Ethnic holiday activities draw crowds to Omaha

By Paige Yowell

Omaha World-Herald

OMAHA, Neb. — Tourists wanting to experience the holidays around the world are finding festivities just a bus ride away — to Omaha, Nebraska.

Last week, 22 motorcoach tours from across the country converged on the city for a smattering of Christmas festivities, and local businesses and hoteliers are seeing the boost in a time of year when some hotel rooms sit empty.

More Christmas-themed tours are expected this week, but the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau said that last week may have been the busiest tour week in December in the city’s history.

They come for Christmas in Germany at the German American Society; Christmas in Greece at the Greek Orthodox Church; Christmas in Mexico on South 24th Street; Irish Christmas at Father Flanagan’s Boys Town; plus other holiday events, like the poinsettia display at Lauritzen Gardens, the Omaha Symphony’s Christmas program and “A Christmas Carol” at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Valarie Dean, manager of Bilbrey Tours of Abilene, Texas, told the Omaha World-Herald the motorcoach tour company sent a group of just under 40 people to Omaha last week.

“It just blew me away, all of the diversity that area has,” Dean said. “We called it ‘Christmas around the world.’ It’s like doing a European tour within the United States … in Nebraska.”

Cathy Keller, vice president of sales and services at the Omaha visitors bureau, said at least 800 people making up 22 different tour groups from California, Texas, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin and elsewhere came to Omaha last week.

The organization has been selling Omaha, with its various December events, to the tours for about 10 years, Keller said.

“It’s been continually growing. About half of those tours are repeat tours. About half are new tours,” Keller said.

Keller estimated that about 1,200 people were in town on bus tours late last week. All told, their hotel rooms, event tickets, restaurant tabs and other buying added up to a $250,000 jolt to the local economy, she said.

For instance, this year, about 10 percent of the Omaha Symphony’s ticket sales are from tour groups. That’s up from about 8 percent last year, said sales manager Deanna Garcia.

The German American Society near 120th and L Streets puts on a Christmas dinner and program for the groups — complete with pork schnitzel, lederhosen and German singing and dancing, said Frank Freihaut, the organization’s president. The club served 630 people on tour groups last week, Freihaut said.

“The last three or four years it has grown to where they’re able to put several buses on one day,” Freihaut said. “We’re all volunteer, so it really helps us out.”

He estimated that the not-for-profit club made about $19,000 from tours last week, before expenses, to support its mission: fostering the elements of German culture, including the music, song, dance, food and language.

Patsy Looney of St. Louis was one attendee last week at the German-American spectacle. She said she had no idea what to expect, coming to Omaha, but was pleasantly surprised by all it had to offer.

“The food is fabulous. The variety of cultural experiences is fabulous,” Looney said.

She said she and her husband have been “here, there and everywhere” on tours including trips to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Lake Ontario, Canada. “We love not having to do the driving or planning,” Looney said.

Dawn Benson, who traveled from Minnesota on a tour group, said she was impressed by Lauritzen Gardens’ poinsettia display.

“They always find great things to see and do, no matter where we go,” Benson said of the tour group operator.

The tours range in price depending on the destination and attractions. One “Christmas in Omaha” tour, offered by Rustad Tours of Kerkhoven, Minnesota, is advertised on the company’s website as $875 for an individual. That includes lodging, food, admission to all events and transportation.

The groups have been a boon for hotels, where business slows in December, with business travelers especially slowing down, said Magnolia Hotel Manager Tim Darby. Tour groups can help make up for that, he said.

“This year is better than it has been from a tour standpoint,” Darby said.

In years past, the tours might reserve a block of 20 hotel rooms for a group, but only 15 would actually be rented. This year, the tours are filling up their entire reservation, Darby said.

The hotel also has picked up some revenue in serving the groups lunches or dinners. The Magnolia, downtown at 16th and Howard Streets, stays busy on weekends with holiday parties and weddings, Darby said. But the groups, popular with retired people, usually come through midweek, when the hotel isn’t as full.

Along with hotels and various arts organizations, the tours also headed to Cascio’s Steakhouse, Hollywood Candy in the Old Market and the Lithuanian Bakery. The Bohemian Cafe, before it closed, had been a big hit in the past.

Cascio’s owner Alfie Cascio said business from the groups is up this year. He served groups nearly every day last week, either for lunch or dinner.

“This year’s just been overwhelming,” Cascio said. “I’ve already turned down three of them.”

Chuck Rustad of Rustad Tours sent a tour group to Omaha last week that hit several cultural events, plus the symphony, Lauritzen Gardens and others. He’s been bringing groups to Omaha for at least 10 years, he said.

“It is popular with them,” Rustad said. “They all come back quite amazed. They don’t think of what’s in Omaha. They know the zoo and they know Warren Buffett, and they come back pleasantly surprised.”

He’ll be back again next year, in March, with another group for an Irish-themed tour.