Finding the Right Niche With Specialized Tours and Charters

Posted on November 1, 2000 by LCT Staff - Also by this author

With a fleet of 51 vehicles and a client list full of Fortune 500 companies, Mike Marino knows more than a thing or two about running a successful chauffeured transportation company. So what’s his winning formula? For starters, his chauffeurs know more about wine than the maitre d’ at Spago. And they know how to tell a good story.

Marino’s company, California Wine Tours, specializes in offering private charter tours of California’s wine country—Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley. The chauffeurs double as tour guides. “When I started this company back in 1986, I had just one vehicle and the wine country was not even popular,” Marino says. “Then the big yuppie wine-tasting trend hit in the early ’90s, and I got in on the ground floor.

As the valleys became more popular, we grew and established more relationships with the hotels and wineries.” Like most luxury tour companies, California Wine Tours has promoted its services to corporate America, as well as to the travel industry, and has established relationships with local hotels to secure concierge recommendations. A key in this field is offering tours that capture the essence and uniqueness of a locale—whether that locale is California wine country, New York City or New Orleans. California Wine Tours pays its chauffeurs salaries that are considerably higher than the average for limousine companies. But that is the norm in the luxury tour business. In addition to being professional chauffeurs, they are also educators and entertainers. They must be polished and articulate.

More Responsibilities and Training Mean Higher Pay

“Our company is so popular because we maintain the highest level of chauffeur/tour guides in the industry,” Marino says. “In order to keep those drivers, they have to be treated well, paid well and taken care of.” California Wine Tours employs about 70 full-time chauffeurs and about 65 part-time chauffeurs, Marino says. Benefits include health coverage, vacation pay and a 401K plan. State law requires overtime pay after eight hours.

“We try to hire chauffeurs with around eight or nine years of experience,” Marino says. “The majority of our employees have been with us over 10 years. For our drivers, we pay an hourly rate plus gratuity, along with travel time, prep time and fuel-up time. Our drivers make a good income. Last year, one of our full-time chauffeurs made $70,000.” Of course, training requirements are high for chauffeur/tour guides.

California Wine Tours turns to local wineries for training, as well as available books written about the area. Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, CA, for example, offers a five-hour course on winemaking. Some cities, such as New Orleans, heavily regulate the tour guide trade. Chauffeurs at London Livery Limousine of New Orleans, for example, must pass a written tour guide exam and qualify for a tour guide license before they can give local tours. London Livery Limousine of New Orleans has eight licensed tour guides. The company’s experienced tour guides tutor new hires to prepare them for the test, which is administered by the New Orleans Department of Utilities. Not all chauffeurs are cut out for giving tours, however.

“Some chauffeurs are just not extroverted enough to be a good tour guide,” notes Alan Fisher, president and CEO of London Livery Limousine of New Orleans. “So we don’t force them to do that. But the ones who have a tour guide license get paid extra on every job, whether it’s a tour or not.” Fisher estimates that tours represent about 10 percent of his company’s business. Chauffeurs at Brickell Key Tours & Transportation, based in Miami, take a month-long course offered by Florida’s Department of Commerce and Tourism to qualify for tour guide positions. Company owner Danilo Santos says he has sent 32 chauffeurs through the program. Tours represent about 20 percent of his company’s business.

A Variety of Tours with Unique Content Fits the Bill

Chauffeured transportation companies providing tours often give customers a range of choices and a variety of rates. In addition to its private charter limousine tours, California Wine Tours offers two tours charged on a per-person basis. For $49, an individual can take a five-hour group tour in a limousine. “Since we’re dealing with people who really don’t know each other, we try to create an environment that’s comfortable and sociable,” Marino says. “Most commonly, we put no more than eight people together at any given time.” This group tour departs from Embassy Suites in Napa Valley every day, except Saturday, at 10:30 a.m. The second tour, which is $69 per person, departs from San Francisco Bay via turbo ferry. The group arrives in Vallejo, just north of both Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, and visits several wineries via limousine. This tour lasts eight hours.

