Group mentality of Phoenix hiking tours

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • March 23, 2022

“We hosted a group of 20 corporate VIPs for an early morning ride before an annual industry conference and we always get RAVE reviews on the experience -- and we owe that to Laurel and the organization behind making it happen. We have a wide range of riders, and the Wild Bunch Desert Guides do an amazing job at gearing us all up and putting us on a path for everyone to enjoy -- regardless of skill and comfort level. We're planning to return for a third year in a row -- HIGHLY recommend this ‘gang of bikers.' They'll have you hugging a cactus before the day is done. This is an outstanding tour operator. Highly skilled, safe, and super contagious in their passion about the outdoor experience!” – Alison Sansone on Google, 2019

A Phoenix hiking group from Wild Bunch Desert Guides makes its way along a hillside trail.
A Phoenix hiking group from Wild Bunch Desert Guides makes its way along a hillside trail.

Group outings topped the list of reasons for why I opened the Wild Bunch Desert Guides six years ago.
The Phoenix adventure tours company I guided for prior to founding my own small mom-and-pop specialty shop was known for hosting big corporate events with a lot of moving parts.
For the guides involved, those massive group outings always presented a huge logistical challenge and often devolved into a stressful nightmare – and I wondered how many of the guests even enjoyed a meaningful experience.
One of those Phoenix mountain bike tours was the proverbial straw that broke this camel’s back. I will never forget the controlled chaos of trying to fit mountain bikes to 100 guests with different body types – much less match each of the varying skill levels to the appropriate trail AND consider any special medical histories of those riders.
After that day, I vowed to open my own small business and operate differently.
Which brings me full circle to the Spring of 2022.
The Phoenix/Scottsdale adventure tours industry has been bombarded by more tourists than anyone ever imagined – even before the start of Major League Baseball’s long-delayed Spring Training.
With the number of COVID cases dropping from a holiday spike to next-to-nothing in Arizona, guests have been flooding the state with seemingly everyone simply seeking some place other than home to go -- and finding anything out of the ordinary to do – to help break out of the everyday ho-hum monotony built up from two year’s-worth of pandemic-forced cabin fever.
Also coming out of this long COVID-forced slumber are corporations who were forced to cancel or postpone events since March 2020. Like the rest of us, they are looking to go SOMEWHERE and do SOMETHING ELSE – so now they are hosting long-delayed end-of-year awards, or longer-delayed summits, or even longer-delayed executive outings.
How can I tell? By the sheer volume of calls I get from Meeting Planners and Destination Management Companies needing large-scale Phoenix hiking tours and Scottsdale mountain bike tours.
Therein lies a problem I am trying to fix – with this Blog dedicated to explaining the situation and getting the word out for those with large groups.

A Phoenix mountain biking group from the Wild Bunch Desert Guides pauses during an adventure tour to take a photo at an iconic Sonoran Desert rock formation.
A Phoenix mountain biking group from the Wild Bunch Desert Guides pauses during an adventure tour to take a photo at an iconic Sonoran Desert rock formation. 

Problems for Phoenix group hikes
So, my vision when founding the Wild Bunch Desert Guides was to keep Phoenix adventure tours small, private, and tailored completely to our guests.
We both wanted and needed to be dramatically different from the big-box operators with their bus tours by treating guests better than cattle. We wanted to know their names and backgrounds. We care about them as people – and not simply numbers on the bottom line.
So, Wild Bunch focuses on small groups in a high-quality boutique way to ensure everyone feels special and enjoys a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
High volume has never been our business model – but Wild Bunch has taken a group as large as 70 before on one of our Phoenix/Scottsdale hiking tours.
But normally, as this Group Blog noted last summer -- the Wild Bunch refers the really massive outings to the big-box outfits – preferring instead Phoenix hiking tours of 30 or less, or Scottsdale mountain bike tours of 25 or less.
However, those numbers are now a hard rule we are enforcing, with groups of 10 or more asked to call us directly to book at 602-663-0842, while 10-or-less can book online from our website.
Here’s why we are doing this: The big problem right now is not that corporations are looking to get large groups out on tour – but that they want to take a big group out in a matter of days.
Because Phoenix/Scottsdale is so freaking busy right now, there are few opportunities to squeeze large groups into the schedule at any outfit – especially the last-minute requests fielded in rapid-fire succession this spring.
And when the bigger Phoenix/Scottsdale adventure tours companies are sold out, that creates last-minute scrambling by Meeting Planners or Destination Management Companies -- the third-party firms hired to provide professional planning and implementation services for out-of-town events.

I truly hate saying “no” to anybody. I want to help people. I like fixing problems and rising to a challenge. And I am in business because I love showing people a great time and a once-in-a-lifetime experience exploring our beautiful Sonoran Desert.
But unfortunately, the Wild Bunch is unable to accommodate many of these large groups because of the lateness of their request mixed with the busiest busy season anyone can recall.
And I feel terrible about that. It is a heartbreaking feeling when you have so much business and you're just so overwhelmed that there is nothing humanly possible you can do to help.

