Scrappy startup grows quickly with bus-tour service |

Scrappy startup grows quickly with bus-tour service

John Seelmeyer

So let’s say you’re Patty Drake, and you just bought a whole bunch of expensive, non-refundable tickets to a theater production of “Wicked” in Sacramento to attract a tour bus filled with paying customers, and the tickets aren’t selling very well at all.

And let’s say you have only $35 remaining in the business checking account for Patty’s Tours after you paid for the tickets.

What do you do?

Maybe you dress up as the Wicked Witch of the West, and you talk your cousin and business partner into dressing up as Glinda the Good Witch and the two of you stand outside a matinee performance at the Pioneer Center handing out flyers for your tour bus.

And maybe after they’re done laughing at your stunt, enough theater-goers read the flyer, sign up online for the bus trip and save your bacon.

“We do crazy marketing,” shrugs Drake.

Enough crazy marketing, in fact, that the company that still operates out of Drake’s home in Sun Valley posted revenues of more than $250,000 last year — a 16,567-percent growth since the company was founded in late 2011.

Even at that, Drake and her business partner — and cousin — Kathy Smith describe the growth of Patty’s Tours as cautious and slow because they worry that faster growth might erode the quality of the company’s product.

Patty’s Tours operates in two lines of business:

It runs outbound tours — usually three day trips a month, along with occasional overnighters or big trips — that take northern Nevada residents to regional destinations.

While a behind-the-scenes look at the Wild Horse brothel in Storey County is among the most popular with the largely retired clientele of Patty’s Tours, other day trips that fill quickly include a behind-the-scenes look at Naval Air Station Fallon or a visit to the tulip gardens at Ananda Village above California’s Yuba River.

Smith says about 200 people a month participate in those outbound tours.

A fast-growing segment of the firm’s business, meanwhile, is composed of specialized tours the firm develops for visitors coming to Reno and Lake Tahoe.

In its first full year in business, Patty’s Tours created six of those tours. This year, it has 15 on the schedule — and that’s just in May.

But the growth isn’t coming easy.

“These couple of years are going to get painful,” acknowledges Smith, who oversees finances and long-range planning while Drake focuses on day-by-day details.

The biggest challenge: Finding enough knowledgeable and personable folks work as contracted tour leaders, a job that Drake and Smith handled themselves before the growth took off. Drake’s husband, Steve, also assists with the tours and handles any stray jobs that arise.

The company contracts for buses — 57-seaters for big tours, 21-seat for small groups — and turns to outside contractors for other services such as the Web site that’s key to its marketing.

Drake, who’d spent 15 years on the road as a San Francisco-based tour bus driver taking groups to Napa, Carmel and the like, came to Reno after meeting her husband-to-be on a tour bus trip to Reno.

She worked a decade for a tour bus operator in Reno, went to work for a while at Renown Health, and kept talking about how she’d like to run a tour business someday.

“Finally, my family said, ‘Either do it or shut up,’” Drake says.

She printed up some flyers that generated a full bus for a trip to Apple Hill in the autumn of 2012. Another bus filled for a tour of holiday lights.

Flush with $1,500 in revenue, Drake and Smith turned to Judy Haar, a counselor with SCORE, for help in development of a marketing plan.

They focus their marketing of outbound trips on seniors with disposable income. Participants in day trips, Smith says, create a base of potential clients for overnight tours and longer trips.

For inbound tour groups, they work closely with concierge desks at regional hotels and keep themselves in front of regional tourism executives.

It’s working, as the company’s $250,000 in gross revenues last year demonstrated.

Says Smith, “That’s a number that brings tears to my eyes. And it makes Patty giggle.”