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L.A.’s largest tour company faces a Big Bus challenger

LOS ANGELES, CA-APRIL 8, 2019: People pass a Big Bus boarding area on Hollywood Blvd on April 8, 201
People pass a Big Bus boarding area on Hollywood Blvd. Big Bus is a subsidiary of a London-based tour bus franchise and has recently opened operations in Los Angeles.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Starline Tours is one of the biggest players in a city where tourists spend billions of dollars a year to gawk at the Hollywood sign, take selfies on Hollywood Boulevard and buy overpriced souvenirs.

But the 50-year-old company that was born in the shadow of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre is facing a new, out-of-town rival to challenge Starline’s dominance in the Los Angeles tourism scene.

London-based Big Bus, which operates in 22 cities in 11 countries, launched operations in Los Angeles last month, with 18 double-deck buses and a promise to offer tourists better service than that of any tour bus in the city.

“We are confident that we will bring visitors to the city an experience not currently available elsewhere,” said Rich Goldstein, general manager of Big Bus Tours Los Angeles.

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Big Bus hopes to steal customers from Starline Tours by offering guides to narrate tours for its hop-on-hop-off bus rides. Starline Tours uses prerecorded audio narration that tourists listen to through onboard headsets as they ride the company’s 130 buses.

Big Bus launched its tours from an office next to the Hollywood Wax Museum on Hollywood Boulevard, less than a block from the headquarters of Starline Tours, behind what is now called TCL Chinese Theatre.

Starline and Big Bus are the largest among an army of tour businesses — all vying for a share of the nearly $23 billion that Los Angeles County’s 50 million visitors spend each year.

LOS ANGELES, CA-APRIL 8, 2019: People pass a Big Bus boarding area on Hollywood Blvd on April 8, 201
A performer walks along Hollywood Boulevard next to a Big Bus boarding area. London-based franchise Big Bus has opened operations in Los Angeles, challenging the city’s biggest tour company, Starline.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

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The competition for those dollars has been hot in the last few years as the U.S. economy has improved and travel spending has surged.

The California Public Utilities Commission doesn’t keep data on the number of sightseeing bus companies in Los Angeles County, but the agency reports that 2,624 passenger carrier businesses — including limousines, charter buses and tour bus companies — operate in the county. That total is up sharply from the 1,275 that operated in 2015.

Although Starline has plenty of small rivals operating with a few buses, those who have tried to challenge Starline’s dominant position have failed.

Starline was born in 1968, when an Iranian exchange student, Vahid Sapir, bought a small tour business operated by the former chauffeur of theater entrepreneur Sid Grauman, who opened Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

Sapir expanded his tour company and bought out his biggest competitor, Grayline Tours, before selling it.

Another rival entered the scene in 2011 when New York-based CitySights tours launched a West Coast operation on Hollywood Boulevard, employing a fleet of 14 double-deck buses. But the company, with operations in at least 10 other cities in the U.S., had problems obtaining permits and licensing and closed up shop in Los Angeles within a year.

When CitySights quit in Los Angeles, Starline agreed to lease the rival’s idled double-deck buses for a few months and even took over the Los Angeles CitySights website.

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“Competition is always good in this industry,” said Kami Farhadi, chairman of Starline Tours. “You learn from each other to make sure you are better at what you do.”

LOS ANGELES, CA-APRIL 8, 2019: People pass a Starline bus tour boarding area on Hollywood Blvd on Ap
People pass a Starline Tours boarding area on Hollywood Boulevard.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Starline plans to keep hold of its dominant position in the county and expand beyond Hollywood sightseeing tours, Farhadi said.

Starline’s sister company, Tour Coach, operates more than 150 coaches that large groups of visitors can charter to long-haul destinations such as Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon.

In the next month, Farhadi said, Starline plans to add buses that take visitors from Los Angeles to Disneyland in Anaheim and Universal Studios Hollywood. He said the company also hopes to soon start running the first electric double-deck buses in Los Angeles.

Starline’s double-deck buses come equipped with headsets that play a prerecorded tour narration in a choice of nine languages, including Mandarin Chinese. The recordings are linked to GPS technology so that the narration syncs up with the movement of the bus past each attraction, such as Rodeo Drive and the Sunset Strip.

Big Bus also offers prerecorded audio narration, but it is supplemented by a live tour guide on each bus.

“Los Angeles is a city of stories, and our guide team loves to tell our guests about their hometown,” Goldstein said.

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Starline defends its prerecorded narrations, saying they are updated regularly and provide a consistency not possible with live narration.

The two bus lines run almost identical sightseeing routes around Hollywood, passing by the Whisky a Go Go nightclub, the Rodeo Drive shopping district, the La Brea Tar Pits, the farmers market and the Paramount Pictures movie studio. Big Bus fares for the Hollywood route start at $40; Starline prices start at $49.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

To read more about the travel and tourism industries, follow @hugomartin on Twitter.


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