This final installment of this series provides the rewards for reading the first six: Starting-point ideas about things the motorcoach industry can do defend its density against intrusion from Transportation Network Companies (like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar), which have already begun plunging into the charter and tour sectors, mostly with medium-sized, body-on-chassis vehicles. It also includes things that would help increase profits and create new service opportunities - and compete with new, legitimate players penetrating the market.
In stating this, my research into TNCs, and particularly my experience attending the last BusCon Conference and reviewing a year's worth of Limousine, Charter and Tours magazines, taught me much. These venues and forums revealed an explosion of interest among limousine companies about expanding much further into at least the charter and tour sectors of the motorcoach industry. The TNCs' army of starving owner-operators are not likely to buy new, high-end, integral motorcoaches. Unlike these management-less, driver-and-app-only structures, many or most limousine operations are highly professional - with more expertise in customer service than most motorcoach companies have.
Thankfully, none of these companies (legitimate or TNCs) can any longer operate under the Independent Contractor model, at least in theory, since the FEDEX settlement in the 10th Circuit Court (see Part 4 of this series) rendered the concept of an Independent Contractor" illegal. Of course, actual enforcement of this ruling could take years. Regardless, even if the motorcoach industry does a far better job keeping the TNCs at bay than the taxi and limousine industries did, competition in the motorcoach industry is still growing. Trade magazines are thickening. Trade shows and conferences are expanding. Each magazine and trade show reveals more new variety in terms of products and technology, just not much in the way of new services.
What this means is that the motorcoach industry must adapt. This is a major challenge for an industry that changes like the Tar Baby stuck in molasses, and often adapts in questionable ways (see "The Party Bus" in NATIONAL BUS TRADER, October, 2014). We have also made some magnificent adaptations. Think Me gabus. Think double-deckers doing long intercity runs between major cities. Think about our magnificent air quality improvement - although, in fairness, this was driven far more by the air quality concerns of the trucks that outnumber us 100 to 1 (or greater). There are many, many workable and profitable changes our industry can make, and a wide range of innovative things we have not yet thought of.
Ideas, Survival and Profits
Expanding time and space. There are actually things we can do, and do safely, that would increase the area a vehicle can safely cover in a single shift. This is because we have the technology to prove that a driver has taken a legitimate nap. I refer the readers to "Pi R Squared" in NATIONAL BUS TRADER, August, 2003). With a provable nap, I think driving for 12 hours within an 18-hour span would be safer than what we are doing now - if it can be proven that this shift was split by at least a serious power-nap." This span would make certain types of day-trips possible that are currently out of the question in most parts of the country.
With three or four hours driving, and 10 more hours "on-duty, non-driving," a motorcoach can serve Disneyland from a cluster of pick-up / drop-off points in adjacent Los Angeles County - leaving the customers 10 full hours to roam around in Tomorrowland. An 18-hour span for such trips would not only allow for either hours of pick-ups and drop-offs - or more if the time passengers spend at a destination is less (think: football game, baseball game, rock concert). In the meantime, the driver could squeeze in a full 10 hours sleep - or at least one heck of a nap.
The four traditional sectors - charter, tour, intercity and commuter / express - are almost certain to continue dominating the motorcoach landscape for some time. Yet installments #2 through # 11 of the NATIONAL BUS TRADER series "Making More Money" (February through December, 2013) illustrate 10 completely new uses for motorcoaches, in almost every sector. I am not talking about a party bus, a funeral bus, a dance bus or a brothel bus. I am talking about 10 serious uses of a motorcoach rarely seen, and many of which would, in their own ways, earn higher profits than any traditional motorcoach services would. To save the reader some time, and to help those who missed all or parts of this series, I am talking about:
- The Entertainment Bus
- The Foreclosure Bus
- The Classroom Extension Bus
- The Lecture Bus
- The Bingo Bus
- The Prayer Bus
- The Valet/ Errand Bus
- The Evacuation Bus
- The Conference Motortel
- The Homeless Bus
Some of these services have actually been going on - like realtors leasing mid-size buses to show potential home-buying bargain hunters the deals available since the Housing Crash of 2008 began. It is just that the motorcoach industry is not taking the lead in this or any other new approaches. While there may be only a limited demand for most of these fringe services, there is also no supply. Opportunity awaits those willing to get off the couch.
This form of motorcoach service is not new. It is just not common. For decades, motorcoaches have served airports from and to park-and-ride facilities and other collector points like the San Fernando Valley's famous "Fly-Away" service that transports airline passengers (and employees and visitors) to and from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Similarly, AMT RAK engages regional motorcoach
carriers around the country to "feed" major rail stations, particularly those isolated from transit services and / or too far for affordable taxi service and the combined costs of driving and parking. Motorcoaches need not merely serve places and things that do not move. They can provide service to and from other transportation services.
