If you're a tourist in Memphis, chances are you'll set your suitcases down and set your sights on Graceland, the National Civil Rights Museum, and Sun Studios. Perhaps you'll add a jaunt to the river and a quizzical look at the Pyramid. Meanwhile, a multitude of cultural hotspots outside of downtown never make it to your sightseeing checklist.
Melvin Bledsoe of Blues City Tours, which offers sightseeing tours of Memphis and Tunica, saw fit to fix this oversight. He and his business partner Ray George sketched out a business plan on the back of a napkin for the Memphis Hop bus, a bus that would hit the myriad cultural attractions beyond the downtown core.
Now, a pair of Memphis Hop buses are up and running, operating from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and stopping at Graceland, the STAX Museum, the Children's Museum, the Pink Palace, the Brooks Museum of Art, the Memphis Zoo, the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, Beale Street, AutoZone Park, the Peabody hotel, the National Civil Rights Museum, the Blues Hall of Fame, and the Metal Museum.
Buy a $20 pass ($15 for children ages 12-to-17 and free for children under 12), and for 24 hours you can ride the nonstop loop, which hits each venue once an hour. Many of the venues offer admission discounts to Hop bus riders.
"It gives Memphis a good way of moving people around — people from all over the world — and getting them to venues that we haven't been able to connect in the past," Bledsoe said.
Things moved quickly once Bledsoe and George drafted their back-of-a-napkin business plan. In February, the two proposed their Memphis Hop bus to Susan Schadt of ArtsMemphis. By May 1st, a pair of buses had hit the streets.
"It was two months of work, and then we launched," said Lauren Boyer, new media and marketing manager of ArtsMemphis. "We wanted to launch before tourist season really got going."
While the bus is part of Blues City Tours, ArtsMemphis jumped at the opportunity to serve as a liaison between Bledsoe and George and the greater arts community.
"It was presented as an investment in the work we're already doing because the bus goes to many of [ArtsMemphis'] present and former grantees," Boyer said. "We thought it was a really great way to link them to such attractions as Graceland, which is the second most visited private house in the United States. It just made sense. Some of these places can be hard to find or are off the beaten path or aren't well known by tourists. So we thought it was a great way to bring more people to these venues."
Hop-on/hop-off bus tours are not a new concept, but they are new to Memphis. Boyer says the next step is to get downtown hotels onboard with the idea and have them spread the word to hotel guests. After only a few weeks, she says they don't have hard data on how many people are using the bus, but anecdotes on social media suggest folks are starting to catch on.
"We've even got our first Yelp review," Boyer said. "I was really excited when I saw that."