The same career doesn’t always continue to fit as we live through the chapters of our changing lives. Dee Elias meandered through several occupations before deciding to put her touring to use.
Raised in Cleveland, Elias had numerous careers over the years. She started out as a legal assistant and then joined American Airlines as a flight attendant for the next nine years.
“I enjoyed meeting passengers from different cultures and hearing all the languages,” Elias said. “I’m also incredibly patient, so the customer service aspect wasn’t that hard.”
Next, Elias made the transition to real estate for several years while becoming a certified aerobics instructor with Jacki Sorensen, the precursor to Jazzercise. She later attended Fresno State University, earning a degree in physical therapy — a career that would land her at Kaiser Permanente for the next 18 years. Wanting to be closer to family, she relocated to Santa Barbara and worked as a therapist at Sansum Clinic, followed by several years working as an in-home physical therapist.
Elias says she woke up one day yearning for change.
“I wanted to be with happy people — to spend my days having more fun, but I wasn’t sure how to make that happen,” she said.
Elias left for a monthlong soul-searching voyage to Bali to get clarity. During her trip, she volunteered and took numerous tours, which gave her the idea for her next life chapter. Dee Tours, a Santa Barbara and wine country tour operation, was born.
Elias knew she needed help creating a business, so she signed up with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE, which provides no-cost professional guidance and information to small-business owners. Her volunteer mentor, Ralph Luikart, met with Elias weekly to offer advice on a range of business basics, from establishing her company name and logo to preparing a business plan, purchasing vehicles, marketing and permits.
“I couldn’t have done it without SCORE,” Elias said. “They really gave me the support and motivation needed to get this business going.”
An Internet search yielded a cherry-red 21-foot limousine Jeep Wrangler that Elias knew immediately must be her signature vehicle. She bought the Jeep — the moment she considers her real commitment to the idea — and the rest fell into place.
Dee Tours launched in July 2010, complete with a ribbon-cutting by Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider.
Elias initially focused on city tours but soon expanded to wine country tours after repeated requests. She now does a variety of trips, which can include wineries, breweries, gardens, bakeries or other ideas from passengers. She provides a picnic lunch and plenty of local history.
She said business has been steadily building in the year since the launch of Dee Tours. While some bookings come from local hotel concierge, Elias attributes most of her business to referrals from clients who spread the word. She also notes her position (No. 8) on TripAdvisor with positive reviews, in addition to her alliances with the tourist bureau and CarFree.org, as well as membership in the Santa Barbara Downtown Organization and the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce. She recently enlisted Meg Barbour, a local social media maven, for online support.
Elias runs the business with her boyfriend, Alex Glendinning. They have decided to keep it small — currently they have a fleet of two Jeeps — so they can give guests the personal touch.
“We love meeting people and customize our tours based who shows up,” she said. “That would be hard to manage with a bigger staff.”
Acknowledging that the past year in business has been a steep learning curve, Elias continually refines her business strategy and offerings. In addition to city and winery tours, she also took locals to see stunning house lights during the winter holiday. Click here for prices and tour options.