While most Major League Baseball fans are focused on this year's playoffs, local entrepreneur Glenn Dunlap is already thinking about next year.
Dunlap formed Greenwood-based Big League Tours in 2006, offering group trips to big-league baseball games and other related attractions. One such trip took swings through games at Fenway Park in Boston, Yankee Stadium in New York, and the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Other trips hit fabled ballparks in Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee and San Francisco.
MLB officials released the league's 2009 schedule Sept. 17-the earliest the schedule has ever been released-and Big League Tours is already getting calls.
"We'll make 25 [percent] to 50 percent of our sales by the end of December," Dunlap said. "I've been amazed at how far people plan ahead. Right now, it's going crazy."
Ninety-five percent of Big League Tours' sales come from outside Indiana, Dunlap said, and 75 percent of the buyers are women.
"A lot of these packages are bought as gifts, but I also find that a lot of women make these kinds of purchasing decisions for the family," Dunlap said.
Big League Tours offers packages ranging from two-day trips that start at $700 a person to a six-stadiums-inseven-days tour that costs about $3,000 a person. Clients pay their own way to the first gathering site-usually a hotel near the ballpark-then Big League Tours takes care of everything else except some meals.
The company is riding a wave of interest in sports tourism.
"This is a real growth sector in this industry, and it's going pretty strong despite the economy," said Bob Hoelscher, chairman of the National Tour Association, an industry trade group based in Kentucky. "Almost everyone in the U.S. is some kind of sports fan these days, so this is turning into quite a profitable niche."
This year, 41 percent of more than 700 NTA member firms are offering sportsrelated vacation/tour packages, Hoelscher said. That's up from 27 percent a year ago.
Dunlap tries to stand out by offering choice seats, either behind home plate or along the first- or third-base line.
Brokers are more likely to cut deals for volume purchasers like Dunlap than for the average fan on the street.
"Glenn has ways of getting tickets that most of us don't have access to," said Jarrett Hagy, an Indianapolis ad agency executive who has taken several trips with Big League Tours.
Dunlap also attracts clients with the promise of stays in three- and four-star hotels, behind-the-scenes tours and meetand-greets with retired all-stars such as Vida Blue, Bill "The Spaceman" Lee and Ron Kittle. Next year, Dunlap plans to work with teams to get his clients on the field for pre-game batting practice and access to active players.
"I read about the company in Baseball Weekly, then I looked them up on the Internet," said Jim Pytych, a Michigan business executive who took a Big League Tours trip to Boston and New York with his wife this year. "You can tell this company really does its homework. The tickets and behind the scenes stuff ... the meeting with Bill Lee was just phenomenal. You can tell by the way the trip was put together it was done by a baseball lover."
Dunlap, 39, is indeed a baseball lover. He grew up in Summitville watching teams from Cincinnati and Chicago with his dad. He has passed the love onto his two school-age children, who often accompany him on tours.
But Dunlap also has a solid business record. After graduating from the entrepreneur program at Ball State University, he founded locally based Milestone Advisors, a consulting firm focusing on business development strategies, management, corporate finance and accounting. Milestone now has 25 employees and 250 clients throughout central Indiana.
Big League Tours, with two full-time and two part-time employees, isn't nearly as big as Milestone, but it's growing.
It went from six tours in 2006, its first year, to 11 this year. Meanwhile, revenue grew 400 percent from 2006 to 2007 and another 300 percent this year. It now totals somewhere in the low- to mid-six figures.
With the World Baseball Classic-an international tournament played every four years featuring the world's top professional players-kicking off in March and the opening of a new Yankees' stadium, Big League Tours expects to double its revenue in 2009. Industry experts estimated the company's 2009 projected revenue at $800,000.
Despite his success, Dunlap has no intention of diversifying into other sports.
"There are more than 3,000 baseball games played every year, and I think we can continue to dig into the schedule and offer new and different features," Dunlap said. "There is just so much nostalgia behind this game."