A married couple enjoying a Scottsdale mountain bike tour with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides pauses for a selfie together along the trail with a picturesque background behind them.
A married couple enjoying a Scottsdale mountain bike tour with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides pauses for a selfie together along the trail with a picturesque background behind them. 

Phoenix hiking tours ‘Groupies’
That Wild Bunch group of 70 mentioned previously? That was carefully planned over a few months – not a few days – which is why it was successful.
That massive outing also came during a slower season than spring – which is something else corporate planners need to consider with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
While we are flattered by the referrals received from other companies – and truly are blessed to have built a number of great relationships with meeting planners who also believe in our business – the fact is the Wild Bunch is a small mom-and-pop specialty shop.
So, instead of an army of guides, I have a small band of elite special forces at my disposal.
And for the safety of our guests – as well as meet the regulations of our city-authorized operating permits and required liability insurance policy – the ratio for any group is no more than 7 visitors per guide.
So, for instance, the suggestion I heard from one recent caller will not work -- there is no way 2 guides can handle a group of more than 14 guests.
And no, I can’t just call up friends and ask, “Hey, you want to jump into a guided hiking tour in Phoenix tomorrow?”
And no, I can’t just hire anybody waving a “Will Work For Food” sign on the street corner.
I need advance notice to line up enough staff because -- as Liam Neeson memorably seethes in “Taken” -- my guides have “a very particular set of skills.”
For starters, they have to be certified guides who love hiking and/or mountain biking. My guides also must be medically trained, so they can handle any potential problem on the trails. They also need to have a passion for people AND the beautiful Sonoran Desert – and be well-educated in the flora, fauna, and history of their Wild West surroundings.
So, this spring has nothing to do with the staffing shortages other service industries have experienced following COVID shutdowns with workers no longer willing to work long hours, split shifts or at odd times. This is a last-minute problem, with requests coming too late to accommodate.
Another key factor to consider: All of my guides are independent contractors -- so I can’t force them to work. I can only ask them what days and times they have available and book around their schedules – and to have them all free on the same day without the advance notice of a special request is super rare.
Some of my guides are retired but the others juggle guiding with other jobs and careers. All have outside lives and other activities outside of the Wild Bunch.
It would be great to “scale up,” and add to our employee pool, but because of the skills required, it is not like we can do this at the drop of a hat.
It would be awesome to have more guides available with all of the business right now, but I can not promise work everyday or give somebody anything close to a full-time job.
I also can’t promise it will remain like this, especially in the heat of the summer when the Phoenix/Scottsdale adventure tours industry either goes on hiatus or slows to a crawl – operating only early in the day before the blast furnace kicks on.
Bottom line: This is a seasonal job, and I can't expect to put my guides on multiple tours for multiple days consecutively. I can’t just say, “Take this tour for two hours, come back and take another for two hours, and then do that again and again and again today. And then rinse, lather, and repeat tomorrow and again the next day.”
The Wild Bunch is just not built to work that way. We are not a multimillion-dollar monstrosity cashing in on busloads of guests. We are not a 24/7 big box store with unlimited resources. We are your favorite little ice cream shop on the neighborhood corner compared to their Wal-Mart.

A group hike with the Wild Bunch takes a break for a photo together at the iconic Tom's Thumb rock formation, 

A group hike with the Wild Bunch takes a break for a photo together at the iconic Tom's Thumb rock formation.

Grouping Phoenix/Scottsdale hiking tours
If you are a corporation representative, a Meeting Planner or a Destination Management Company contacting us about a large group outing, here are some things you need to know about the Wild Bunch Desert Guides before calling:
  1. We are still taking large groups on tour. However, again the most we can take on guided Phoenix hiking tours at one time is 30 guests – and the maximum number of riders for guided Phoenix mountain bike tours is 25 at one time.

And if people want to book a group of 60 hikers? Wild Bunch can handle two groups of 30 back-to-back. Or we can do one group of 30 one day and another group of 30 the next day. We simply cannot do 60 guests in one shot anymore. It is not a good experience for anybody.

Advance notice also improves the chances of making a large group outing happen. Call 602-663-0842 to discuss.
  1. The Wild Bunch will not compromise or move an existing booking for a large group. So, please do not ask.

    I will not call a guest already booked to try and rebook them for another day simply to clear the way for a larger group. That is not right – those guests already made their reservations and took the time to secure their adventure.

Wild Bunch also boasts completely private tours, so we will never add an outside group to an existing reservation for a certain travel party. So, Dan from Detroit and his girlfriend Sara from Saginaw will never be joining the Phoenix adventure tours for your family.

We are unlike most of our competitors and peers in that respect – but that simply is not part of our business DNA.

