Customized tours: Rod Minarik turns his driving into fun

Rod Minarik takes along his mini-poodle MarZ when his passengers are OK with it, but normally she stays at home while he’s driving.

Rod Minarik likes to drive. In fact, it was a trip “passing through” Oregon with a 35-foot trailer that changed his life.

He’s originally from southern California, but 17 years ago, he was just expecting to pass through Oregon on a tour when he quickly realized his trailer was too big. So he parked it in Eugene and stayed awhile.

“I like Eugene,” he says. “It’s the right size.”

But the 75-year-old also realized there wasn’t as much social activity here as he was used to.

“There’s also not a lot going on sometimes,” he says. “Not the right kind of events or the really nice restaurant you want to go to. That’s why the driving is appealing, because I live here but I get to experience Portland, where there’s always something exciting happening.”

He’s referring to his new business, Eugene Star Tours, which offers customized tours to just about any place you want to go. It’s a natural extension of his varied careers.

Minarik has been a programmer, a cab driver, a driver for the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft, and a website developer, mostly in the tele-messaging business. Most of that work is in the form of call centers and telephone answering services.

Like many others, he has found ways to supplement his income. He drove a taxicab in Eugene for 12 years and when Uber came to town, he drove for that company. But in April 2015, Uber pulled its service from Eugene after the city charged the company thousands of dollars in fines for violating city code.

The city said that for Uber to legally operate within the city limits, it was required to have a public passenger vehicle company license, the same that is required of taxicabs. After Uber faced a penalty of $1,500 a day to continue its operation in Eugene, the ride service decided to leave.

But larger cities, like Portland, welcomed the ride-sharing services, so Minarik has been driving from his home in Eugene to drive for Uber and Lyft in Portland.

Last year, he came up with the idea of taking passengers around on customized tours, from Eugene to Portland, Corvallis, the Oregon Coast, Salem, Woodburn Company Stores, sporting events, and more.

He started Eugene Star Tours with the hopes of providing an alternative to the transportation market that can be expensive, crowded and inconvenient.

“There’s not really an easy way for people to get to Portland and have a good time,” Minarik says of some other transportation options. “You can take the train or bus, or a bus like Bolt, but you have to get to the station and be on their schedule.”

Amtrak provides two round-trip routes from Eugene to Portland daily, but Minarik argues that it takes nearly three hours each way, the trains can be late and make several stops en route.

Additionally, the BoltBus (operated by Greyhound) goes from Eugene to Albany and Portland, and costs a minimal $30, but also takes up to 2 ½ hours to get to Portland.

Minarik sees multiple problems with these options: They take too long, they don’t stop at the rider’s convenience, and the rider can’t be on his or her own schedule. What about potty breaks, or an opportunity to stop at shops or other attractions along the route? And what of the added expense of getting from your home to the train or bus station?

He believes his business solves these problems by offering convenience and door-to-door service. Minarik charges $125 per person, or $200 per couple. Seniors and veterans receive a 30 percent discount. He believes the prices are reasonable, considering a rider doesn’t have to spend extra money on a hotel, and gets to choose individualized schedules and stops.

“The best way to get up to Portland and back, and have fun at the same time, is to have a designated driver,” he says. “I can run people up and back. The whole idea is ‘customized tours.’ I’m on your schedule. I go where you want to go. We stop where you want to stop.”

He understands older adults might not feel safe taking a night bus or train, and they might not want to wait at a station with their luggage and bags. Limousines offer a similar service as Minarik’s, but at a much-higher cost and not what someone wants to pay for a day trip to go shopping and have lunch. Those who take their own cars also have to deal with finding a place to park and fighting through Portland traffic.

Minarik says there are endless ways to take advantage of a private car service, including bridal showers, wedding parties, music eve-nts, special anniversary dinners or sporting events, like attending a Blazer basketball game. Grandparents who want to plan a fun trip with their grandchildren without having to be responsible for driving could arrange a trip to The Oregon Zoo or OMSI in Portland. He also believes his service is ideal for those who want to visit out-of-town wineries and breweries.

“You don’t want to drive if you’re going to have a glass of wine at every stop along the way all day,” he says. “If there’s a certain neighborhood in Portland where you want to go eat and shop, I’ll drop you off right in that neighborhood and pick you back up whenever you’re done.”

While passengers on the BoltBus might have to share with 59 other riders, Minarik’s tours offer a more intimate and personal experience. You can chat, ask for a rest stop or do your own thing while someone else drives.

Minarik has a new, clean and comfortable 12-passenger Ford Transit and a Toyota Sienna that can carry six passengers.

“I advertise that I’m willing to take people wherever they want to go and back the same day,” he says. “This eliminates the extra expense of getting a hotel or motel, or a cab to get around. You can go up for breakfast, lunch and dinner and whatever you want to do in between and be back the same day.”

Of course, businesses don’t always work out as perfectly as you imagined them. Minarik doesn’t like having to promote his business and he’s looking for partners who might want to help out or take over, so he can just be in the driver’s seat.

“I just want to be driving,” he says. “I’m a developer, I’m a creative. I like to drive. It keeps me talking to people and keeps me from getting too introverted.”

With Eugene Star Tours, Minarik says he can share some of those experiences with other people who can’t drive, or don’t want to drive.

“I want to offer a unique alternative one-day excursion to events, in Portland or wherever people want to go, bottom line,” Minarik says.

Cutline & photo credit: photo by Vanessa Salvia

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