Nobody’s going to pay hourly for a bus, and nobody’s going to pay a 15% gratuity to a bus driver.
That’s what California Wine Tours (CWT) President/CEO Mike Marino kept hearing years ago, but he never believed it. He has since proved both statements to be untrue.
Marino started a limousine company 20 years ago with one car doing wine tours, and it slowly grew to where it is today — a full service transportation company serving California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys. The company employs 190 chauffeurs and a 145-vehicle fleet made up of 25 limousines, 31 sedans, 12 vans, six limo-buses (Krystal, Federal), 31 minibuses and 31 motorcoaches (MCI, Prevost, Van Hool).
CWT recently added a new MCI 2006 E4500 “Entertainer” coach to the fleet, which Marino had customized to include a 38-foot awning and outdoor flat screen satellite/DVD set-up for tailgating parties and special events. “It has all the amenities of a private coach, but it has a corporate passenger look to it.” This coach will go for approximately $450 per hour, he says, with its driver pulling in $75 per hour.
Coaches by the hour
It is this attractive hourly pay scale, coupled with a top-notch benefits package, that has helped CWT retain its stable of chauffeurs and has prompted “people to relocate from all over to work for the company.”
Chauffeurs are paid $8 an hour with a 15% gratuity billed to the customer. CWT charges an average of $109 an hour for a motorcoach, which would mean roughly an additional $16.35 per hour for the driver. “The driver is making $24.35 an hour, with only eight of it coming from us,” Marino says. “Everybody in the limousine and chauffeur industry does it, but nobody does it in the bus business.”
Motorcoaches were introduced into the fleet approximately 11 years ago. Originally, CWT contracted with an outside company for its motorcoach work, but did not feel the company was keeping up to par with CWT’s high standards.
“It never failed, at the end of a trip, the only complaint the customer had was about the motorcoach company,” Marino says. “Either the drivers weren’t dressed right, or they got lost.” The company tried to educate the coach company’s drivers, but in the end offered to buy the company. “That was the first bus company that I bought,” he says. “We just turned the tables and leveraged it so their drivers wanted to work for us.”
Now when customers order a coach, the driver shows up in a black suit, white shirt and black tie. He or she looks like a chauffeur. “He has all the etiquette, training and knowledge of a high-end chauffeur that you see in a limo or sedan; however, he is trained and certified to drive a large motorcoach,” Marino says.
Driver training boot camp
These drivers, or “chauffeurs” as he calls them, are put through an extensive training program that he likens to a boot camp. “We have 80 hours of paid training that doesn’t even involve behind-the-wheel training,” he says.
During this portion of the program, trainees visit various hotels and restaurants, where they are shown where to pull in, where to spot, where the concierge desk is to check in and how to exit the parking lot.
The training also includes a day of history training, where chauffeurs learn about the history of Napa and Sonoma and the various points of interest such as the local missions. This knowledge gives chauffeurs an edge as they are also acting as tour guides.
Drivers are also trained how to meet the needs of demanding guests. Marino says he meets with general managers of the regional hotels regularly to work on refining the company’s customer service techniques. “I think it’s important for our drivers to know that we are in the customer service business and not the transportation business.”
Not all trainees make it through the program. “A below average guy is not going to do us any good,” Marino says. “We deal with VIPs.”