Note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Penn State Alumni Association's monthly member e-newsletter.
Once Todd Miner, Class of 1992 and 1995, saw the human-powered tricycle, his imagination did the rest.
Miner, a meteorologist by trade, was visiting family in California a few years ago when he spotted a rickshaw, one of those two-wheeled bicycle taxis once made popular in a “Seinfeld” episode.
It was a seminal moment for Miner, who decided the conveyance could be his next career venture at Penn State. He previously worked for Penn State’s Department of Meteorology as an instructor and manager for the New York Times weather page project. When the Times project moved to AccuWeather in 2010, he began working at the nationally renowned weather station located in State College. Shortly after, he decided to make a dramatic career shift.
“I wasn’t getting younger and I knew if there was a time in my life to try something really different, it was now,” Miner said.
All of this brings us to the present, and Miner’s successful venture that combines convenience and contrivance, resulting in a courtly manner of transportation: Vamos! Lion Chariot, State College’s only pedicab touring service.
If you live near the University Park campus, or have visited within the last few years, there’s a decent chance you’ve seen Miner or another lion chariot driver maneuvering a rickshaw around town or through campus. Often, one of the chariots is decorated for the holidays. The company is offering “sleigh ride” tours downtown — a promotion that continues through January — and previously gave spooky-themed Halloween rides on campus, in addition to offering informational sightseeing campus tours.
Miner also partnered with the Alumni Association’s Lion Ambassadors last year for a caravan tour of the campus for a half-dozen people. They planned a 50-minute tour, meeting at the Lion Shrine, visiting campus landmarks and stopping at various points to talk more about Penn State.
Miner bought his first trike in April 2012 and now has several in the fleet. All will be in use later this year, when Lion Chariot caters its first Penn State wedding. While wearing proper attire, Miner and other drivers will drop off the wedding party at The Arboretum at Penn State for the ceremony and afterwards take the newlyweds around campus for what he called “a victory lap.”
Miner estimated he and his drivers transported more than 1,000 Nittany Lion football fans to and from Beaver Stadium this season. He especially enjoys helping fans who are older or need physical assistance, many of who call ahead and reserve their pickup.
“You really feel like you are making a positive difference when people tell you that if it weren’t for your services, they couldn’t have attended the game,” Miner said.
Everything has combined to make this a viable, long-term business venture. That was Miner’s hope at the beginning, and he figured he had a legitimate chance, especially in a town like State College that encourages sustainable operations since the human-powered Lion Chariots don’t consume or emit any gas or fumes.
“I thought that given a progressive college community, people would be supportive and want to travel in an environmentally friendly, low-impact way — which they do,” Miner said. “Also, I was pleasantly surprised with how this entertainment aspect has become the dominant aspect of the business. It drives where it's growing.”
“I thought that given a progressive college community, people would be supportive and want to travel in an environmentally friendly, low-impact way — which they do." -- Todd Miner, Vamos! Lion Chariot business owner
Since he’s not a businessman by trade, Miner sought help when he started. He received assistance from Penn State’s Small Business Development Center and soaked up advice from others, including partnerships with Penn State marketing classes and special student consulting groups like Happy Valley Communications and the IST consulting group, who helped with Lion Chariot promotions and created the company app.
“I was wading through waters that I wasn't familiar with, so I was blessed to receive the advice of those who knew more about such things,” he said.
The Lion Chariots typically stay within the boundaries of campus and within a few blocks of downtown, though last summer Miner and his crew brought two chariots to an organic farm festival in Centre Hall and more recently to a special fundraising event sponsored by The Pink Zone in Potters Mills.
The experience is part entertainment, part convenience and always fun. The website says the chariot rides are “transportainment,” a moshpit of a word that describes the chariots perfectly Miner said, though he acknowledges that “often times, we’re more about entertainment.”
“We are constantly uncovering new marketplaces: returning alums and their families who are looking to tour campus, older alums who want to see all that’s new, first-time visitors,” Miner said. “Students also constitute a big portion of riders, with the Lion Chariot offering special date-ride packages. We pick up the students at their apartment and take them downtown, while playing music and offering candy and long-stemmed roses for the lady.”
He concluded: “Our goal is to create an experience for our passengers, and not have it just be a ride. We’ve had hundreds of customers tell us their chariot ride was the ‘highlight of their day.’ It’s really a neat operation because it transcends generations, conducive for kids from ages 1 to 92.”