The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Megha Shyamili Purushothaman
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview, we meet Elie Sasson, the CEO of Green Dream Tours in San Fransico/Napa/Sonoma. Elie Sasson explained the challenges of tourism in the San Francisco/Napa/Sonoma county during the pandemic. At the beginning of the lockdown, his business virtually stopped from March until June when things reopened again. With people not willing to travel due to the coronavirus, his craft beer, wine and cannabis tours focused on locals rather than tourists. Unfortunately, with the new restrictions announced December 3rd, 2020 in the state of California, Green Dream Tours had many cancellations wiping down the precious bookings for the month of December. Elie hopes that with vaccination, people will be willing to travel and excited about tourism again.
What do you do as a business?
Elie: We are a tour business and we offer wine country tours, wine tasting tours up to Napa and Sonoma just outside of San Francisco and so we bring people up there for the day for wine tasting and bring them back at the end of the day to San Francisco.
We also offer recently beer tasting tours actually within the city, in San Francisco, so those are craft beer walking tours and also recently started offering cannabis tours in San Francisco where we take people to the dispensaries and give them education about cannabis.
Wow! That sounds pretty entertaining!
Elie: Yeah, for sure.
How did the lockdown and the pandemic affect your business?
Elie: So the original lockdown in the middle of March completely shut us down because we were not allowed or able to operate in San Francisco. Also, the wineries were closed and all the business establishments were closed as well for the most part. So it was a complete shut down all the way until the end of June which is when the wineries reopened so we were able to resume those tours. A few months after that, the bars in San Francisco were able to reopen for outdoor use and so we were able to restart that as well. The cannabis tours, we had to kind of- we were able to resume but kind of on a different itinerary than what we were used to.
So things have normalized a little bit. Do you know how your customers and competition are doing?
Elie: Everybody in the tour business in San Francisco for sure, I imagine elsewhere, definitely had the rough year of 2020 because even once people- even once some businesses were open again, a lot of people just didn’t feel comfortable flying through the summer so that was very slow going. We did see a little bit of an uptick in the fall as people were willing to fly a little bit more.
Yeah. So you’d say that it’s a lot of out-of-town business for you?
Elie: So, normally speaking we do mostly out-of-town business and not much business with locals but we did see an increase in local business during 2020, during the pandemic, because people, even just in the bay area, needed something to do. So we definitely had an increase in local business but overall speaking, the business was still slow during 2020.
I can imagine. So Gavin Newsom put new restrictions on the state of California and some of the restrictions were starting on Sunday. Do you know if those restrictions are going to affect your business?
Elie: Yes, so we have already received many cancellations in the last few days. Most of our December bookings have already cancelled because people don’t really want to fly to San Francisco and everything shut down. So yes, the recent announcement definitely has hurt us for sure.
Even hotels are not allowing people to stay for non-essential travel or non-essential work. How is your business going on now and what are you planning for the next coming months?
Elie: Normally, there is a slowdown during the winter months because that is historically the low season for tourism so you don’t really do a lot of business from December to March anyway. We will continue to remain open or we will be when the restrictions lift; we will definitely reopen for business, although I expect it to be slow through the winter. So really at this point, looking forward to 2021, really to the spring or summer for business to start picking up again and hopefully, people will start flying again and tourism will pick up. We don’t expect 2021 to be a normal year but at least better than in 2020.
Yes, I hope so too. But your company and the tours will continue even though there is not a lot of travel. Will locals be able to enjoy your services?
Elie: Yes, for sure. Once the restrictions lift we will be able to reopen and hopefully do business with both local and out-of-towners. We’ll see what happens.
I hope the wineries remain open.
Elie: Yeah, so far the wineries are still open because they are not affected by the restrictions right now.
Okay, that is good to hear! So could you tell me or name three things that you need help with?
Elie: Well, I would say financially I could use help. I did get a loan so actually, financially I am okay now but there was definitely a point where I needed to get a loan so I did, I got one through the SBA so that’s definitely going to get me through the winter until business picks up again. Other than that, I don’t think- I don’t really need help with anything except the- potentially once things reopen, to get people back flying and so I would say I could use help, not in my own marketing necessarily, but maybe with the State or maybe with San Francisco itself or the wine country reaching out in terms of marketing to people saying “Hey, we’re open for business”. So maybe on a bigger level in addition to my marketing, some kind of marketing on a bigger level.- to bring people back to the area and get people excited about tourism again. Then, of course, everybody’s waiting for the vaccines to be distributed and we believe once that happens, that people will definitely be willing to fly again and somewhat resume normal lives.
So you mentioned marketing and the vaccine. Do you have- did you change any of your strategies since the pandemic in terms of attracting customers?
Elie: We reached out- we kind of decided to increase the marketing in terms of marketing to locals especially in the beginning when people weren’t flying.
That was really the only kind of strategy shift that we made.
Do you feel like it worked?
Elie: Yeah, I feel like we did get a fair amount of local business, more so than normal.
About the Guest
Specializing in affordable, fun and educational Wine Country Tours to Napa and Sonoma. Cannabis and Craft Beer Tours in the San Francisco area. Sightseeing tours of San Francisco Bay Area, including Muir Woods, are also available. Options include private tours, custom tours, corporate outings, special events and private charters.