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Hollywood tour bus competition heats up

With lower fares and newer vehicles, just-launched CitySights LA is vying directly with veteran Starline Tours for customers in Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica and Venice beaches.

July 22, 2011|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times
  • CitySights LA guide Brandon Ashcraft finishes a tour on Hollywood Boulevard. The branch of a New York bus company formally launched its tours Thursday.
CitySights LA guide Brandon Ashcraft finishes a tour on Hollywood Boulevard.… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles survived "Carmageddon," but now come the bus wars of Hollywood.

One of New York's largest tour bus companies has launched a West Coast operation on Hollywood Boulevard, pitting itself against Southern California's oldest and biggest tour bus company.

CitySights LA, a subsidiary of a New York bus company, has deployed a fleet of 14 double-decker buses to escort tourists around Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Venice and Santa Monica beaches.

The move makes CitySights one of the largest of more than a dozen tour companies in Hollywood and puts it in direct competition with Starline Tours, which was launched in 1968 and now runs 20 double-decker buses as part of a fleet of 80 tour buses around Los Angeles.

CitySights hopes to capitalize on its fleet of new, U.S.-built double-decker buses and its lower fares, said spokesman David Chien. He points out that several of Starline's buses are older, renovated coaches, brought to the U.S. from Britain.

"Now we are the new kid on the block," he said.

CitySights operates from a kiosk on the sidewalk near the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, but Chien said he expected that the company would add more buses and eventually move into a building nearby.

Starline executives say they are not worried about the new competition. Starline spokesman Klaus Ritter said his company would outlast its competitors because its guides and drivers have more experience in Hollywood.

"I think we have a better product," he said. "We know the city the way outsiders don't know the city."

CitySights began operating on Hollywood Boulevard in June but formally launched its tours Thursday.

The two companies have already staked out their territory. Starline's employees, wearing blue shirts, hawk their tours west of Highland Avenue, where they operate two kiosks next to Grauman's Chinese Theatre and in front of the Hollywood and Highland Center.

CitySights' salespeople, dressed in yellow shirts, stay east of Highland, near their kiosk next to the Hollywood Wax Museum.

So far, tour operators from both companies say the competition between the blue- and yellow-shirted workers remains friendly because this summer tourist season has generated enough customers for both companies. But the competition could heat up in the fall and winter, when tourists on Hollywood Boulevard become scarce.

"We always welcome competition," said Starline's Ritter. "But we've been in the city longer."

Starline got its start in 1968, when engineering student Vahid Sapir bought a small tour company from Bud Delp, a former chauffeur for theater entrepreneur Sid Grauman. Sapir changed the company name from Bud's Limousines to Starline Tours and, over the years, expanded it to 80 tour buses and 120 long-haul charter buses.

CitySights is owned by Twin America, a New York bus company that also operates the city's two biggest tour bus operations, CitySights NY and Grayline Tours.

In Hollywood, CitySights' tours are about $6 to $10 cheaper than Starline tours, but CitySights offers only three routes. Starline sells more than 40 different tours and packages, including a new crime scene tour and a tour of "secret celebrity hotspots," designed by the producers of the celebrity gossip show TMZ.

The main Hollywood tours for both companies swing past many of the same sights, including the Chateau Marmont hotel, where actor John Belushi died of a drug overdose; the Whiskey a Go Go, where the Doors worked as the house band in the 1960s; and the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where scenes from the 1990 film "Pretty Woman" were filmed.

CitySights does not offer tours of celebrity homes because the company's double-decker buses are not allowed on the residential streets of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Starline, however, operates several small, open-top vans that tour the homes of the rich and famous.

Leron Gubler, president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said the addition of another tour company shows that the tourism industry in Hollywood is improving.

"It's a good sign that another major company has come into the market," he said.

"It shows the strength of Hollywood."

But he noted that in the past when tourists became scarce, tour bus operators got very aggressive in trying to drum up business, with salespeople sometimes hawking tours next to the kiosks of their competitors.

"There are no rules for conduct," Gubler said.

On a recent weekday, Starline and CitySights buses repeatedly jockeyed for blacktop on the crowded streets of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. When a tour guide from CitySights spotted a group of bored-looking tourists on the sidewalk near the Beverly Center, he joked over a loudspeaker that they must be Starline customers.

During a sightseeing tour, Steve and Joanne Choi, siblings from Vancouver, Canada, sat near the front of a CitySights bus with their parents, laughing at the jokes of tour guide Brandon Ashcraft.

They chose CitySights over other tour companies on Hollywood Boulevard because the buses looked bigger and safer.

"We wanted to see Paramount Studios and other Hollywood sights," Joanne Choi said.

"We saw it all and we enjoyed it."

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