KENTWOOD, Mich. — In the past five years, bus operators have witnessed online reservation booking sites grow exponentially, as have limousine operators.
Some of these booking sites are nationally known, respected, solid brokers of bus rides; other online brokers have created multiple problems for bus companies.
Bus operators have become more than frustrated with online brokers who have not paid them at all, or with payments that have taken much longer than agreed-upon terms. Often, the actual trip cost exceeds what operators directly charge their customers.
Another problem: gratuities not being forwarded to drivers, and operators having to pay these tips out of their own revenue. Between 2006 and 2008, BusRates.com tracked reports of fraudulent activities by brokers and updated bus operators so that they could stay well informed, said Mark Greer, president and owner of the Kentwood, Mich., based online reservation site.
BusRates.com offers visitors a booking site built upon a database of charter bus companies in the U.S. and Canada, and is geared toward travel professionals who manage group trips. BusRates.com prides itself on offering visitors the opportunity to be transported by solid, company-owned bus operations.
The website also offers consumers tips on what to look for when booking bus rides, and how to background check legitimate operators including a link to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s “Company Snapshot” webpage. This offers visitors an electronic record of a company’s identification, size, commodity information, and safety record based on U.S. DOT data.
In November 2008, Greer decided to stop posting fraud alerts after receiving a few defamation lawsuit threats. His attorney advised him to discontinue the list since defending the truth of the fraud alerts could become expensive. The problem was that the fraud list was effective. Brokers on the list couldn’t find bus companies to take their trips. Greer’s objective was not to blacklist brokers.
“The intention was to get people to pay people they owed, and to get bus companies to take payment upfront,” he said.
BusRates.com received a lot of praise for putting out reports on nonpayment by brokers and for making a difference in the industry. The report was helping bus companies avoid going unpaid for trips. It provided an incentive for non-payers to make good with payments and avoid being listed.
Greer urges operators to make customers more aware of their validity by listing their DOT registration numbers on their websites, membership in organizations such as United Motorcoach Association and American Bus Association, and information that will help customers understand their options and make informed booking decisions.
Bus operators are missing the fraud reports and are looking for other ways to stay updated so they can do business with professional, legitimate online brokers.
“Many bus companies are urging us to find another alternative, and I’ve been looking at credit services such as Dunn & Bradstreet for everyone to report unpaid trips to, and can reference when contacted by an unknown broker,” Greer said.
Online bookings are still relatively new for bus operators. Most consumers go online and look for bus operators, but end up calling them on the phone with questions before booking trips. Greer estimated that more than 70% of customers use the Internet to do research and shop around, yet bookings happen over the phone.
The main stress points for bus operators are a shortage of drivers and an overabundance of brokers, Greer said. The problem with a lot of brokers, he said, is “the misrepresentation of owning buses when they do not, or the promise of subcontracting to a reputable company when it more likely goes to the lowest bidder.”