CHICAGO, Ill. — Roger Melling has been in the transportation business for over 30 years with two of the largest limousine companies in the industry. He began in the industry in 1981 as a limousine chauffeur, after a 15 year career in a diesel engine manufacturing plant as a senior buyer.
He joined the ranks of management as chauffeur manager and dispatched, supervised reservations, and managed group sales for American Limousine. He then became one of the six original partners that started Windy City Limousine in 2006. Melling recounted how he first got started on the idea of incorporating buses into the Windy City fleet.
“We always had conventions and groups in town and when we needed buses we went to local companies, and finally one day I experienced firsthand the motivations of the bus drivers, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience in my opinion,” he said.
“They didn’t get out of their seats or get off the buses and assist with luggage. They were drivers punching a clock. And to me, that kind of job is detrimental to our brand and I would have rather not used them. We grew our business out of the idea that we don’t have drivers we have chauffeurs. That’s what I wanted to do with the buses, so we could hire and train the chauffeurs to drive buses. And it has definitely worked for us.”
Melling had to initially convince his partners in Windy City to go after the bus business, but now he proudly states that the company has one of the largest private bus fleets in the city.
“Bus business is no different in our eyes than limo business,” said Melling, who noted that it’s the customer service and quality of chauffeur that really makes an impact with customers who keep coming back. He also mentioned how operating coaches can be a great way of marketing your company, because a big bus is like a moving billboard.
He warned, however, that you have to be on top of maintenance, because just as that bus advertises your company, it will also be sending a message when people see it being towed frequently down the highway.
“We had an opportunity to get into a schedule of casino runs, and we had three weeks to get enough buses to operate this. One run was 17 hours a day, another 15 hours a day, and another was like 10,” said Melling, “and what it did for us was it gave us that advertising, like a Windy City billboard on wheels riding the expressway 20 hours a day. But the negative side is that buses tend to breakdown, so when it was down and on a hook and rolling along, it was still a billboard — of a broke down Windy City bus,” he joked.
But Melling stressed that buses and limousines are two different animals in the business. Bus drivers cannot drive long hours, he said, as a bus chauffeur can only drive 10 hours a day maximum, and only be on duty 15 hours a day max. “There are a lot of rules and regulations that come with operating buses,” said Melling. “That you don’t have to worry about when you’re running sedans or SUVs, so there is a learning curve.”
And Melling cautioned that operating bus service is very demanding on the equipment, with the frequent start and stop driving, and that maintenance on the brakes and tire replacements, and just keeping the vehicle on the road is a challenge. But he said the logistics are manageable, and that the bus business can be very rewarding and lucrative.
Melling finished the seminar by advising anyone who is interested to get involved in their local motorocoach and bus associations, as well as join national organizations such as the United Motorcoach Association (UMA), and the American Bus Association (ABA). “Yes, it’s an expense to join these but the payoff is terrific,” said Melling. “You are constantly getting information about rules and regulations, and they offer courses on driver safety and chauffeur training. These organizations, you can’t put a price tag on how valuable they are.”
Melling sat down with BusCon for an interview following his seminar for a quick Q&A on the session:
— Tim Crowley, LCT senior editor