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How I Made It: Vahid Sapir

Hollywood tour operator knows where the stars live.

January 17, 2010|By Hugo Martín
  • Vahid Sapir broke into the Hollywood celebrity tour business in 1968 with three limousines. Now he runs two companies with 150 buses and 250 employees
Vahid Sapir broke into the Hollywood celebrity tour business in 1968 with… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

The gig: President of Starline Tours and Tourcoach International. Starline Tours is one of the largest and oldest tour companies in Southern California, offering bus tours of celebrity homes and entertainment attractions. Combined, the two companies operate 150 buses and employ about 250 workers.

Background: Sapir came to Los Angeles in 1963 as an Iranian exchange student, studying engineering at Western State College. While working as a parking lot attendant, he befriended Bud Delp, the former chauffeur of theater entrepreneur Sid Grauman. Delp operated a celebrity home tour business using three limousines parked next to Grauman's Chinese Theatre. In 1968, Sapir bought the tour company, called Bud's Limousines, for about $50,000 and renamed it Starline Tours. In 1989, he bought out his biggest competitor, Grayline Tours, and later sold it.

How far he's come: Starline Tours has expanded beyond Hollywood to downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica, offering more than 30 different tours taken by about 1 million passengers a year. His buses pick up customers from about 280 hotels in Southern California.

The worst day yet: On May 30, 1986, a Starline Tours bus veered off California 395 near Bridgeport, killing 21 elderly passengers returning from a gambling trip in northern Nevada. The National Transportation Safety Board ruled out mechanical failure and concluded that excessive speed caused the wreck. The driver pleaded no contest to manslaughter and served four years in prison. In the wake of the crash, state lawmakers adopted several laws to stiffen tour bus drivers' testing and licensing requirements, making it harder for people with spotty driving records to drive tour buses. Sapir said the investigation confirmed that the accident was attributable almost entirely to driver error, but he said the company made no changes in the driver screening process in the aftermath. "We didn't do anything wrong to change," he said.

Still, he said he was emotionally struck by the deaths. "I was sick for a month," Sapir said.

The big break: In 1978, Sapir's business got its first big break when flamboyant pianist Liberace gave Sapir exclusive rights to bring tourists into his home in the Hollywood Hills. "Most of our success was due to the help of the people that we know in the industry," Sapir said.

Who's big today: Since Michael Jackson died after being stricken in a rented Holmby Hills home, tourists continue to call to ask if Starline buses still stop there. (Of course they do.) A widely viewed video of an ambulance rushing Jackson from the home was shot by a tourist on a Starline tour bus.

Marilyn Monroe's final resting place at Pierce Bros. Westwood Village Memorial Park cemetery is still a big draw with tourists, particularly visitors from Japan. "She is always popular," Sapir said.

Research: To keep up to date on the celebrity homes that tourists may want to see, Sapir and his staff read celebrity tabloids and meet regularly to discuss who's hot in Hollywood. Plus, Sapir keeps informed on celebrity matters from his tour guides, most of whom are wannabe actors, comedians or writers, earning a living while trying to break into the industry.

Recent expansions: Two years ago, Starline added several double-deck British buses as part of a hop-on-hop-off service. The buses first toured Hollywood, then expanded to downtown Los Angeles a year ago. Six months ago the buses began touring the beaches of Santa Monica. "It's very popular in England, so we started doing the same thing," he said.

Competition can get ugly: Since the charter bus industry was deregulated in the early 1980s, the Hollywood & Highland area has become more crowded with tour buses vying for customers. The scene has gotten ugly lately, said Sapir, who has witnessed fights between competing tour operators. He doesn't mind the competition, he said, but he objects to companies that operate without a license or insurance.

A family affair: To help with his growing business, Sapir brought in his wife, Noonoosh, and his brother, Fred, to help run the enterprise. Over the years, Sapir's children and his brother's children have worked for Starline Tours. But Vahid gives much of the credit to his success to his longtime employees, including about 10 workers who have been with him for about 30 years. "I could have foreseen that it was going to be a very successful business," Sapir said. "But I didn't think it was going to be this big."

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