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Conway Scenic Railroad adds Maine tours with bus company acquisition

VIP motor coaches await passengers from Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas in Portland, and, right, Conway Scenic Railroad's Tom Spina and Sandra Needham, who are developing tours in and around Maine
New tours in and around Maine are in store now that the owners of Conway Scenic Railroad and consultant/entrepreneur Tom Spina have acquired Portland's VIP Tours.

With its eight tour buses, two transit buses and five shuttle vans, the VIP Tours fleet adds to the three 56-seat buses purchased earlier in Pennsylvania by Conway Scenic Railroad to help support their dedicated cruise train, which packages a bus-rail adventure into New Hampshire's scenic and historic White Mountains.

'With our dedicated cruise train, now coupled with transportation [the coaches link Portland's Ocean Gateway or Ocean Terminal to the railway station in North Conway, New Hampshire, an hour away], we can pick up passengers at any time,' Spina said. 'A cruise ship could come in at noon and leave at 11 p.m.'

An eight-hour window is needed for the cruise excursion.

In addition, 'We're going to grow Maine from a cruise perspective, from a tour perspective and, hopefully, year-round,' Spina said. 'The market goes beyond fall foliage.'

New excursions

Among the new excursions are farm-to-table foodie tours in the Portland region, a new adventure within the city (that Spina said is not a walking tour) and 'maybe something that links Portland with Canada, a two-country combination. We want to link with cruises and new opportunities.'

Also, a snow train tour package is in the works with Attitash Mountain Resort, a Vail Resorts property. The Conway Scenic Railroad passes the ski slope and VIP's buses could transport travelers from Boston and New York.

Taking VIP to the next level

Spina said the family-owned VIP Tours 'reached a peak, and we can take it to the next level.'

Lana Sawyer, whose father and mother started the company nearly 40 years ago, remains involved, along with Jason Briggs and Pat Penfold. That's important, according to Spina, since the name is so recognizable in Maine and they want to be a part of this new chapter.

He noted Lana Sawyer could have sold to a 'multitude of buyers who probably would have taken the buses out of Maine. We're assuring this Maine-New Hampshire connection and ensuring the company's employees stay. We'll keep it a Maine and New Hampshire company.'

With the acquisition, Conway Scenic Railroad's sales executive Sandra Needham will now report to Spina and is instrumental in driving tour development. She has a deep background in this, and earlier spurred more tour content as executive director of Discover Portland & Beyond and the city's cruise ship marketing manager.


A VIP Tours' motor coach serving a Norwegian Cruise Line ship and Sandra Needham with one of the company's Mercedes shuttle vans

Flexibiility for groups of different sizes and needs

Spina said owning the bus company enables Conway Scenic Railroad to provide flexibility and cost benefits to cruise lines thanks to the varied sizes of the vehicles. For example, if only 10 people sign up for a tour, VIP can provide a 14-passenger van. A selection of Mercedes vans also helps when customizing services for luxury lines.

Noting Conway Scenic Railroad had a successful trial season with Royal Caribbean International this autumn, Spina said the cruise giant will soon make a request for proposals for tours for the next two years 'and we intend to participate.' 

He added: 'We are fielding numerous requests for tours in the region' from a variety of cruise lines based in the US and Europe.