Groupthink changing for Phoenix hiking tours

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • October 03, 2023
A Wild Bunch group receives some safety instructions from their certified, medically trained adventure guide.(TOP) A Wild Bunch adventure tours group receives some safety instructions from their certified, medically trained guide. (COVER) A Phoenix hiking tours group scrambles down a rocky shelf during a guided Wild Bunch adventure.

I received a call the other day from a woman seeking an adventure for a large group.

They have an upcoming “destination wedding” in Scottsdale and she wanted my Wild Bunch Desert Guides to hold the date for one our fantastic guided Phoenix hiking tours.

Holding a date in our booking process is not a problem – and she was on the right track in the activity selected -- but she wanted to block off the time like a floor of hotel rooms for a wedding, though.

“I won’t really know until the morning of the hike who wants to participate,” she explained.

However, I had to patiently explain that is not how things work.

I said, “You can’t call United Airlines and ask, ‘Hey, can you hold 50 seats on the plane, but then the day of the flight, we are going to arrive at the airport and we are going to tell you the number of seats we need.’”

She did not realize I need to know the correct number in the group so that we have the proper number of guides to fulfill our local permits.

She said, “Well, all we really need is one guide.”

I wonder if she could hear my head shaking through the phone.

“Unfortunately, we have rules we have to follow for our permits,” I explained to her. “We need a guide for every 7 guests. So, anything larger than 7 guests? We have to do some math.”

The permits are there to ensure the safety of visitors to the Valley of the Sun by spelling out the guidelines and normal -procedures for Phoenix adventure tour companies to follow.

The permits also require operators such as my little mom and pop shop to carry liability insurance – and guests should have the peace-of-mind knowing they are working with a licensed business, not some shoddy fly-by-night outfit.

The guides they are dealing with are not somebody we snatched from the side of the road looking to work for food. They are certified and medically trained professionals passionate about revealing the beauty of our region and keeping guests safe during their once-in-a-lifetime experience.

However, these are some of the details escaping visitors when seeking a guided hike in Phoenix – especially when considering a group outing normally handled in cattle-call fashion by the larger retail outlets down the street.

A Phoenix hiking tours group jumps for joy during their memorable Wild Bunch experience.
A Phoenix hiking tours group jumps for joy during their memorable Wild Bunch experience.

Phoenix hiking tours: Group on
This might hurt my business, but as the Wild Bunch Desert Guides begins an eighth season this October, I need to confess my sins of the past.

I have found I am too passionate about what I have built to take on the many asks by most DMC’s – Destination Management Companies.

Especially the DMC’s who call at the last minute to shop for a Phoenix adventure tours company like mine to take the group they promised the pricing from the big box outfit down the street – except now that cattle-call operator is unable to squeeze in this late-calling herd.

Don’t get me wrong – even at a drastic discount – the high-volume outing offers a nice cash infusion for a tiny specialty shop like mine.

However, the last-minute logistical headaches – including finding enough guides to handle a big group at the last minute – makes the bargain with the devil less and less desirable.

The experience in the bigger groups also is counter to the quality offered normally by the Wild Bunch – and I no longer want to cheapen our brand to accommodate a desperation kick save like that.

These big groups hardly inspire return guests or the you-gotta-do-this word-of-mouth advertising we thrive on.

Instead, Wild Bunch is built to delight our guests by providing memorable perks and five-star customer service more special than a bottle of water and a “thank you” barked through a bullhorn.

Our fantastic guided Phoenix hiking tours are totally private for you and your family or travel group – so they are made to be special, intimate experiences.

The Wild Bunch adventures are also completely customizable – geared to the level of your skills or physical fitness – as well as your wants and needs.

Celebrating a special occasion like a wedding, anniversary or birthday? Want to see the trails less travelled? Or need an ADA-compliant handicapped accessible trail for older or disabled guests?

Make sure to tell us so we can make your adventure perfect.
A Phoenix hiking tours guest pauses to take a memorable vacation picture of a breathtaking backdrop in the Sonoran Desert.
A Phoenix hiking tours guest pauses to take a memorable vacation picture of a breathtaking backdrop in the Sonoran Desert.

Group hikes still intimate in Phoenix
When I started the Wild Bunch Desert Guides in 2016, I was not exactly hoping to have groups of 70 or more on my radar.

Part of the reason why I left my guiding job at a bigger retail outfit to do my own thing was because I was always on these huge group tours -- and I always felt a sense of chaos in terms of not really being able to connect with all the guests.

The experience was like herding a bunch of cats. Especially dispiriting was getting visitors on mountain bikes – and then seeing them get all of 20 minutes to ride.

I knew I could do better for people. A LOT better.

I wanted a Phoenix adventure tours company where they took the time to know everybody's name in the group -- and so now my guides not only do that, but they often form lasting connections with our guests.

For most of our history, the Wild Bunch purposefully avoided contacting meeting planners and DMCs because I wanted to keep our five-star service intact.

I wanted to keep our personal touch.

I wanted to make sure that we give guests custom lip balm, custom water bottles, higher-end snacks.

Most meeting planners or DMC's are only asking for a bare bones adventure. But we want to do more for our guests.
We want to deliver “wow” factors. I want them to have a memorable experience whether on one of our guided Phoenix mountain bike tours by themselves or with their family or friends on our guided Phoenix hiking tours.

What happened in the wake of COVID, some of our competitors had strict restrictions for guests to go on Phoenix adventure tours.

As a smaller hometown operator in Arizona, we had fewer national entanglements and only local restrictions to manage. So, I often received calls at the last minute to help bail out meeting planners and DMC's dealing with more restrictions at the bigger providers.

But then, we would never hear from them again after basically saving their ass. So, the Wild Bunch is going back to basics and being true to our founding principles.

No more will we take groups larger than 25, as detailed on the new groups page on our website.

At the end of the day, we are still the boutique service I envisioned – and we need to remain true to those roots.

I have always been more concerned about giving the guest a great, once-in-a-lifetime memorable experience – and this 25-guest limit gets us back to that.

There is a clientele for what we do. There are meeting planners and DMC’s that have large groups that are small enough and want that custom experience and local touch. They want to be treated extra special.

The Wild Bunch wants to continue working with these sorts of DMC’s and meeting planners.

However, I am no longer interested in the really big groups.

Wild Bunch is simply not built for the big bus tours and large cattle calls. We are in business to deliver a private, customized experience. We are the little family-owned place you go for something special.

Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner Laurel Darren (center) surrounded by Phoenix hiking tours guests.
Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner Laurel Darren (center) surrounded by Phoenix hiking tours guests.

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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