The whole idea was inspired by a tour I took in Bruges, Belgium back in 1999. This guide took us to these amazing sites – a 400-year-old brew pub, an old windmill, a chocolate factory and a World War II battlefield site. He managed to get us back-door access to these phenomenal sites, and all the employees loved him. I was amazed at how well connected he was on his home turf and I just fell in love with the idea. I stuck it in my back pocket as a good business idea, and when the time was ripe, I just ran with it.
When did you set the wheels in motion to get Platypus Tours off the ground?
After living in San Francisco for 20 odd years, I found myself in Napa Valley managing a restaurant in 2002. That’s when the tour in Belgium sprung to mind and I figured it would sit well in Napa where there is such a strong wine economy. I took a lot of customer bookings from concierges when I was working at the restaurant, and I thought – I have all the connections I need to make this work.
So you’ve got the idea, you’ve got the vision, what was the next step?
I had this picture in my mind of an idyllic day in the wine country with true insider access and personalized service for a fraction of the cost of renting a driver. I knew that was what I wanted to do, so I just had to make it happen. First off, I bought this bus and started calling all my concierge friends to let them know what my idea was. Then I put together little handmade picture books and gave them to concierges so they could show customers what I was about. I set the price at $65 for four boutique wineries, a picnic lunch and a cheese & cracker platter, and waited to see if the idea would stick.
The first year was a struggle. I would often take tours with just one couple or one person. I would pick up all other kinds of other work to supplement the wine tours – like bachelor parties or staff club runs. Often I would take a bus of 20-somethings out on a clubbing tour, and invariably they would get trashed, then fight and someone would throw up. I would also get home at 4am in the morning, go to bed at 5.30am and then pick people up for another tour at 10.30am. It was a crazy first year, but you’ve got to be ready to do anything.
Platypus Tours launched in 2003 when wine touring was in its infancy. How did you find your niche?
I think it was a combination of previous business experience, great timing, and mostly luck. No one else was doing wine touring in the valley when I started, and my only competitors were limo drivers doing ultra-premium tours. The demographic of middle class wine lovers was largely ignored, and I figured there was a market for affordable, accessible wine tours. I just kept thinking of that little tour in Bruges and I knew that same model would take off here in Napa.
To stick out and get referrals, I needed a playful name that was simple and easy to remember. “Platypus” just stuck… I don’t know why, I think I just liked the word.
It’s hard to know, because I was never too worried about it. I had succeeded and failed in business in the past, but I just kept at it in those early years. Every time I was with people on a wine tour, they were always so happy and everything went like it should. Over time, I became great friends with wine makers, and concierges became a little less reluctant to recommend me. After 18 months I had to hire a second driver, then I had to get another bus, and then another driver. Now we have 34 staff, 21 buses and six private tour vans. It’s amazing how time flies by.
So, I’ve got to ask – how did you come up with the name Platypus Tours?
I knew I needed a name that would stick in peoples’ minds. If I had gone with the name ACME Consolidated Tours there would be no buzz on the street. To stick out and get referrals, I needed a playful name that was simple and easy to remember. “Platypus” just stuck… I don’t know why, I think I just liked the word.
Looking back, are there any memorable experiences that stick out for you in those first few years?
Buying my first bus was quite an ordeal. I had bought it off Ebay and thought it was a real bargain because I got it for a quarter of what it was brand new. I flew out to St Louis to drive it home, and it broke down on me in Kansas. I got it to a garage about five minutes before they closed and the mechanic gave me a ride to the next town because he couldn’t work on it till the next day. Within two hours of arriving, there were a cell of tornados and a dust storm. It was utter chaos and people were pulling into the hotel from everywhere. I just got lucky, they fixed the bus and I drove it home.
Hmm, probably a wine tour that I had in the first few months. I had only one person booked on the tour, and she was surprised when she realized she was the only customer. As it turned out, she wasn’t that keen on wine anyway so we didn’t even go to the wineries. She made me drive her around and do her shopping and run her errands instead.
How have you tweaked or changed Platypus Tours over the years?
Actually, our challenge has been to try and keep the product as close to those early years as possible (when I was doing it myself). One of our strengths as a company is that our drivers have a great deal of autonomy in putting together their itineraries. We don’t tell our drivers where to go, we just tell them to show customers a good time and knock their socks off.
Have you got any advice for guides, or anyone in fact, who might be thinking of following your footsteps and starting their own tour guiding venture?
My best advice is to figure out what your niche is, define your tour, and make it compelling. Tenacity is also very important – you’ve got to do it every morning, and when there are no bookings you’ve got to focus on marketing. And when you do have guests, you’ve got to really impress them every time. You can learn a lot from working for someone else first, but if you do decide to go out on your own, keep expenses low and start on a shoestring.
And finally, any tips for customers who are keen to join a Napa Valley wine tour?
Go out there, have fun, and don’t be afraid to tell your driver what you’re after. They know the back roads, the boutique wineries and the hidden gems, and they can create the type of experience you want – even if it doesn’t include wine. Just sit back and enjoy!