With so much to see and learn about in Northeast Florida, you can’t overstate the value of a knowledgeable tour guide. That’s why visitors, newcomers and even some longtime residents wanting to take a deeper look into The First Coast turn to Gary Sass, president of AdLib Luxury Tours & Transportation Inc. and Jacksonville Walking & Neighborhood Tours. Recently, he gave us a look behind the scenes of his unusual business.
Tell me a little about AdLib Luxury Tours & Transportation. What does it offer?
“AdLib” is a personalized tour company. We “AdLib” or customize the tour to fit the guests. After all, it is their tour, not our tour so why not make it specific to their interests.
We offer over 100 different base tours throughout North Florida and Cumberland Island. A personalized tour could be for two people with a pickup at their house or it could even be for 500 people arriving on a cruise ship served by our team of guides. Because we are also a transportation company, we can contract for vehicles as needed.
To date, we have toured guests from 108 different countries visiting our area. While I am technically a local historian, the focus is to create the most entertaining tour.
How do you personalize a tour?
It starts with some friendly interaction to understand the customer and their interest. The tour could be planned in advance, or it could be designed on the fly. Once I have the information, I start telling the stories that best connect with the customer.
I like to say I have a thousand stories, however, the 15 stories I tell that day should strike the most responsive chords. For example, I received a call from a new resident of an area of Jacksonville called Avondale and they wanted a tour of their neighborhood. Unbeknownst to everyone, my research revealed their new home was built and lived in by a famous local architect named Sheftall. During the tour, I connected their house to many other Sheftall structures in the community. At the end, I gave them all my research so they could tell the stories to their friends.
Often, I personalize a tour by stopping to do a chocolate tasting or a wine tasting. We may stop for photographs, go into buildings or do anything the customer finds enjoyable. We have an amazing First Coast, and my challenge is to delight guests by connecting them to it.
I see you dress in different outfits. Is that part of your style?
Absolutely; I am like a human prop on a tour. I often dress the part to talk about the culture from that period. To be the most entertaining, the cultural stories are usually better than the historical ones. I carry about 20 different props to share such as old photographs, postcards, maps and I even have a silver piece of eight from a Spanish shipwreck to be more interactive.
What is your most popular tour?
Often, I get a phone call asking, “Are you that guy that goes into the secret tunnels in Jacksonville?” I respond, “Yes, you found me.”
Most of our tours are private. However, we do have one public walking tour on Tuesdays called Jacksonville “Top to Bottom” where we take people into a secret 1909 bank vault. Because we offer this tour to the public on a weekly basis and also to private groups, it is our most popular.
Do you tour Ponte Vedra Beach?
Definitely; our area has an incredible story and locals want to know it. Before he died, Sid Mickler gave me his personal tour of Ponte Vedra/Palm Valley and that became the start of a more comprehensive tour. More often though, I will get a request for a “Beaches Area Tour” which I combine Ponte Vedra Beach with Jacksonville Beach, Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach.
How did you get into this kind of work?
Eighteen years ago, my wife Susan and I decided to live in the perfect place with our two small girls. When I saw Mickler’s Beach and met Mr. Parrish at Ocean Palms Elementary, I knew we found it. After we arrived, we tried to take a personalized tour since my wife and I had taken them around the world during my software consulting days. To our surprise, there was no such service in North Florida, so we created it.
Can you elaborate on your travel adventures I read in the Ponte Vedra Recorder?
I like to call myself the History Hiker because I research the area before taking the journey and enjoy writing about it. In the past, I hiked sections of the Appalachian Trail and Florida Trail. This summer I walked the Portuguese Camino and spent time in Pontevedra, Spain. That is no coincidence. I decided on this particular route which went through Pontevedra because I wanted to learn about our community’s namesake in the Galicia area of Spain. Pontevedra is a remarkable city (also the name of the Province) and one of the most pedestrian-friendly places I have ever visited. Since returning, I have given presentations on Pontevedra, Spain.
What is next?
I will continue to give personalized tours and presentations since I enjoy it so much. However, it is time to start making the transition to being a writer. My wife and I are now empty nesters, so it is easier to combine my love of long-distance hiking and writing. There are several books in various stages that I started so all I can say is, “Stay tuned.”