"My teacher gave me the assignment of writing to the different places featured in 'National Geographic' to get more information on them. I was just a little farm boy, and when I started getting mail from 'way-off' places, it was just wonderful!"
Today, Doug Lipps and his wife, Margaret, own Fellowship Tours - a 'Christian-oriented' motorcoach tour line based in Gray. Doug Lipps is one of the drivers, and both he and Margaret act as tour guides.
For 25 years, Fellowship Tours has been introducing passengers to the fun and fellowship of motorcoach travel.
Prior to starting their own business in 1988, the Lippses had organized tours for another company and chartered the buses to make the trips. Today, they own their own large Prevost motorcoaches and charter buses from other lines to accommodate travel to a catalog full of destinations that includes the entire continental United States and much of Canada. They regularly travel to Niagara Falls, Ontario; Branson, Memphis, Nashville, and throughout the Southwest. They go to New England, the Pacific Northwest, New York City, and Pennsylvania Amish country. In the past, they've even organized tours to Alaska and Hawaii.
Whatever the destination, Doug Lipps makes sure that the ride is filled with colorful commentary on everything from the superiority of Appalachian culture to the history associated with the sites along the route. Everything - absolutely everything - comes with a story. And, after 25 years behind the wheel, Doug Lipps has plenty of stories to share - like the time they had stopped in Washington D.C. near the Lincoln Memorial where President Clinton was jogging.
"There were Secret Service agents around everywhere, but they allowed me to shake hands with him and talk to him briefly. Some group members even had their picture taken with him," Doug Lipps said.
Both Doug and Margaret Lipps truly enjoy traveling and meeting people. They have been to every state, and make friends wherever they go. They love spending time with the people on the motorcoach - and relish the appreciation their passengers have for exploring America through Fellowship Tours.
"One good day on a tour bus is worth 30 days of gossip," Doug Lipps said. "This is a ministry for us. We're not associated with any church or organization. We have Christian-oriented tours. We don't use this as a selling tool, but as a standard that we operate by. We always tell our employees that these customers are our jewels. They keep us in the driver's seat and our company in business."
At 67, Doug Lipps says he'd consider retiring - except that, when he's not on tour, he misses the interaction.
"We get letters. (Passengers) say it in words I can't describe - what it means. It's an honor," he added.
Doug Lipps explained that, when they started the company 25 years ago, they decided on four basic guidelines that apply to everyone on board their motorcoaches. Those rules are no alcoholic beverages, no smoking, no cursing and no filthy jokes.
"People crave that kind of atmosphere," Doug Lipps said.
Located off the Eastern Star exit (Exit 10) of Interstate 26, between Kingsport and Johnson City, Fellowship Tours started out in 1988 by sending out 500 brochures. Today, they print approximately 500,000 for distribution throughout the region and across the country. Their sales have increased 30-fold.
But Doug Lipps' life hasn't been without its ups and downs.
"In 1982, the economy had gotten bad and I had to close my convenience market, and my construction business had slowed down so I closed it, too. But there's a saying," he said. "Where God closes one door, He may open another."
So, when Doug wasn't sure if a travel business would work, he asked God for a sign and got an answer in the crowd of 750 people who showed up for his first travel show. The rest, as they say, is history as Fellowship Tours has been offering middle-priced "blue-collar tours" ever since.
"We're not the cheapest, but we're not the aristocratic-type tours out of New York City either," he said.
The average age of passengers, Doug Lipps estimated, is between 60 and 80. However, he said Fellowship Tours also has families who travel by motorcoach. And a lot of tours are purposely scheduled to accommodate working people, by departing and returning on the weekend. The company offers everything from one-day trips to those lasting two weeks or more. The tours are featured regularly on a local travel show, which airs on Channel 11 at 5:30 a.m., Saturdays and Sundays.
On every trip, Fellowship Tours strives to offer its passengers the experience of a lifetime - one that's firmly rooted in its dedication to providing a Christian atmosphere, friendly service and a personal touch.
"We always begin our tours with prayer and we leave it in God's hands. It's a lot of responsibility, but we serve a big God," Doug Lipps said. "This is a family thing. We become real close (to our passengers), especially on our 10- to 14-day trips. It's not unusual at all to see tears at the end of the line."
To learn more about Fellowship Tours, call (423) 349-2300 or 1-800-999-3156. Or visit the website at www.fellowshiptourstn.com.