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Tour company owner talks business, history

by Lindsey Wells | November 14, 2017 at 4:00 a.m.

The story of the city of Hot Springs and its rich, and sometimes bizarre, history is being told countrywide by one local resident, Gina Martin, founder and vice president of Little Rock Tours and Travel.

Oaklawn Rotary Club hosted Martin as the speaker for its weekly meeting at The Hotel Hot Springs & Spa on Monday.

A native of Columbus, Ohio, Martin spent 10 years in television news and four years as a radio talk host before co-founding Little Rock Tours with her husband. The tour company is comprised of a fleet of 20 motor coaches that travel coast-to-coast providing sightseeing tours, conference tours, group tours, school group tours and personal tours to its guests.

Martin, who holds a degree in journalism, spent most of her early career in television, working in newsrooms across Ohio, before meeting her husband, who was also in the television business. They eventually moved to Arkansas together, but, as newlyweds, their opposite work schedules proved to be difficult.

"That was the way that our life was kind of working and it just wasn't working out so well. I looked at him one day and I said, 'You know what, we both have a pretty good work ethic, we should just start our own business,'" Martin said.

Little Rock Tours was founded in 2003 and has been featured in such national publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Southern Living Magazine. Later, a second location in Texas was opened called Champion Coaches.

"I think about the stories that I wrote about and that I covered in news -- I covered tornadoes and I covered presidents, I went on a C-130 cargo jet to Nicaragua and delivered supplies to folks in Central America after Hurricane Mitch. I covered the 1997 World Series, the Florida Marlins versus the Cleveland Indians. There were some really fun stories that I covered in television, but nothing compares to the stories that I have when you have a bus company, let me tell you," Martin said.

In addition to outbound tours, Little Rock Tours also provides inbound tours for people who are vacationing to Hot Springs.

Martin said she attends travel conferences throughout the year, and one of the things she has the pleasure of doing is talking about Hot Springs to people and other companies that may have never been to Arkansas before.

"I have counseled countless tour operators on how to effectively sell an itinerary to the state of Arkansas, which is by simply adding Hot Springs National Park to the itinerary," she said. "Then I would get feedback the next year and they would say, 'Thank you for telling me about Hot Springs, because of all the tours this year, that's the one that everybody loved.'

"Little Rock always has a big presence at these shows and they promote Little Rock. I know Little Rock, and I know Little Rock is a good destination, but Hot Springs is what we call a 'sexy destination.' It's a sexy destination because it sells better and it's got these amazing, amazing stories."

Martin said she often talks about the "three Gs" -- gangsters, gambling, and girls -- when sharing stories of Hot Springs.

One piece of local history that she shared with Oaklawn Rotary on Monday was about the drive-through mortuary, Ledwidge Undertaking Parlors, that was housed in downtown Hot Springs in the early 1900s.

"Back in the day (Hot Springs) was the last place people had hope for to have their lives saved, for the curative waters, the healing waters of Hot Springs. And this was the final destination. They'd hear that 'there's a place in Hot Springs, Ark., and I hear that if I take a train there, I think that my disease will go away.' As a result of this you had all of these people from all over the world who came here and they died here. The problem was, it's such a small town that they didn't have a whole lot of places to put the folks when they died," Martin recounted, adding that the idea of a drive-through mortuary was created to save space and time.

"You have to understand how many places I've gone and how many sightseeing tours I've listened to. We go all over New England, we go to the west coast, we go up to Michigan, down to Florida, Alabama, you name it, but nothing compares, in my opinion, to the really awesome, wild history that we have here in Hot Springs," she said.

Little Rock Tours is also active in the Hot Springs community, providing and assisting with transportation for school groups.

Martin said although the company is based in Little Rock, Hot Springs is "home."

Local on 11/14/2017

Print Headline: Tour company owner talks business, history

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