Although hippies, mood rings, and long-haired rock ‘n’ rollers aren’t as easy to spot these days in the City by the Bay, the spirit of 1967 can still be found. Perhaps no one has kept that spirit more alive than San Francisco local Allan Graves, founder and CEO of San Francisco Love Tours.
We grabbed some time with him to learn how he got his start building one of the most unique tour companies for travelers to San Francisco, a company that celebrates a truly iconic moment in San Francisco history.
Q&A With Allan
TripAdvisor: Take us back to the very beginning. Before you had the idea to start a tour company featuring a VW bus, we heard that you bought your first one “on a whim.” But can you explain that “whim” a bit more for us?
Allan Graves: I’ve always had a thing for Volkswagens. When I first moved to San Francisco from Costa Rica, I was 12 years old and my uncle had an old yellow VW bus. He would take me out exploring in it, so I really got to know the city in a VW.
In the beginning of summer 2014, I was feeling very nostalgic and was looking for a summer vehicle that was cool enough to take to Dolores Park with my family and friends. I was up super late on the internet waiting to start a conference call with my then corporate job’s London office, and I came across an old yellow VW bus for sale.
Immediately, I thought to myself, what if I were to buy a bus, take all my family and friends around the city in it, and go from place to place, making new friends along the way? I’d even joke and say to strangers, “Hop on, hitch a ride with us.” I believed I could take visitors around the city to give them a true local’s perspective and show them all the places I love in San Francisco.
The very next day, my brother and I drove a few hours south to Los Banos, CA and bought the bus.
TA: How did your family react when you drove the VW home for the first time?
AG: It was May 27, 2014. I remember the day exactly because it also happens to be my older brother’s birthday. My family was out to lunch on Union Street celebrating. I had them come outside, and I rolled up honking the horn. Everyone loved it. The bus at the time was yellow, so it reminded everyone of my uncle’s old VW Bug. Immediately my brother and mom hopped in and we took it for a spin around the city.
TA: At what point did you decide that you wanted to move from driving friends and family around San Francisco for fun to building your own full-fledged Love Bus tour?
AG: The very first day I got it, we drove down Union Street and through the Marina and North Beach singing old ‘60s tunes, and everyone smiled at us and flashed us peace signs. The good vibes were contagious. At that moment, I knew this bus was special and that with the right people, narrative, and destinations, the Love Bus would be a hit — something authentic and iconic that belonged in SF.
TA: Who paints the outside of your buses?
AG: From the onset, I knew I wanted to have murals on my bus. I looked around, talked to people, but nothing felt right. Then about two weeks after I bought the bus, I was at Dolores Park detailing the inside when this hippie girl named Madison Tomsic appeared out of nowhere. She told me she owned a VW just like mine and that she’d painted it herself. I checked out her work, fell in love with her art, and asked her if she would paint my bus for me. She painted Love Bus and then every other tour bus of mine thereafter.
TA: The inside of your buses are decked out with shag carpeting, beaded curtains, and more. Was it difficult to find those 1960s icons?
AG: Yes, I have installed every 1960s detail inside of every bus by hand. At first, the biggest challenge was finding the most authentic shag carpets — they have to look and feel just right. There are tons of nylon and synthetic shag carpets out there, so finding the real deal is a challenge.
TA: Pre-Love Bus tour days, do you have a favorite memory of a bystander’s reaction to your bus?
AG: It all happened so quickly. I bought the bus at the end of May and had it painted in June, the weekend before the San Francisco Pride Parade. We drove the bus around during Pride, and I’m not kidding you, hundreds and hundreds of people asked if they could take pictures with the bus. I then started a Kickstarter campaign in August, and by January, my brother and I ran our first tour.
TA: What do you hear most about SF and the Summer of Love (or the 1960s in general) from your Love Bus customers?
AG: Our tour can be very nostalgic for lots of people who were part of the Summer of Love. We’ve really worked on giving the tour a narrative that’s fun, informative, and goes with classic jams from the ‘60s. Lots of people have thanked me for helping them relive an era that was very special to them.
TA: Who has traveled the farthest to take your tour?
TA: Do you ever have locals take the tour?
AG: Yes, we get locals all the time. It’s a great way for locals to show out-of-towners a good time. One of my passengers said that he sold a guitar to Jimi Hendrix during the Summer of Love. Lots of things happen on a Love Tour — we even had a marriage proposal. That was super special.
TA: What’s the difference between giving locals vs. tourists the Love Bus treatment?
AG: Both are so fun. With tourists, San Francisco is such a beautiful city, so it’s rad to show them the iconic, picturesque landmarks they’ve heard about for the first time but in an intimate way. Since our buses are small we get to take them down the streets that big city buses can’t, such as Lombard Street.
When it’s your job to tell people the history of San Francisco, you end up learning so much at the same time. So with locals, it’s amazing to educate people, show them places, and teach them things about their city they never knew. I’ve lived here for over 25 years and didn’t learn any of this stuff until I decided to start a tour company.
TA: What’s the best part of your day-to-day?
TA: Where do you find your tour guides? Tell us a little bit about the process of finding the perfect guide.
AG: All over. Some we have gotten from the International Tourism Management Institute, and others are a result of good old-fashioned grassroots recruiting. The most important thing with our drivers is that they be natural storytellers. They have to be charismatic, witty, smart…oh, and they have to be able to drive a stick shift!
TA: What’s your favorite Love Tour stop, and why?
AG: Dolores Park on a Saturday afternoon, packed with people. You can see the city in the background and see that people just feel free. Everyone’s relaxing and having a good time with family and friends.
TA: Why should a traveler take a San Francisco Love Tour?
AG: We love to educate, entertain, and inspire our guests. The San Francisco Love Tour is all about peace, love, freedom, and adventure.” It’s about leaving our guests with a nostalgic, authentic SF experience they can’t get anywhere else.
TA: Where would you like to see San Francisco Love Tours in five years?
TA: When you have a friend visiting SF for the first time — besides taking your tour, where else do you recommend they visit?
AG: I grew up in the Mission, so first I would say to grab a burrito at Pancho Villa, then head over to The Devil’s Acre in North Beach for a cocktail. Then, if you’re up for a San Francisco classic, check out Beach Blanket Babylon. If you’re in the mood for dressing up, visit The Speakeasy Theater.
TA: What’s your favorite song to play for customers when leading a Love Tour?
AG: My favorite moment on the tour is when we’re leaving the Golden Gate Bridge and I play Janis Joplin’s Me & Bobby McGee. It’s just an epic song with such an iconic SF backdrop.
TA: And YOUR favorite song from the 1960s?
AG: That’s easy. All You Need is Love by the Beatles.
Cheers to that, Allan and thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with us.