By: Huey Maidup
Writer, Drinker, Explorer
Despite the unrest among Americans during the current political environment and the feverish rants on social media, one thing is certain. We all like to drink. Once considered an oasis of culture and community, the small town of Charlottesville, Virginia, has seen unprecedented growth in Agro-beverage Tourism. The Monticello Wine Trail paved the way for history buffs to start mixing up their typical educational experiences at the homes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. The new explosion of tourism has been cultivated around the growing University of Virginia Grounds expansion and continued Alumni relations. Charlottesville’s promoter, Coran Capshaw, has backed the local music scene with star packed lineups at the Jefferson Theatre, Charlottesville Pavilion, The Southern Café, and, of course, local festivals. This trifecta was the petri dish that spawned a small local start up by the name of Cville Hop On Tours, or better known now as Hop On Cville.
Hop On Cville offers a unique experience to the Charlottesville area and is expanding at an extraordinary rate. In 2016, neither of the co-founders, Jon Craig nor Andre Xavier, could have anticipated how quickly their one bus and good idea would become a fleet of 14. With their sights set on Staunton, Waynesboro, Lynchburg and Richmond next, you are sure to see a Hop On bus pass by soon. “We’d love to connect as many nearby towns/cities to our beloved Crozet/Afton/Route 151 area,” proposed Jon when discussing where they wanted to be in the next 3 years. “We’re in a unique position to have so many breweries right next to these award-winning wineries. I think we focus on what we have here and dream about partnering with someone that wants to recreate what we did here.”
“We will definitely focus our attention on retaining our five-star reputation in Cville, but I’m ready to take on the rest of Virginia,” piped in Andre, who operates three other successful Charlottesville based tourism businesses, including Cville Tours, which initially brought the partners together.
Over 50 riders hopped on board the Saturday I observed. The logistics and coordination left me speechless as the swarm of participants were simultaneously loaded on their assigned bus and dispatched without issue. “Each of our drivers spends plenty of time observing before we ask them to participate in the operations,” explained Jon as the buses pulled away. “Right now we have folks interested in driving for us, riding the bus to see exactly how the operations work. We don’t have to explain half as much if they just see it. This also helps weed out those that may not have the patience to handle herding cats all day.” This process, he admits, is one that he picked up from years in the food and beverage industry. “When looking for someone in the kitchen that would hold a good amount of responsibility, we would often ask them to come and stage,” he explained. “The person would be vetted by their resume, but their operational actions would be watched for a night on the line to see if they could hang. Because we’re a unique concept, we thought we’d use something similar to make sure we hired only the best.” Local teachers, graphic designers, musicians, directors, sales representatives, accountants and retirees make up the part- time driver list. “We care most about driving capabilities and personalities,” described Jon. “I want drivers to have their own voice and unique traits to add to the experience of our participants. Some use alter egos to get into the roll, and others are just crazy enough to be that much fun on their own.”
Regardless of how they do it, watching the synchronizing movements of the buses as they departed proved one thing; these people are serious and they are not leaving anything to chance. “We always have a backup bus and driver.” illuminated Andre. “When we first started, just a flat tire could mean a ruined day for all of our guests. Now we eat the cost to make sure we always have a Plan B and if it’s a crazy day, Plan C and D.”
Even the buses used to transport passengers safely to and from area destinations are proof that Charlottesville is unique. Competing industry brands artfully decorate the exterior of each bus. Mammoths like Devils Backbone sit showcased next to local restaurants Kardinal Beer Hall and Beer Run. The other side displays Keswick Vineyards, Virginia Distillery Company, The Graduate Hotel, Snowing In Space Coffee and Bold Rock Hard Cider. The buses’ interiors depict more breweries and Charlottesville based destinations than I could count. “Our destinations are the lifeblood of what we do,” stated Jon, when asked about the relationship with the advertisers. “We don’t ask for kickbacks from any of our destinations and we always try to accommodate their operations. When they advertise on the side of the bus, it ends up being about 50 bucks a month and provides great visibility in the specific market they are trying to reach or target. I think it’s a win-win.”
It’s that intangible asset that Charlottesville has, and so many other cities and towns strive for - a supportive community. Dave Warwick from Three Notch’d Brewing has been known to end his tours with words we should all live by, “Rising tides float all ships,” and “It’s a co-opetition not a competition.” With that spirit, I invite you to check out everything Charlottesville has to offer by Hopping On with Hop On Cville.
Photos provided by Cville Hop on Tours