Beyond the easy and obviously-needed feeder service to airports and AMTRAK stations just cited, I noted in an earlier installment in this series a far more dazzling example of intermodal coordination traveling far below the radar. This one involved a tri-county paratransit system in the Florida Panhandle (operating completely manually) providing feeder services to and from motorcoaches traveling along the Interstate 10 corridor (mostly between Orlando and Biloxi) with five or fewer minutes of connection time - far less than most transit passengers spend waiting for the bus they will transfer to.
We have been deploying motorcoaches for this purpose for decades - just not enough of it. Most existing services of this type lie in the transit sector, and focus on pick-ups and drop-offs at "park-and-ride" lots. Most involve large vehicles (buses and motorcoaches alike) in commuter / express service, more recently operating on bus-on-freeway exclusive guideways. Yet particularly with smaller-sized motorcoaches stuffed with amenities, there is no reason this mode would not earn profits in even medium-density areas in an intelligent "service concept," such as operating with close frequencies within narrow corridors.
I would direct readers to Part 2 of this series to see how SuperShuttle emerged out of thin air to make enormous profits almost immediately - until the Los Angeles County Public Utilities Commission ruined it by allowing competitors to operate service of the same type without any service concept" - harming the passengers in the process. Such services need not serve only airports or metropolises. Nor need they operate only during peak hours, providing mostly work trips. There are many great places to see in this country, but increasingly too costly for many of our citizens to get to by private automobile even during those periods where gasoline is relatively cheap.
Demand Responsive Motorcoach Service
While advanced reservations would instinctively seem to improve efficiency, this is only for a motorcoach provider who does not understand operations. If you can deviate a reasonable degree tolerable to existing passengers, you can capture more passengers - and might be able to collect enough passengers to support a trip what would not have been possible without all of them. While few were noticing, fixed-route / paratransit hybrids have sprung up all over the place, particularly in rural areas, where fixed route services have morphed into "route-deviation" and "point-deviation" modes. With Federal subsidies, these services have enjoyed some financial padding in terms of the efficiency they might otherwise need to sustain themselves. They are also weighed down by the paucity of imagination found in most bureaucracies.
These are only quick handfuls of thoughts NATIONAL BUS TRADER readers are getting for free. I am not your marketing director. If you want more details, you can hire me. Otherwise, you have your own marketing staff. We are exposed to something like 10,000 pieces of advertising a day. Is it not possible to put down your phone for a few minutes, grab a note pad, a pencil, a calculator and a latté, sit down, think about the life's worth of knowledge and experience you have accumulated, and simply use the gifts God gave you to think about how to do a few of these things with or on a motorcoach?
Ends and Means
Travel has usually been employed as the means to an end, but not always. The means and the end are the same on a roller coaster. I am not suggesting that a motorcoach operate like one. But is it inconceivable that a coach can provide something useful along the way - without the passengers having to read, play with their cell phones or watch movies on their I-pads?
Further, why can not motorcoaches be more luxurious? What about 2+1 seating? What about serving food and drinks? Why can we not deliver passengers to multiple services and venues? (Open-deck sightseeing buses have been doing this for their passengers for decades.) Why can we not provide some of these services on board? The small following of some local rock band probably cannot support a night's entertaining in some high-rent district nightclub. However, it should be able to afford the coach fare for a 57-passenger motorcoach, with better seats that you will find at the Metropolitan Opera House, for three hours at a time when the coach is otherwise not even being used, and further, when it will not even have to move during the performance. Since motorcoaches can bring people to things, why can we not bring things to people? Why can we not bring them to people while they are riding?
Sure, I am way out of the box here but inside the box, TNCs nearly wiped out the taxi and limousine industries. While our industry had been lucky to keep the TNCs at bay so far, we will soon be facing competition from the limousine world, whose often professional companies, unlike TNCs, actually have management, monitoring, training, schedulers, dispatchers, reservation clerks, marketing personnel - and increasingly, Web sites and apps, and who pay their drivers expenses (like fuel, maintenance, insurance and licensing fees) not to mention a living. Oh, yes. They also provide their drivers with their vehicles.
One wonder of our industry has been the consistency, longevity and reasonable growth of so many medium-sized, family-owned motorcoach businesses over more than half a century. Things are changing. Frankly, those companies likely to prosper in the future will not prosper because of loyalty and tradition. They will prosper because of better technology. They will prosper because of better coordination including a universal "app" that becomes household word. They will prosper because their safety is accountable - not some sleight-of-hand illusion of fatigue management. Mostly they will prosper because they figure out how to milk the most efficiency out of time and space. Mostly because someone in their midst applies some creative thought to all this, gets off the couch, grabs his or her idea by the horn, shoehorns some investment resources into it, and begins the one stage where most great ideas fall out: The stage that involves some hard work. Hope to see a lot of you offering some new wares. Hope to see a lot of you making some money. Hope not to find those of you unwilling to do these things selling fast-food because you-know-who told you so.