Frustrated by a tour and travel marketplace that hasn’t been a good match for his skills in recent years, Eric Thomas, the one-time executive vice president of the northern New Jersey-based, family-held City Tours USA, one of the largest privately held receptive tour operators in the United States, borrowed a page from the history of his father, Albert Thomas Sr., who came to the United States from Argentina in the early 1970s and, then in his fifties, launched what became City Tours with the purchase of a single limousine.
Eric made somewhat the same move earlier this year after leaving Tour Hero, a travel company that had hired him in the spring of 2014, and, after taking on a job as a driver at a limousine service. He soon got the idea to start his own business and purchased his own specially equipped Cadillac Escalade to get things going. One of his first customers: City Tours, which signed him up to handle the transportation of arriving international VIP clients. Then came August, when a cluster of City Tours employees took their own vacations. So the company/family asked Eric if he couldn’t handle the shuttle bus detail temporarily.
Then, at 4:36 a.m. on August 8, he posted a photo of part of a City Tours shuttle bus with this comment: “Life offers some strange twists. I started driving for this company at 17 and here it is 35 years later and a 4:15 am starting my first pickup of the day!” When asked by one friend what this meant, Eric wrote: “Doing work for the family.”
They Liked It: The message must have touched a chord. By mid-day, some 70 friends “liked” the post and another 25 made comments, in English and in Spanish that were sometimes funny, sometimes incredulous. But most of them were supportive or laudatory: “Keep on truckin, brother!” wrote Tony Alvarado. “It is in your blood and mine too! I remember when we all started behind the wheel. I started with the airport shuttle from the Doral Hotel and have many good memories of connecting with the passengers.”
Wrote Patricia Garcia Aristizabal from Washington DC: “If one day you need a driver for you to take holidays, I offer to help you and have an American license.” And Hernan Betancourt commented, “I lived great moments with great partners in this great company. Greetings to you, your parents and the rest of the family of City Tours!”
How This All Came to Be: Eric is one of five sons of Albert Thomas who became the success story that is City Tours: Besides Eric, the others are Ray Thomas, president of the company; Albert Thomas Jr.; Andrew Thomas, who works out of Miami; and Gus Thomas, who died at the age of 54 in January 2011 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
The elder Albert Thomas is a colorful character. He was once a body guard for Juan Perón, who was twice the president of Argentina (1946-54 and 1973-74) and known by younger generations as the husband of Eva “Evita” Perón , the charismatic woman who has achieved in death an almost cult-like status. (Whatever you do, do not consider the musical or film “Evita” as a basis for any factual interpretation of Eva Perón.)
Though he left the business in the mid-1990s, the 92-year-old Albert Thomas Sr. is still quite active, Eric told us, as is his wife, Martha, who is 87. As the sons carried on and grew the enterprise, differences in the approach to business emerged between Eric and his brothers. Known to be the more voluble, animated and push-the-edge way-of-doing-things of the brothers, Eric eventually parted ways in 2006 and the following year, opened his own receptive tour operation, CANAM.
After a good first year came the 2008-09 great recession, which destroyed, gobbled up and wasted many tour and travel industry companies, including CANAM. Despite putting all his energy into keeping it afloat, the company folded in early 2011. His skill set well-known—particularly in IT solutions for B2B operations and in logistics—Thomas became, in short order, vice president, AmericanTours International South, working out of Orlando and establishing an ATI presence in the market. The experience lasted a little more than a year. Somewhat the same experience occurred with Accommodations Plus International, a New York City-based company trying to grow out of its crew-traffic market niche. There followed a similar tenure with Tour Hero, which he left, he told Inbound, “by mutual agreement.”
Reflecting upon his record at the different companies since his CANAM venture ended, Thomas told us wryly, “I guess I’ve done a pretty good job of setting things up and restructuring myself right out of a position.”
How Long Does it Take to Escape from New York? One wonders, following all of this, what would push someone to the point that, as their livelihood, they would want to negotiate Manhattan traffic every day—he said that he has to slot at least three-and-a-half hours for a pickup and/or drop-off at JFK Airport from midtown—but Thomas sees it as a challenge for which he can develop some logistical answer. It is also something that, as a self-employed contractor, makes him the president, CEO, COO and chief sales and marketing officer of the business. He answers to himself.
But he’s not stopping there. He’s developing a platform through which the 150 freelancing limo operations in New York City can use to accept a call, or make a bid on, a pick up at one the New York area’s three major airports: JFK, La Guardia and Liberty International in Newark.
In sum, this episode reminds one that much of the tour and travel industry in the U.S. is operated by families or is family-held. And in this instance, one family member still depended on other family members to … keep it in the family.