Like Mother, Like Daughter --Kimberly Nilsson, owner of Desert Adventures
By Barbara Beckley
What’s a girl to do? When your Mom creates the first Jeep tour company in the desert – grows it into the biggest and best – and then tells you she’s going to “retire.” Follow in her footsteps, of course.
“It’s a fabulous company,” gushes Kimberly Nilsson, daughter of Desert Adventures founder Mary Dungans. As of January 2019, Kim, and her husband, Boo Nilsson, are the sole owners of Desert Adventures. (He’s Swedish. Yes, “Boo” is his real first name. “It’s a common name in Sweden,” she points out.)
Like her Mother, Kimberly loves the desert and takes pride in being able to showcase all of its unique qualities. “Mother was a pioneer in developing the outdoorsy offerings of the Coachella Valley. Like her, I love being able to introduce people to a side of the landscape they otherwise wouldn’t see. The desert is filled with so much life!”
“OMG, I had no idea there is so much going on in the desert.” This is the comment Kimberly and her guides hear frequently from visitors and locals. Locals are even more amazed. “I’ve learned more in three hours on this tour, than in 30 years of living here,” they say.
It’s not by chance that Desert Adventures delivers top notch tours. Mary is one smart cookie. From the beginning, Mary’s killer instinct for marketing guaranteed that Desert Adventures’ experiences were unique and memorable.
Unique experience No. 1. Desert Adventures is the Coachella Valley’s only tour operator with a private ranch. Not just any ranch. The 800-acre Metate Ranch, set smack atop the San Andreas Fault! With geologic formations unlike any others.
“The earth is so pristine. Walking in the Slot Canyons -- so narrow you have to turn sideways in places – you are literally following the seam where the Pacific and the North American plates meet,” enthuses Kimberly. “Guests love that the earth is jumbled every which way. Tilted up in places and at right angles elsewhere. Visible geological proof – usually hidden deep in the earth -- that the plates are rubbing against each other.” No surprise, the “San Andreas Fault Jeep Tour” is their top selling tour.
Unique experience No. 2. “Mom picked the vehicles,” recalls Kimberly. Jeeps. But again, not just any Jeep. Desert Adventures is the only tour operator with classic Jeeps -- the seven-passenger Jeep Scrambler CJ8, manufactured between 1978 and 1984. With a fleet of 15, they boast the largest fleet of classic Jeep Scrambler CJ8s anywhere. Jeep aficionados get really excited, she says.
Unique experience No. 3. Red! The Jeeps are bright red. “Mom loves red. And as a born marketer, she knew it’s a color that stands out. Classic red Jeeps set us apart from everyone else.” And make a memorable name, as in Red Jeep tours, the popular name for Desert Adventures.
“Plus, pink was already taken,” admits Kimberly. Wait? What? Pink was taken?
Desert Adventures is Born
Scroll back to 1985. Mom is in Palm Springs on a meeting planner FAM trip (she had a small event/tour company in Seattle). The La Quinta Resort is impressed with her sales skills and hires her on the spot. Mary falls in love with the desert and joins La Quinta in 1986. Soon, she’s in group sales at the Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage, where she visits Sedona and takes a Pink Jeep Tours desert tour. Bam! The lightbulb goes on!
“Gee! We could do jeep tours here,” Mary tells her husband, Charlie Dungans, Kimberly’s step-dad. A few months later, in 1987, they open Desert Adventures with one three-seat red Jeep. Charlie develops the tours and Mary sells them.
Today, 32 years later, Desert Adventures is rated the desert’s top outdoor activity, offering a wide variety of tours from the San Andreas Fault to Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park to the Mecca Hills in the Eastern Coachella Valley for leisure and groups of up to 100; plus custom corporate tours; events, weddings, social functions, and photo shoots like Victoria’s Secret, and a Top Chef segment at Metate Ranch – all run by 43 “wonderful employees.”
Kimberly helped out in the early years. But she also pursued her own interests – getting a social psychology doctorate degree in computer mediated social interactions, living in Santa Barbara and marrying Boo, the CEO and founder of a high tech start-up display company.
Then Mom decided to retire. But not really. While Mary and Charlie live on Maui, Mary still handles Desert Adventures’ group sales, generating a whopping 80 percent repeat rate.
Kimberly and Boo are in the desert at the helm. “I want to build on the family ambiance of our company,” says Kimberly. She plans on staying true to her Mom’s legacy of top quality guides for a top-quality experience. “It’s our guides who make us a success. “Several have been with the company since the beginning and many have been with us for 20 years. They have as much fun as the guests do.”
No wonder. Thanks to Mary and Charlie’s training ethic, Desert Adventures guides are the crème de la crème. “Every guide has to take an eight-week training program (with tests and independent study). Even then there’s no guarantee you will be a guide, until you complete the course,” says Kimberly. “Not only do you have to know the history, flora, fauna, lore and Cahuilla culture – you have to deliver the information in an entertaining fashion.”
Any new plans? “I’d like to expand the offerings at Metate Ranch,” says Kimberly.