By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor
Hoppy Trails is here again.
Under new ownership and after being grounded since the coronavirus shutdown in March, the Hoppy Trails Brew Bus is once again bringing groups to the region’s 20 or so craft breweries, distilleries and wineries.
“Right away, the first actual time we rented it out was the 17th of October,” says new owner Dawn Biddescombe. “This weekend and the next weekend it’s fully booked out. We have been getting a lot of phone calls.
“November 7 we have three different pub crawls. That’s 30-something people we will be bringing to local establishments.”
Mrs. Biddescombe owns Premier Plus Travel and Tours travel agency and limousine service in Queensbury.
She purchased Hoppy Trails last month from owners/founders Gabe and Olivia Sutton. Her son Matthew Colucci is part-owner of the tour bus business. He is also general manager and part-owner of Springbrook Hollow Distillery in Queensbury/Fort Ann.
The brightly decorated, 14-passenger Hoppy Trail bus joins Premier Tours’ three black Mercedes Benz classics — a 13-passenger limo coach, 14-passenger executive coach (with front-forward seating), and an 11-passenger shuttle.
Mrs. Biddescombe notes that even before buying the Hoppy Trail bus, “we also did a lot of pub crawls on our own.
“Gabe and Olivia always worked well with us,” Mrs. Biddescombe says.
“The first time I did a pub crawl was in 2015. I saw their vehicle and admired it. It was just so cute. I thought it was adorable. Ours are all black, for weddings and proms. This one has a lot of character.”
She says she introduced herself to Mr. Sutton. “I showed him our vehicle and he showed me his. We worked together a lot after that, like if there was overflow.
“And we always kept in touch, talking insurance, or just, hey, how’s business? Winters can be very tough for transportation companies like us.”
Mrs. Biddescombe said, “With Covid, they had to take the vehicle off the road. I know it was tough. I had told them, I think the vehicle should continue. If you guys think you can’t do it, I would like to acquire it.”
They held off the buy until early October. “It all depended on the insurance. We had to wait to see if we could add the vehicle, and the prices,” Mrs. Biddescombe says.
Where the Suttons’ model offered single-group rentals as well as “strangers with strangers” groups, Mrs. Biddescombe says, especially now during Covid, she plans to rent only to groups of friends or family.
“Part of it is having fun with your friends, anyway,” she says. She encourages groups of 10 to make it cost-effective.
She said the pricing varies.
“We do a lot of special occasions, a huge number of bachelor and bachelorette parties, already a lot of weddings again, that are down to 50 people.
“Maybe they were planning to go to Las Vegas or Miami and they can’t now, so they’re staying here, in Lake George or Saratoga, and we are picking them up.”
She said she appreciates Governor Cuomo’s executive order that customers must purchase food with alcohol. It means each stop takes a little longer, she said, “but you should have food with your drinks.”
Mrs. Biddescombe said she launched Premier Travel Agency as a part-time pursuit in 2014, while she was a paralegal working in patents and intellectual property for AngioDynamics.
“In 2015 I started adding vehicles under a different LLC,” she says. “I felt a need for dependable limos here, especially for airport transportation for my clients, and also for people to have safe nights out.”
Thus was born Premier Plus. She said she left AngioDynamics in 2016, after 13 years with the company, to concentrate full time on the business.
Mrs. Biddescombe said she and her son both drive, and her husband Chris does on occasion. They have a “solid” part time crew of three school bus drivers who work all summer and weekends in winter, as well as other part-timers they call in as needed.
The busy period typically begins with prom season in spring, and continues through summer and fall, slowing to mostly airport runs December to February.
This year, with coronavirus, the fleet was halted from March 13 to July. “We kept one on the road, just in case,” Mrs. Biddescombe says.
She said their insurer reduced their premium by 30 percent and their bank gave them a six-month break on loan payments. They sold one minivan to cut costs, as well as a stretch limo — that one at a loss, Mrs. Biddescombe says — simply because they had to get rid of it in order to even get insurance under new, stricter protocols.
“We did okay in July, and very well in August, September and October,” even without such regular boosts as the track season and SPAC concerts.
“Actually, we did really great,” Mrs. Biddescombe clarifies. “Now November is starting to fill up.”
“People have been very creative,” she said. “We had one guy who was turning 60 and his son I think 30. They were supposed to go to Florida for a golf tournament, but instead, they took the limo to four friends’ houses. They stopped at each one for maybe 30 minutes, sat out in the back yard, far apart. They brought their own cocktails in a cooler, and they had a blast. It was really nice.”
That’s a far cry from the spring, when everything was canceled. Mrs. Biddescombe recalls working the phones for her travel agency every day, canceling trips and pressing to get clients’ money back or at least, credit for future travel.
“People want to travel so bad,” Mrs. Biddescombe says. “I think I’m going to be slammed as soon as they are able.”
Mrs. Biddescombe says insurance rates for limousine companies in New York has tripled since the October 2018 limo crash in Schoharie that killed all 17 passengers, the driver, and two pedestrians.
She says it’s challenging, as a business that keeps up its vehicles, when the vehicle in that crash was reportedly not legally road-worthy.
“We have a really good relationship with DOT (Department of Transportation),” Mrs. Biddescombe says. She says she keeps up with required 60-day and six-month maintenance and inspections.
“That accident made it hard for those of us who do everything by the law. It is good that it closed down a lot of vehicles that shouldn’t be on the road.”
Hoppy Trail founder Gabe Sutton re sale: ‘It’s all positive’
Gabe Sutton, who founded Hoppy Trails Brew Bus with his wife Olivia Porter-Sutton in December 2014, says of the sale to Premier Plus Travel and Tours, “It’s all great. This is not a negative thing. It’s all positive. They have the perfect situation for taking on Hoppy Trails and will really do well with it.”
Mr. Sutton said he’s working full-time at Adirondack Pub and Brewery, and at the Sutton family’s Farmstead Flatbread restaurant in Queensbury.
“I stay very busy,” he said.
Premier Plus owners Dawn Biddescombe and her son Matt Colucci “are just really great people,” he adds.
Mr. Sutton said he still has his commercial license to drive. “We discussed, maybe I’ll hop on the bus even still as a driver.”
Or, he says, maybe he’ll go on a tour as a customer. “I did 550 different brewery tours since we started, and I never got to just ride on the bus.” — Cathy DeDe
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