ABA ASKS OPS: What Should You Call Yourselves?

Posted on May 19, 2010 by LCT Staff - Also by this author - About the author

Should charter and tour companies call themselves “Independent Motorcoach Operators” or “The Private Motorcoach Industry”?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — What you say is not always what people hear. In communications, marketing, sales and politics, this is a universal truth. Political consultant Frank Luntz has even titled a book along those lines.

When charter & tour companies refer to themselves as members of "the private motorcoach industry" to distinguish themselves from their less opulent and less luxurious competitors, it may seem perfectly logical. From an operator’s perspective, such a label presents a nicely worded portrait of the exclusivity, amenities, and creature comforts that justify the investment in such transportation services.

Or does it?

Despite the recent LCT survey showing that a huge portion of the industry is still one populated by small businesses, key audiences are unlikely to think of charter and tour companies as anything but extravagant travel for the rich. And it’s almost too easy to understand why: how can “private motorcoach industry” members be just another example of apple-pie small businesses operating on slim margins?

Indeed, once audiences hear “private” and “industry,” and see the opulent offerings that include galleys, 2-and-1 seating configurations, and marketing messages touting the advantages of taking “executive coach service,” the media, elected officials and consumers may reflexively lump the charter and tour sector in with images of corporate giants that are easily envisioned when the phrase "private industry" is mentioned.

Suddenly, the small operator with only a few coaches in his fleet is no different in perception than the big trucking, auto and rail companies. You guys, they think, are just another part of big-business corporate America.

Consider, therefore, the potentially positive effect of changing ever so slightly the terminology with which the community (not industry) of charter and tour operators refers to itself. A subtle nuance in word choices can create an entirely different image in the mind’s eye of the general public.

So when operators tweak the way in which they describe themselves — and do so in a manner that is utterly accurate, just more positive — it could help differentiate the charter and tour service providers from the big businesses in transportation, and ultimately help motorcoach companies better position themselves for fair treatment in the highway bill reauthorization debate.

Ditch the self-identifying terms of being "the private motorcoach industry." Embrace the subtly profound change to the new self-descriptive phrase of being "independently owned and operated motorcoach companies."

The change may seem small, but its effect could be enormous. By eschewing "private industry," operators are free of the albatross implied by the term "industry," which conjures up images of smokestacks in rust-belt America despoiling the planet.

Sound like the community of which you are a member? Of course not. But it's what others in Congress and the media hear when the term "private motorcoach industry" is uttered. Like Luntz said, what you say isn't always what people hear.

But the simple labeling shift to "independent operators" or even the "independent operators’ community" immediately softens the charter and tour business image, differentiates operators from the big corporate behemoths in other travel modes, and creates a positive picture in the audience's eye of the entrepreneurial, community-oriented, family-run independent small businesses that define so many operators.

The choice of "independent" is a careful exercise in lexicon selection. "Free-market motorcoach operators" sounds too much like a product of a libertarian think tank, and would never be taken seriously.

But "independent motorcoach operators" sounds so moderate, so centrist, so reasonable. It's this industry's — er, community's — equivalent of politicians calling themselves "progressives." Everyone loves that term, and it creates images of forward-looking, visionary, modern leadership.

Forward-looking, visionary, modern … sounds like the motorcoach community, now, doesn’t it?

Eron Shosteck is the senior vice president for communications, marketing and media relations at the AMERICAN BUS ASSOCIATION.

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