It’s been a rough decade for the traditional transportation industry in California, but California Wine Tours (CWT) is riding it out and continues to offer the kind of customer service the newer alternatives can’t match, Chief Operating Officer and President Richard Marino said.
The advent of the ride-sharing concept, like Uber and Lyft, have cut into the client base and reduced the number of available appropriately trained drivers, and the massive wildfires that swept the area in recent years have left some potential clients thinking the Napa Valley is closed for business, Marino said.
“Back in 2000, we were the largest private operator in the U.S., and we’re not now,” he said.
“At one point, we had just under 200 vehicles and employed more than 300. The recession hit and times have changed. We run a fleet of 92 vehicles, by choice, really, but it’s hard to find appropriate drivers in the Napa Valley,” he said.
“The fires over the last two years created even more challenges, as we’re tourism based. We still get calls today to see if wineries are open again. We’re persevering by continuing to offer good service.”
The Evans Airport Shuttle arm of CWT has been in business since Don Evans founded it in 1975 – a long time for this industry, Marino said, adding that many people don’t realize that the two are connected.
The airporter has 24-hour, on-site staff coverage daily to service the 30 trips between its Napa and Vallejo terminals and the San Francisco and Oakland International Airports. Charter and private staff provide concierge-style recommendations, reservations and coordination.
Planning is under way for the possible mid-year addition of Evans Airport Shuttle departures from Sonoma Valley, as well, spokeswoman Erica Ercolano said.
CWT Transportation operates private charter services for tours, businesses, weddings, and educational institutions.
The airporter was incorporated into California Wine Tours in 2001, Marino said.
Describing himself as a “hands-on guy,” Marino said his brother founded CWT as a teenager in 1985. “Our company has a long story how we evolved. It started as a small one-car limo company, and he drove clients around on wine tours.”
The firm grew to four cars, 75 limos, and a few vans and evolved with the industry, becoming more of a bus company, so they bought a few of those along with acquiring other limo companies, before bringing in the airporter.
“I think that people think it’s a city or county service, but it’s us, and we get no government funds to run this airporter. We bought it sort of to save it from going out of business. And it completed our business,” he said.
“We ran it for about eight years (at a loss), supporting it with our other business. With many others going out of business, we continue to offer this service to those in the Napa Valley area.”
Marino attributes his family-owned company’s survival in part to its focus on creating a good client experience.
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“Over the years, we’ve gained a reputation. We know other firms are going through some scary hard times, and I hate to brag, but for some weird reason, even with the fires – and we lost $1.5 million in the first three days of the 2017 fires — but we’ve been seeing bookings increase and we’re up about 50 percent better than the year before,” he said.
Marino said he thinks some people are now timing their Napa area trips to avoid fire season, which isn’t bad thinking, he said.
“The off season is a great time to come, he said.
“I think that’s why we’re doing so well so early in the season. Also, I think maybe large groups, when they realized Napa didn’t burn to the ground, started booking again, and they tend to do that a couple years out. Maybe that’s what it is.”
Some of California Wine Tours’ success is likely do to its treatment of its employees, he said.
While ride-sharing apps have flipped the thinking of many transportation clients to instant access instead of appointment based, with little driver consistency, CWT has drivers who have been with the firm for decades.
“We still keep drivers – the longest is with us 26 years, and several other are here for over 20, which is rare in this industry,” he said.
“I think it’s our insurance, retirement plans,… we’re a good reputable company that treats their employees good, and that kind of stuff is what keeps people here. Also, they can make a decent wage. We even have some retired people who stay on part time.”
Rich Marino admits his is not the world’s easiest job, but he enjoys it.
“I like the fact that we’ve got a handful of customers who love our service, and it’s a challenge, but it’s a fast-paced environment and I like that,” he said. “Something is always having to be overcome; there’s never a dull moment.”
One employee is logistics supervisor Nicholas Marino, Rich Marino’s nephew, who basically grew up in the firm, having worked there off and on for more than a decade.
“Each day brings a new opportunity and a new challenge,” Nicholas Marino said.
“Being from the dispatch side, it’s the last-minute rush when you have to scramble to make things happen – that’s kind of what I live for. You’re always on your toes with transportation.”
In general, though, the business is all about the clients, both men said.
“This is a destination place, and you sort of sell a dream to people,” Nicholas Marino said. “You know you’re helping create memories for people.”
For details, call 707-253-1300 or visit californiawinetours.com. It is at 4075 Solano Ave., Napa.