As Eric Hormann gets off his day job, a project manager at a San Francisco tech start-up, his faithful companion, Lillie, waits in anticipation for the adventures that are ready to unfold.
Lillie hisses and grunts when going up the hilly regions of Nob Hill, weaves and dodges pedestrians around the famed alleys and side streets of North Beach, gleams and shines under the bright lights of the Castro, and takes frequent pit stops around Golden Gate Park and the Presidio.
By no accounts though is Lillie an animal of any kind. She is more like a pet business project of Hormann and his wife, Amy. The husband-and-wife team founded Vantigo, a tourism company that employs their beloved Lillie, a 1971 Chianti-red seven passenger Volkswagen bus that takes locals and tourists on expeditions throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
Since it's first ride in August 2013, Hormann has been conducting Vantigo's day-and-night 7x7 tours of San Francisco, day trips to Tomales Bay's Hog Island Oyster Company, and brewery tours along Highway 1 and through the North Bay.
The genesis of Vantigo, which derives it name name from the Spanish phrase "Ven Conmigo" (come with me), started when Erik tinkered with the idea of fusing his passion for San Francisco, beer culture, and Volkswagens, with his strength for knowledgeable memorization and people skills into one feasible, professional outlet.
"When I started to look into creating Vantigo, [I pictured] it had Volkswagens, involved talking to people, and I love being outside... I just decided to create my own internship and business that combines all my strengths and passions," he said. "So we started thinking about that and we just put the whole business plan together. We went on other peoples' tours, [scoped] it out and saw if we could be a differentiating factor than just a vehicle. So we ended up here where we are now, with Lillie."
Vantigo sets out to be different from other tour companies in the city in several regards. Not only is it much more intimate with its smaller passenger capacity, but even with its fixed route, there are detours to local sites like China Beach, hidden pockets deep in Golden Gate Park, and locally owned gift shops (to support non-profits and small business owners). Much of this is only feasible because of the van's small size.
The tours are also filled with offbeat but important history lessons, a San Francisco soundtrack that plays songs associated with each neighborhood (think "Oye Como Va" by Santana for The Mission or "San Francisco" by The Village People for the Castro), food items native of the city (fortune cookies, sour bread, Ghiradelli chocolate), local restaurant recommendations, and tangible articles from the past like postcards and tickets to events like the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition.
"Locals showing local spots is the gem of this... Anyone can duplicate this and sit there and pass out chocolate and food, but it's so fun when I get to interact with those on the tour and get to know a little about everyone," he said. "A lot of people are tired of the generic and for-the-masses kinds of touring, they want individual, personalized experiences and San Francisco is one of those cities that caters to having something different."
Hormann is engaging and wants tourists and locals alike to feel like they are getting a true version of San Francisco, not a picture-perfect postcard version -- and without feeling gawked at from the confines of a massive tour bus.
"What a pain in the butt when people come visit, because you are playing chauffeur and it's enjoyable, but you don't want to hop in a double-decker bus to go on a tour," Hormann said. "You tend to drop them off and meet them later on after they are done four hours later. With mine, it's just nice because it's more like 'Dude, I'll go do that, go around town on a VW bus like no big deal.'"
Plus, those who embark with Vantigo's Lillie, tend to appear in many photos from other tourists.
"When you step into Lillie, you cease being a tourist and are the tourist attraction. The VW is a cute little fixed up van and people smile, wave, and give peace signs as we drive around the city."
On a deeper note, for Hormann, being different and unique in the tourism sector isn't done only for the benefit of the guests but also for himself, an attribute who owes to the environment and very nature of the City by the Bay.
"Not everyone has to do tech stuff all the time to be a success in San Francisco, even though that is what everyone talks about." Hormann said. "I looked toward the Mission District and thought that I could do something service oriented. You're here in San Francisco and everyone's making money hand over fist for doing something technology based, but it just wasn't for me. I had to be different."
It would be no surprise then that even the name of the very vehicle that drives Hormann's vision is named after a local San Francisco iconoclast from history: Lillie Hitchcock Coit, the pants-wearing, smoking woman who defied the norms of lady-like behavior during the 19th century.
"Lillie was a volunteer firefighter and fixture in San Francisco. We found it fitting to name the bus after a figure who symbolized going against the grain."
And just like Coit, who left her large sum of her fortune in her will to be used to beautify the City, Hormann wants to contribute to the city he loves and respects with one van ride at a time.
"I want to do these things that are uniquely San Franciscan, or things we locals like, so people can see how truly beautiful this place is and of how accepting we all are. I want tourism to to become real, tangible, and embracing."