By Jennifer Rader
In business, if you want to get something done, call a man of action with an ability to identify a need and fill it. Earnie Porta, mayor of the Town of Occoquan, is such a man.
Porta started the tourist shuttle service Occoquan Transportation Company, LLC (OTC), incorporated in 2012, as a private sightseeing venture after a discussion with a friend about the Auto Train station in Lorton. The Amtrak Auto Train is the only train in the U.S. that enables passengers to travel with their vehicles.
The discussion led Porta to investigate the rail service’s potential for tourism that could benefit Occoquan. The Auto Train has been a Lorton fixture for three decades. During Amtrak’s fiscal year 2011, it had the highest revenue of any long-distance train in the Amtrak system, according to Amtrak. It carried 250,000
passengers that fiscal year.
OTC’s sightseeing shuttle service transports passengers waiting at the Lorton station to Occoquan to eat, Shop and relax before starting on their journey south at 2:30 p.m. by Auto Train, an 855-mile-long train service between Lorton and Sanford, Fl.,near Orlando. Besides Occoquan, the shuttle also stops at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton.
Prince William Living caught up with Mayor Porta for the complete story on his innovative niche company. What follows are excerpts from the interview, edited for length and clarity.
PWL: What steps did you undertake to ensure your idea could be accomplished?
Porta: I researched the Auto Train through Amtrak’s annual reports and other sources. I sat at the station a few days to get a sense of the flow of people and then scouted out possible sightseeing destinations in both Fairfax and Prince William County. Given the amount of time people have at the station, Occoquan and the Workhouse Arts Center seemed to be the most appropriate destinations.
I opened discussions with Amtrak in early 2013. They were enthusiastic about the idea and let me test-run some shuttles and routes in the spring of 2013. That worked out. I bought a bus, received regulatory approvals and started regular operations in mid-October 2013.
PWL: What is your routine or process during the tour?
Porta: I essentially have scheduled runs at 12:30 p.m. and 1 p.m., based on demand, and operate Wednesday through Sunday. I go into the station and make an announcement describing the service. People pay $5 for a round trip. I narrate a tour on the trip, telling them about the Workhouse Arts Center, including its history as a location where suffragists were imprisoned. I also reference the Suffragist Memorial being built at Occoquan Regional Park.
As we approach Occoquan, I talk about the town’s history and do a quick tour of the town’s 6-square block historic district, pointing out not only historical sites and features, but various restaurants and shops. I drop off people at the Tourist Information Center or the Mill House Museum, and then pick them up 60 to 90 minutes later at the Tourist Information Center. I also drop off people and pick them up at the Workhouse Arts Center.
PWL: What challenges had to be overcome in starting your venture?
Porta: The biggest hurdles were regulatory. The regulatory requirements themselves are not particularly onerous, but it takes the state time to process things. Additionally, the required insurance is a significant expense.
PWL: What numbers have you seen in shuttle passengers and subsequent increases in tourism for Occoquan?
Porta: I keep track of the exact number of passengers, their stop, if they have been to Occoquan before, and if they ate and/or shopped in town. Through May 22, 2014, I have had 1,643 passengers, and 1,525 were first-time visitors to Occoquan. More than 75 percent of them have eaten while in town and just under 20 percent have shopped. I also ask each passenger for feedback on their experiences in town. Most have been very pleased and speak well of most of the businesses and individuals they have encountered.
PWL: What is the most effective way to get this service in front of potential customers?
Porta: The best way is at the station and when they are purchasing tickets. I have heard from passengers, particularly those who take the Auto Train annually or regularly, that if they had known about the service in advance, they would have loaded their cars early, at 11:30 a.m., and spent a couple of hours in town.
As it is now, those who are experienced Auto Train travelers arrive closer to 1 p.m. so that they do not have to spend so much time in the station, and that does not leave them as much time as they would like to spend in town. I am working with Amtrak to get information about the service out to people with the email ticket confirmations.
Additionally, there are a handful of Occoquan businesses who advertise with pamphlets or signs on the shuttle. This makes a difference. People have a limited amount of time to spend here,and it’s clear they gravitate toward those places about which they have information. Blue Arbor Cafe has done a good job with this, and the folks at Puzzle Palooza actually come out of their store and welcome passengers. That has definitely generated customers for them.
PWL: What is your vision for The Occoquan Transportation Company?
Porta: I would like to expand the service with an earlier run, but that will depend upon being able to get more people to arrive at the Auto Train station earlier. Additionally, I would like to add Monday and Tuesday service. I’ve tried it a few times, but right now, frankly, a number of Occoquan businesses are closed on those days, which limits the options for passengers.
PWL: Your advice to those considering starting a tourism endeavor?
Porta: Test or evaluate anecdote, intuition or sentiment with real data to see if an idea makes economic sense. It’s very easy to get seduced by the romance of an idea. Also, offer something customers want at a price they think is reasonable and at a time and location that is convenient for them. In addition, don’t hesitate to seek advice from or emulate business people you admire.
As a certified massage therapist, freelance writer Jennifer Rader enjoys studying nutrition, wellness, fundraising and entrepreneurship as well as writing on various topics within her interests. She lives with her son and husband in Manassas. Rader can be reached at [email protected].