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USO ends popular leisure tours at 3 centers in Germany

Strasbourg was just one of many destinations in Europe to which the USO in Germany offered bus tours. Starting in January, the USO at Kaiserslautern, Stuttgart and Wiesbaden will no longer offer its usual lineup of paid overnight tours and day trips in Europe so that it can focus on free programs and classes in the local area.

MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES

By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 6, 2016

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany – The USO is discontinuing its popular express and overnight leisure bus tours in three U.S. military communities in Germany, ending a long-standing operation that shuttled countless servicemembers and their families to popular destinations all over Europe.

The last tours wrap up at the end of the year, and USO staffers are encouraging customers to redeem any tour vouchers through Dec. 31.

The decision affects Kaiserslautern, Wiesbaden and Stuttgart — the only three U.S. military communities in Europe where the USO still runs a robust pay-for tours’ program.

“Our customers like our tours,” said Walter Murren, USO Europe regional vice president. “This was not an easy decision. It was made to bring us all in line, to get away from business operations and to get back into what we do best — and that is providing programs that take care of our servicemembers and their families.”

USO wants to refocus its resources away from tour sales to providing more programs, classes and activities locally at no cost to patrons, Murren said, which is what USO centers elsewhere in Europe do.

“They take care of people through outreach programs,” he said of the other USOs, of which there are about 20 scattered throughout Europe. “We’re not a business. We’re here to take care of people for free.”

Other factors drove the decision, Murren said, including wanting to avoid duplication of trips and competition with Army and Air Force agencies that offer similar excursions.

“We’re not supposed to compete with DOD,” Murren said. “We believe it was the right timing for us to divest ourselves of business operations where we could.”

A nonprofit, private organization, the USO relies on donations from individuals, organizations and corporations to support its programs.

The tours brought in extra income, but tour sales had dropped some after the terrorist attacks in Paris a year ago and in Brussels last spring, Murren said.

In Kaiserslautern, where tours have run since the late 1970s, as many as seven buses might go out per week on trips during the peak travel months in the summertime, he said.

In the past 10 years, more than 116,000 people traveled with USO Kaiserslautern on 3,500 tours, according to a column written by Gail Winfree, the editor of the Kaiserslautern Kabel, a monthly magazine listing upcoming USO trips and tours.

“Over the years, we have provided inexpensive travel opportunities and have introduced destinations that most Americans would have never thought of visiting,” he wrote in the publication’s final issue this month. “We’ve given our patrons quality tours, memorable experiences, and a reason to say good things about us.”

USO Kaiserslautern trips in December include a Paris dinner, city tour and evening boat cruise; a winter tour to the Black Forest; a bus trip to Bern, Switzerland; a military heritage tour in Bastogne, Belgium; and various weekend visits to Christmas markets in Germany and France.

Murren said the USO in Kaiserslautern, Stuttgart and Wiesbaden would still offer its orientation tours, such as “learn-to-ride the German trains” — but for free and not as frequently. Those centers will also continue to offer classes. Occasionally, it will still advertise special overnight tours, but those will be provided through a contractor with which the USO has worked with for more than 10 years, Murren said.

While its leisure tours are ending, the USO itself is expanding in Europe.

New USO centers opened this fall at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, and at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy. Next year, a new center is opening at Naval Station Rota, Spain, and the first-ever USO in the United Kingdom will open at RAF Lakenheath, Murren said.

“We’re really expanding our USO coverage, and that has to do with some of the changes that we’re making in the way we do business,” he said.

svan.jennifer@stripes.com

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