Private charters, however, represent the lion’s share of California Wine Tours’ business. “The majority of people who come up here have their own itineraries in mind,” Marino explains. “Maybe they are a member of a wine club, or maybe they remember a special winery they once visited and want to go to again. A group tour doesn’t give them that option— it has five preset stops. But on a private tour, people can do their own thing. They can be picked up at their own hotel, leave whatever time they want, go wherever they want, and do whatever they want.”

For private charters, a corporate sedan costs $45 an hour, a six-passenger limousine is $55 an hour, an eight-passenger limousine is $65 an hour, and a 10-passenger limousine is $75 an hour. On Saturday, there is a five-hour minimum. All other days, the minimum is usually three to four hours.

“There are more than 230 wineries just in Napa Valley alone,” Marino says. “So it’s not as though we have to travel a big distance. We break up the tour to give it a nice diversity. We usually try to mix in small, family-owned wineries with large, corporate facilities to give people a broad spectrum of what the valleys have to offer.” Saturday is by far the busiest day for California Wine Tours. “Saturday is when we get our huge influx of tourists,” Marino says. “We book every Saturday in advance pretty much year-round.”

London Livery Limousine of New Orleans charges $300 to $400 for charter limousine tours. They typically last five to eight hours and visit such attractions as the French Quarter, Cajun country and local plantations. “In a limousine, we try to get a feel for where the customer wants to go,” says Fisher. “Usually, they have some kind of idea. If they want an eco-tour or a swamp tour, we send them to a friend of mine who is a marine biologist with a Ph.D.”

This year, one couple chartered a limousine tour for three full days, spending much of their time touring Cajun country. Because London Livery Limousine of New Orleans recently acquired a license to offer group tours charged by the person, Fisher estimates that tours will represent 20 percent of the company’s business—up 10 percent—within the next year and a half. The company’s fleet includes 17 limousines, 19 buses and six town cars.

On bus-driven tours, a limousine chauffeur takes a break from driving duties and acts solely as the tour guide. Brickell Key Tours & Transportation offers customers a variety of charter tour destinations as well, including Orlando, the Everglades and South Beach’s nightclub section. The popular South Beach tour, which stops at six or seven nightclubs, lasts six hours. Typically, the company uses sedans for couples, limousines for small groups, as well as vans and luxury motor coaches for larger groups. Brickell Key Tours & Transportation averages two or three tours a week. Chauffeur/tour guides are multi-lingual to accommodate foreign tourists.

LimoTour, a small operator in New York City, specializes in offering city tours tailored for a client’s interests and lifestyle. Company owner Jack Finkelstein, a New York resident since 1952, has long been fascinated by the city’s history and culture. He has personally trained each of his company’s six chauffeur/tour guides. Advertised charter tours include Harlem gospel and jazz tours, ethnic tours, shopping tours and gay tours.

Charter limousine tours are typically $85 per hour, plus 20 percent gratuity. Individual customers also have the option of taking a four-hour group tour in a limousine, which costs $60. “We give our stories flavor and we customize our stories,” Finkelstein says. He often e-mails back and forth with clients planning vacations to make sure the tour is exactly what they want when they finally arrive in New York.

Devising the Right Marketing Plan

To thrive in the limousine tour business, operators need to target their marketing efforts to the right mix. LimoTour relies heavily on its Website to promote its tours and also markets to hotels and travel agents, both domestic and overseas. “Today, most of my customers come to me straight from the Internet site or through concierges,” Finkelstein says.

London Livery Limousine of New Orleans markets to local hotels and promotes its tours through the leisure travel department at the local tourist commission. California Wine Tours spent more than $100,000 in 1999 on out-of-state advertising. “We did a lot of advertising in Dallas, Florida and Canada,” Marino says. “We really try to promote the area in general as a tourist destination spot.” Brickell Key Tours & Transportation has set its sights beyond U.S. borders. “I target mostly international groups through destination management companies and travel agents outside the country,” Santos says. “But I also target local hotels. A lot of hotels don’t like the regular tours. They prefer to have private tours or something more specialized. That’s where we come in. We can give them a vehicle at any given time and let their customers go wherever they want.”

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