South Texas Tourist Sites Market to RV Parks
The couple, perhaps emboldened by the beer that had been flowing all morning since leaving port, danced to "Is Anybody Going to San Antone?" in the only space on the top deck not occupied by other "Winter Texans." They all were merrily enduring sunburn for a complimentary dolphin watch tour, courtesy of Breakaway Cruises of South Padre Island.
Morgan Taylor aims to make it an annual event: a free cruise for Rio Grande Valley RV park managers and activity directors who, ideally, will remember Breakaway when it comes to planning activities for the armies of Winter Texans who descend on Valley RV parks each winter with loads of time on their hands and voracious appetites for fun, according to The Herald, Brownwsville.
"Really, to me, it’s a way of showing appreciation for them coming back year after year," says Taylor, Breakaway’s sales and marketing manager. "This is just something I felt was really important."
It’s savvy marketing, too. A day of dolphin spotting, glorious weather, free beer, complimentary shrimp from Schlitterbahn’s Shrimp Haus — even a shipboard version of "Let’s Make a Deal" — is bound to make a lasting impression on even the most world-weary Winter Texan.
Dave and Julia Bachtell, newly minted retirees from Burlington, Iowa, took in the four-hour tour from the boat’s shady lower deck. The Bachtells, who help out with activity planning at Big Valley RV park in Donna, call a fifth-wheel "home" and are in South Texas for a six-month stay.
"This is our second year in the Valley," says Dave. "We retired last year and spent last winter down here, and decided it’s so nice we’re going to come back."
The Bachtells were looking forward to their first dolphin tour as the crew made preparations to shove off. Back in port four hours later, they’d seen dolphins and shrimp trawlers up close, steamed up and down the Brownsville ship channel and absorbed informational tidbits courtesy of tour guide and biologist Capt. Jim White. The couple wasn’t disappointed. Julia, who swears she could eat seafood seven days a week, three times a day despite her Iowa roots, says she’ll recommend the cruise to fellow RVers.
"They lined up a fabulous tour," she says.
Charles Casterline and his wife, Diane, spent a good part of the cruise on the top deck, chatting with fellow retirees in the sea breeze. The Casterlines, from Minnesota, are inching closer every year to becoming "converts" — permanent transplants. Their winter home is the Rod n Reel RV Court in Brownsville. The Casterlines are old hands at Winter Texas-ing.
"This is our second time on this particular cruise," Charles says. "There’s a dolphin right there next to us, by the way."
He’s better known to many as "Cactus Willie," leader of a three-piece touring band called the Cowboy & Hobo Show. In fact, it was Casterline’s voice — uncannily similar to Willie Nelson’s — floating from the boat’s speakers during the tour. The group plays a circuit that runs from Minnesota to Branson, Mo., to South Texas, where they’re a big hit at the RV parks. They also host a winter variety show in Brownsville: the Cowboy & Hobo Country Show.
"We’ll be going from here, usually back to Minnesota," Casterline says. "Sometimes we’ll do shows in Branson on our way north. We’ve done that two years in a row. This year I’m planning on staying a little longer down here because I enjoy it down in the Valley. I really do."
"And we have a nice new place here, so we want to be able to stay here," Diane says. "We absolutely love Brownsville."
Breakaway hired a marketing firm, Welcome Home Rio Grande Valley, to set up the tour. Taylor describes the company as "the chamber of commerce for our Winter Texans." Welcome Home is the brainchild of Kristi Collier, a McAllen native who has cultivated contacts with activity and tour directors at Valley retirement park communities for more than a decade.
"We partnered with Kristi to get the word out, particularly to the (retirees) in the Upper Valley that maybe wouldn’t come down to the Lower Valley," Taylor says. "We want to get them out here and show them that we’ve got some fantastic activities and that we’re really excited that the Winter Texans are here. They’re a valuable part of our economy during this time of year."
The dolphin tour is the type of targeted, "event-based" marketing Collier specializes in. Whether it’s a tour, a restaurant grand opening or some other happening, the target is Winter Texans, converts — even retired native Texans 55 and older.
"It’s bringing marketing to a very personal level," she says. "That’s what I enjoy so much."
It’s a market that’s often taken for granted, Collier adds.
"It’s what frustrates me so much about the Valley," she says. "If we don’t nurture those relationships and say ‘Thank you guys for being here,’ we might very well lose that business."
Faye Hackworth, a retiree from Jackson, Mich., is wintering this year at the Monte Cristo Golf Course and RV Resort in Edinburg with her husband, Jerry, and their teacup poodle, Peewee. All three were on the cruise. The Hackworths, on their fourth pilgrimage to South Texas, naturally fall into the role of "welcoming committee" wherever they go. Since they spend a considerable time seeking out fun in the Valley, they’ve got plenty of suggestions for things to do. Faye says she would definitely recommend the dolphin tour.
"It was a very informative trip — enjoyable, too," she says. "We had a good time. We just like to meet new people. Every time you meet somebody new you’re always learning something."