So unfortunately, we won’t jam a couple of small groups together to maximize the number of guests dedicated to a guide in an effort to maximize profits – much less help accommodate a last-minute large group request.

Private is why we are different in the first place – so we are not going to change that for any reason.
  1. Please realize we cannot always fit a large group into our schedule – especially at the last-minute and particularly during the busiest season in the spring.

    All I can do is do my best. And I pride myself on doing that for every guest.

Sold out means there is no room at the inn. Saying this is not a negotiating tactic on my part.
  1. Phoenix hiking tours offer the best group outing.

    Don’t get me wrong – Scottsdale mountain bike tours are a blast. And I am a competitive mountain bike rider – so I love the sport and truly enjoy introducing as many people as possible to the thrill of a lifetime.

    But to summarize my thoughts from my previous Groups Blog – hiking is best for a large, diverse group because most people can walk and talk over a short distance. The skill levels of the mountain bike riders can vary too much in a large group to properly offer everyone a great time together – or help facilitate much conversation.

    Hiking in a corporate scenario is much easier logistically, much more intimate and enjoyable for all participants, and much more affordable for a company’s bottom line.

  2. Most important to understand for Meeting Planners and Destination Management Companies – and really any guest looking to book one of our Phoenix adventure tours -- when you call me wanting to set up a group, be ready to book because I don't have an unlimited number of guides or tours.

Bookings are first-come, first-served. And just because we talked does not mean I can hold that date for you. I can’t wait for you to decide three days later – and maybe hear “no” from you – while passing on other reservations. That would not be smart business on my part.

So come prepared with a list of days and times that will work for the corporate group – and provide a credit card to hold your reservation – same as any hotel. We have a 48-hour cancellation policy offering a full refund should anything change after the outing is booked.

After all, you wouldn't call a hotel and ask, “Can you hold 20 rooms for me while I check with my boss?”

That also wouldn’t work with the booking agent for airline tickets, or concert tickets at a box office, either.

If you were making wedding reservations for 60 guests, you also wouldn’t call the facility to host the reception at the last minute and expect them to be available.
But what happens a lot now is I get a call about a group tour. We review available dates, and I send the pricing breakdown. But the event planner has to check with the boss for approval – and in the time that takes to get back with me, usually those dates are now sold out.

That happened with a meeting planner just the other day. It is unfortunate and frustrating for both parties. So, that is why I advise guests of any stripe to come prepared to book now -- because that opportunity will likely be gone, especially with so many visitors coming to Arizona right now.

A large group from the Wild Bunch Desert Guides takes a break from a Phoenix mountain bike tour to take a picture together in front of an iconic Saguaro Cactus.
A large group from the Wild Bunch Desert Guides takes a break from a Phoenix mountain bike tour to take a picture together in front of an iconic Saguaro Cactus.

Phoenix group hiking tours
Earlier this spring, the Wild Bunch Desert Guides took a large group on one of our Phoenix hiking tours at the same time as a Phoenix mountain bike tour.
I made sure to shake the hand of every mountain bike rider that day to personally thank them for their business.
But I didn't have that opportunity with the hikers because there were SOOOO many people. 

I literally lost sleep that night thinking about those missed thank-yous because I felt so bad.
But some good came from that with our renewed emphasis on keeping our largest groups to a more manageable size – 30 hikers and 25 mountain bike riders.
After all, I never wanted to become one of my big box competitors down the street. We are not McDonald’s – so we never wanted to brag about our billions of customers served.
But that is the feeling when you have too many people for a group outing. There is no way to personalize that kind of experience.
And that is opposite of the way the Wild Bunch operates – we are a small business that prides itself on providing private, customized, high-quality experiences with a personal touch of homespun hospitality.
This has been my message from day one – the Wild Bunch is not going to take 60 people on a bus and do the typical tourist thing. There are larger operators to do that -- we want to give our guests something special. And we plan to continue doing just that with our guided Phoenix hiking tours and guided Scottsdale mountain bike tours.

About the Author

Laurel Darren is the founding owner of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, a 5-star rated adventure tour company that offers guided hiking tours and guided mountain biking tours in Arizona’s picturesque Sonoran Desert in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. Arriving in the legendary “Valley of the Sun” in 2012 -- from the home of John Deere in the Quad Cities of Eastern Iowa/Western Illinois -- this corn-fed Midwest girl brought 30 years of athletic chops under her chaps. A 3-sport high school standout and former college softball player – who won her conference’s Athlete of the Year award as a prep senior – Darren has graduated to competing in many races as an adult, from road running and cycling, to cyclo-cross and Mountain Bikes, and even Duathlon and Triathlon “Ironman” competitions. Darren was a popular, top-rated senior mountain bike guide at Arizona’s Outback Adventures before branching out to start her own small adventure business in 2016. To book a guided mountain bike tour or guided hiking trip – or a combination of the two adventures – please visit the home page or call 602-663-0842.


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