VIP Tours President Christina Ernst is a seasoned travel agent who grew up in White County, Ga. So when the Chamber of Commerce leadership, county commissioners and local winery owners were looking at how to attract visitors to the region, they invited her to join their meeting.
“They wanted advice on what was possible and how to do it,” said Ernst. While researching wine tours for the group, she found an opportunity to try something new with her agency. After leading her clients on extensive treks through Europe, she decided she could help her clients discover the pleasure and wonders of North Georgia’s wineries.
“I wanted to offer not just transportation, but a tour product that would pull in others in our community,” said Ernst. Her concept was an all-inclusive guided wine tour package with tastings at four wineries and a gourmet picnic lunch. Her new company, VIP Southern Tours, began operating on Labor Day 2013.
While planning her product, Ernst needed to learn more about her options in getting a new bus and a loan to put cash into the business. She approached the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center in Gainesville.
“We receive similar types of questions and requests for advice from all small businesses,” said Gainesville Area Director Bruce Cutler. “In Christina’s case it was, ‘How do I get the capital I need for my buses? How do I decide whether to purchase new versus used buses?’ After she leased her first bus, we generated a list of prospective client businesses in the North Georgia area for her marketing.”
Ernst decided to start “slow and small” with what she learned from the UGA SBDC. She ran her earliest tours by special request and on weekends only, many for clientele from Atlanta and South Carolina. While she ran the tours, she kept her travel business going with one agent.
“While the tour company grew, I learned how to do everything on a budget,” she said. “I created the company on a shoestring budget, putting a lot into my drivers, our tour guides. I kept it simple and got great reviews.”
As her positive reviews grew, they expanded VIP Tour’s reputation and the clientele. Ernst needed more buses and a place to house them, so she turned again to the SBDC.
“Christina was nervous about going down this path. When she came to me, a new bus cost $90,000 and the land for the bus shed even more,” said Cutler. “I had to teach her how to look at the investments as a business decision. How to look at her income statement and see if she can afford it. She learned to take the emotion out of it, to make a business decision based on whether she can afford it.”
Three years after opening VIP Southern Tours in Sautee Nacoochee, Ernst has added three tour buses, three tour employees and a new office manager. Sales are now in the six figures, and her Georgia Wine Country tour packages have earned her a Trip Advisor 2016 Certificate of Excellence and a feature on Fox 5 Atlanta’s Good Day Atlanta morning program.
“The SBDC has given me great insight on creating this business, how to prepare for a major loan and how to grow,” said Ernst. “They played an important role assisting me in focusing more on what I needed to do and how to figure out what would be most profitable.”
Ernst figured the new business would be profitable in three-to-four years. It was profitable after one year.
“Christina is one of those super enthusiastic, high energy, passionate entrepreneurs,” said Cutler. “She has the passion and energy to do this business and obviously loves what she’s doing.”