New Mexico Business Weekly - by Sean O'Hara NMBW Staff

After acquiring an 11-year-old Santa Fe charter company last year, the new owners have studied the New Mexico landscape and believe the time is right for expansion.

This Saturday, Outback Tours will launch its new business partnership with the Santa Fe Southern Railway, which it expects to be the first of many new and "off the beaten track" tours the company plans to offer.

The business partnership between SFSR and Outback Tours, marks the first time the railway has partnered with a private business to help sell train tickets.

After a five-year hiatus in Italy with an international tour and hospitality operator, 29-year-old Whitney Owens, owner of Outback Tours, is hoping to use her European tourism experience and the historic train ride to double her business.

After announcing its partnership with SFSR last week, Outback Tours will host the first of its customers on its newest tour Saturday, called Tour n' Train. Both companies specialize in private charters and corporate events.

The partnership provides a unique tour incorporating historic New Mexico towns along the Turquoise Trail from the passenger seat of an SUV and includes an off-road visit to the towns of Galisteo, Madrid and Cerrillos, followed by a train ride back to Santa Fe from the virtual ghost town of Lamy.

"We try to have an off-road aspect in our tours because people really love this and that's why we came up with the Tour n' Train," says Owens.

Owens believes her new partnership with the Santa Fe-based train could be as popular as her Taos charter tour because it is the shortest of her packages in terms of time, which average six hours, but still covers a lot of ground and unique landmarks in New Mexico's central region.

The tour, which starts where customers are picked up, takes travelers through historic turn of the century mining towns, offering spectacular views of the Sandia, Jemez and Santa Fe mountain ranges.

On Saturday, one of Owen's 15 freelance guides will pick up six tourists from their hotels at 3:30 p.m. in an SUV for a cruise down Highway 14, better known as the Turquoise Trail, with stops in Cerrillos and Madrid before taking the off-road (Hwy. 42) route to Galisteo and ending in Lamy for SFSR's campfire barbecue train.

Owens thought of the idea after listening to Vicki Pozzebon, the marketing and public relations engineer with SFSR, announce the railroad's new night train barbecue tour to Lamy.

Owens believed she could offer the more adventurous tourist the opportunity to see more of the region, yet still experience it by train as well.

Owens bought the business with her mother, Jeannine LaFontaine, in February 2004.

Outback Tours currently offers on and off-road tours in late model SUV's that include a Ford Expedition, Chevy Suburban, or a Chevy Tahoe to Bandelier National Monument, Taos, Jemez Volcano and Valles Caldera, Georgia O'Keefe Country & Ghost Ranch, and Chaco Canyon.Owens believes the Tour n'Train, which costs $85 for adults, offers tourists a more intimate learning experience with one of her guides.

She says her guides set her business apart from others. For example, one of her guides, Butch Crouch, originally from Port Arthur Texas, but now is a 20-year Santa Fe resident, provides nonstop facts about things like Madrid's baseball park, which he says "was the first field with electric lights west of the Mississippi."

Owens says she will promote her newest tour to both corporate groups and families. "We hope to broaden our spectrum of tours so we can offer more and develop a deeper relationship with our partners and the business community. We'd like to double the (number) of tours we have now by next year by going into untapped areas like Las Vegas (N.M.)," says Owens.

Pozzebon says the partnership is a "natural fit" for Outback Tours because it gives customers an opportunity to combine two historical tours in three hours.

"This is our first partnership with another tour company. We think it's a natural fit to partner with Outback Tours because they get folks off the beaten path and so do we," says Pozzebon.

Pozzebon says prior and into high season, June through October, the train is "almost always to capacity" with school groups. She says the Friday night trains average 50 passengers and its Saturday barbecue trains often sell out.

Rosalie McGoey, SFSR's supervisor of car attendees, says the train offers discounted fares for the 8,000 students who ride the train from January to June.

She says the train also entertains wedding groups, proms, and alumni groups and estimates about 50,000 people ride the train a year.

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