Taming travel

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Jim Dumigan, center, visits with guest Mark Abel, left, Don Rivers, second from left, Casey Willis, second from right, and Mitch Worley on a chartered bus. Dumigan puts together trips for LSU fans to travel to away games.
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Jim Dumigan, center, visits with guest Mark Abel, left, Don Rivers, second from left, Casey Willis, second from right, and Mitch Worley on a chartered bus. Dumigan puts together trips for LSU fans to travel to away games.

Dumigan provides the best for Tiger fans on the road

Southeastern Conference football fans know that the LSU Tigers travel well — football slang for the massive crowd that follows the team to away games.

But some of those fans travel extremely well.

They take buses with mini bars and satellite television or chartered flights to away football games and dine at private parties and exclusive tailgating sessions.

Jim Dumigan has created these kinds of trips for 30 years. The 65-year-old knows every upscale bar, steak house and comfortable hotel within an hour’s drive of an SEC stadium.

“He just makes everything easy,” said Mitch Worley on a Friday morning in September as he unloaded his car for the Dumigan-led trip to Montgomery, Ala., which was used as base camp for the game versus Auburn University Sept. 22. “You’re just going to enjoy the ride and go.”

Minutes before the bus left, Worley emptied a bag of ice into a small blue cooler, preparing bottles of Bud Light for the bus trip while his buddy Casey Willis started unloading luggage. Worley, who had taken trips with Dumigan before, encouraged his friends to come along.

“It’s kind of a pain when you go on your own,” Willis said.

Paying for a travel package gets Tiger fans a bus or plane, hotel reservations, game tickets and a ride to and from the stadium in one phone call. For some fans, getting rid of the planning is worth paying $500 to $2,000.

Sports travel is a growing industry, especially in SEC football-obsessed states. Travel businesses such as Total Sports Travel provide similar trips for other SEC teams — Dumigan often partners with Total Sports Travel — and the LSU Alumni Association books trips around Tiger away games, too. They are “friendly competitors” and occasional partners, Dumigan said.

Dumigan, dressed in a purple LSU polo shirt and khaki shorts, arrived at the bus for the Auburn trip, which was stocked with a minibar of sodas, liquor and beer. He unloaded his luggage, including a case of purple and gold cans of Bud Light, to stow in the compartment under the bus.

“We’re purple and gold all the way down to our beer,” he said.

Their itinerary included a stop for lunch at a comfort food buffet scouted by Dumigan before the trip. Before sending his guests, Dumigan visits every hotel and restaurant — some multiple times, like when the Tigers visited the University of Arizona in 2003.

“Site inspection trip is so difficult,” he said with a huge grin the week after the Auburn game while at his home office, decorated as a shrine to LSU baseball and football. “I basically just go out there and have a good time. I actually went to Tucson twice, because I said, ‘This is great.’”

Since Dumigan booked his first trip to an Alabama game in 1982, he has amassed countless stories and earned a reputation as a catalyst for wild times.

“When he’s around, you know something’s going to be happening that’s entertaining,” said Doug Harris, an LSU alumnus who has traveled with Dumigan several times.

At that first game in Tuscaloosa, Ala., when the Tigers beat coach Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide team, Dumigan’s bus was mooned by a couple of dozen Tide fans.

“I’m standing here with these little old ladies, and they mooned us,” he said. “Big butts, sitting right there. Ooooh.”

He has often been a one-man show, mixing 10 gallons of bloody Marys in his Chicago hotel room the night before taking 500 fans to Indiana for the Notre Dame game.

Along the way, he has watched LSU fans eat and drink a few restaurants out of their last morsels of food and their final bottles of beer, “like a bunch of locusts.”

“Fans are pretty ravenous,” he said.

Tiger fans expect a party, he said, even when playing teams with more genteel fans, such as the University of Southern California, who he said were more likely to tailgate with “wine and brie.”

“The Tiger fans, they think they can drink a beer anywhere they want to, never mind public intoxication,” he said.

Before he became one of the go-to agents for Tiger travel, Dumigan worked in finance and banking for a decade, and in the early 1980s, he and a partner bought a travel agency. After two years, they sold the agency to a larger firm, and Dumigan began selling travel packages.

At the turn of the 21st century, the Internet began to cut into travel agents’ jobs as travelers just scheduled trips themselves. Then, Dumigan said, most airlines stopped paying commissions to travel agents who booked tickets.

Dumigan had a decision to make.

“I either had to go back to banking and finance, which meant wearing a tie and having a job and waking up … or invent a product,” he said.

While travelers can plan their own trips via the Internet, Dumigan said he presents them with a “value-added” package.

“Logistics — it’s really the key,” Dumigan said. “What I try to bring to the table for everybody is a minivacation. It’s not about the three hours going to the game. It’s about a quality experience and a little two-night vacation away from Baton Rouge that’s enjoyable.”

For the trip to Ole Miss, that two-night vacation typically involves a train trip to Memphis, Tenn., visits to that city’s restaurants and bars before a morning bus ride to Oxford, Miss., for the game. The train trips are “an out-of-body experience,” Harris said.

Dumigan rarely schedules his trips to college towns, instead opting to stay in larger cities within a 90-minute bus ride.

“A college town is a college town is a college town,” he said.

At home in late September, Dumigan used his dining room table to organize the dozens of tickets needed for a trip to College Station, Texas, via Houston for LSU’s game against Texas A&M on Oct. 20 and the smaller stack of tickets for the game at the University of Florida on Oct. 6.

In his home office, framed editions of The Advocate sports pages commemorating LSU baseball College World Series wins decorate the walls along with Tiger football memorabilia.

Raised in Baton Rouge, he graduated from LSU in 1970 and has worked in finance or travel ever since.

“Baton Rouge is about this small to me,” he said, holding up his right thumb and forefinger.

Throughout the office, 1-inch binders organize every trip he has ever planned, keeping contact information for all his clients. Making friends further improves his interpersonal network and, therefore, his business.

He uses that large network to hunt down premium tickets for clients who wait too long to purchase their own.

Clients merely think he is “tight with someone at the ticket office,” said Nick Deniakos, of Laurel, Miss., who often drives to Baton Rouge to stay with college friends, then take Dumigan’s trips.

While Dumigan’s job appears effortless — the uniform khaki shorts and LSU polo shirts help convey that image — the Tigers sports travel business takes a great deal of work.

“It’s been a good run for me, but it’s not always easy,” Dumigan said. “If it were easy, everybody would do it.”