- Luke Awtry
- Tinotenda "Tino" Charles Rutanhira and his tour bus
Each year, Tinotenda "Tino" Charles Rutanhira challenges himself to take on a new project that pushes him outside of his comfort zone. In 2016, he launched a podcast series called "On the Shoulders of Giants," in which he interviewed Vermont luminaries; that series ran for nearly four years. In 2018, Rutanhira, who hadn't acted in a play since he was a child, landed a starring role in Vermont Stage's theatrical production of The Call. Last year, the Zimbabwe native helped found a nonprofit networking group for Vermont's professionals of color.
But this year's challenge is one that Rutanhira didn't choose — trying to get to 2021 without his tour company going bust.
In 2017 Rutanhira started his first business, called Best in VT Tours & Charter. It offers guided trips to northern Vermont breweries, wineries and distilleries, as well as chartered van and bus transportation for private parties and company events. His tours have no fixed itinerary, he noted, but can include wineries, distilleries, restaurants, even hipster dive bars.
Rutanhira, who moved to Vermont in 2000 and is now a single dad, said he launched the business, in part, as a way to earn extra money for his now-15-year-old daughter's college education. A gregarious fellow, he does all the driving and enjoys chatting with his passengers, whether he's talking about soccer — he plays recreationally on weekends — or about life in Zimbabwe. Fans of Burlington's South End Art Hop may remember Rutanhira piloting the 2019 "bunny bus" shuttle, which Seven Days sponsored.
Best in VT Tours & Charter turned a profit for the first time in 2019, and Rutanhira expected to do even better this year. Normally, business is slow throughout the winter, he said, then picks up again in the spring as people begin planning their weddings, bachelor and bachelorette parties, graduations, and corporate retreats.
"But as soon as the pandemic hit, it all just dried up," he lamented. "We're talking not a single inquiry, not a single email. It's essentially been like that ever since."
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Rutanhira assumed he could just press the pause button on his home-based South Burlington business, ride out the governor's stay-at-home order, and then restart his tours once Vermont's drinking establishments and wedding venues were allowed to open again.
However, he soon realized that plan was untenable. Liability insurance on chartered vehicles is expensive, especially when no revenue is coming in, he said. And after the governor extended the ban on large public gatherings and on-premises food and alcohol consumption, Rutanhira's revenue stream effectively disappeared. He applied for federal assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program but was declined because his company is too small and has no other employees. Rutanhira is waiting to hear whether he qualifies for a state program providing assistance to businesses that lost at least 75 percent of their revenue this year.
By late June, even as Vermont reported low numbers of COVID-19 cases and the economy gradually reopened, Rutanhira said he had received just five inquiries from new clients. Despite the year's catastrophic losses, however, he decided not to accept any new business, mostly in the interest of protecting the health of his passengers, his family and himself.
"Personally, I just feel like I don't want to risk people's lives, especially since everybody is going to be inside the van," he explained. "And I don't feel like my business is large enough that if somebody got sick ... I could withstand a lawsuit."
As for the remainder of 2020, Rutanhira said he's taking a wait-and-see approach but, realistically, he doesn't expect to reopen until next spring. In the meantime, he continues to work a full-time job as a product manager at Dealer.com.
Despite the setbacks, Rutanhira seems to be taking the pandemic in stride, trying not to let it dampen his spirits. Having grown up in Africa, he said he has a different mindset than what he's seen in Americans. In Zimbabwe, Rutanhira noted, periodic outbreaks of potentially deadly diseases — including cholera, malaria, typhoid and African sleeping sickness — were commonplace.
"They were always out there in your life," he said. "I think it's made me a little more resilient [and] less fearful."
Rutanhira said he never saw his fellow Zimbabweans hoarding toilet paper or stockpiling their pantries with a year's supply of food during an epidemic. "Not to be critical," he said, "but that was a quintessentially American attitude."
Rutanhira added that, if his business ultimately goes bust, he plans to just move on to his next project, whatever that might be.
"I still want to know what I'm supposed to be when I grow up," he said with a laugh. "And the only way to find it is to go out and try new stuff."