Vehicles

Charter & Tour: Stacking The Decks

Posted on September 1, 2009 by - Also by this author

Operators are finding multiple uses for double-decker buses, from the typical daytime tours and casino runs to student transportation to field trips and special events.

The vehicles offer the perfect economies of scale with seating capacities of about 80 seats. Customers with larger groups only need to book one vehicle, and the savings enjoyed by the carrier is passed on to the consumer. Plus, the visuals lend an extra to the ride, even in the winter when equipped with glass tops.

For larger coach and tour companies that are experiencing higher crowd volume, an investment in a double-decker actually may put a few extra dollars in their pocket in the long run.

Maximizing Savings

Last fall, ABC Companies delivered two 81-passenger Van Hool double-deckers to San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based Silverado Stages.

The buses have mainly been used for day trips because of the amount of people they can fit and due to limited baggage capacity.

“The market for buses with that capacity is increasing,” says Jim Galusha, CEO of Silverado Stages. “It definitely fills a niche where the groups are right in between one and two 56-passenger buses, so it’s quite convenient.”

Despite the higher cost, Galusha points out that there are savings in purchasing a double-decker, because there’s still only one driver, one engine, one transmission, and eight tires, just like on a 56-passenger bus.

“That adds up to a significant savings on a per-seat basis. But the key is, you have to sell 81 seats. If you buy an 81-passenger bus and only sell 65 seats, it’s not going to work out financially,” he says. However, he predicts that as more customers become aware that an 81-passenger bus exists, “when they see just how nice they truly are, the demand is going to increase.”

The client is not out any more money chartering the 81-passenger bus, and they actually save money versus chartering two 56-passenger buses, when they only have 81 passengers or less, he adds. Clint Guth, regional vice president and general manager for California of ABC Companies in Costa Mesa, Calif., says that they have seen a spike in sales of their TD 925 double decker.

“The product has only been in the U.S. for about two years, and for the first year, it was exclusively provided to Coach USA. [Then], because that particular operator helped us bring that vehicle to market in North America, our manufacturing capabilities had an opportunity to meet the demand for the rest of the U.S. market,” Guth says.

He adds that some operators have run a vehicle for one or two years, and its proving its worth in the market. Their competitors have noticed. “[They’re] saying, ‘This vehicle is obviously working for our competition, and we need to try to capitalize on that, and potentially develop a flagship for our business,’ so they’re placing an order for a TD 925 double-deck,” Guth says.

Using double-decker motorcoaches takes a special operator that has a diverse market, says Guth, so the operator that buys a double-decker motorcoach probably is not only a tour or a charter operator, but probably also does some line-haul and sightseeing service. For example, a per capita sightseeing operator who sells tickets is perfect, because the coach holds more people and provides operational savings.

“If you can maximize the efficiencies of the vehicle, it pays for itself, and then some,” Guth says.

The two buses that came into California were the first double-deckers to operate in the state. Still, Silverado also was able to get the buses Special Pupil Activity Bus (SPAB)-certified by the state of California, so they are approved to transport K-12 students. ABC Companies was very helpful in making the necessary modifications, Galusha says.

“We’re finding a lot of school business with them, for [daytime] field trips, where they are right in between the one and two 56-passenger buses,” Galusha says. Popular destinations include the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Disneyland.

A drawback of a double-decker is the fact that there is less luggage storage than on a typical 56-passenger bus, Galusha says. “The drivers find themselves having to stack luggage [in the compartment] to accommodate it on what would be a typical overnight trip,” he says.

"They stack it higher than in a 56-passenger bus. The 56-passenger bus luggage compartment might be 40 inches tall. This one is 80 inches tall. So, they have to stack luggage twice as high.” Silverado plans on adding more double-deckers as the market demands, Galusha says.

Customer-friendly Vehicles

Paramus, N.J.-based Coach USA has been using open-top double-decker coaches, bought from UK manufacturer Alexander Dennis since 2000 for sightseeing tours in New York and Chicago.

The company carries 80 double-deckers total in its New York and Chicago fleets. The buses have 79 passenger seats.

The authentic European, open-top double-deckers include a downstairs parlor, and heating and air conditioning. On hot days, people sometimes sit on the first level. In the winter, Coach USA equips its New York vehicles with glass tops, making them more conducive to frigid weather, while still allowing tourists to experience all the sights.

“There has been significant growth, in the sightseeing market, in both New York and in Chicago in the past five to seven years,” says Dale Moser, president and COO, Coach USA.

Moser adds that the vehicles are European tilt-tested, and have an extremely low center of gravity, which mitigates its ability to sway and tilt. The biggest advantages of operating the buses are their reliability and aesthetic appeal, Moser says. “They’re authentic and traditional in their design, to what people have experienced in Great Britain…it’s been, quite frankly a pretty customer-friendly vehicle.”

SIDEBAR 1: The Crowd Pleaser

Designer Limousines’ 80-passenger 2009 custom double-decker limo bus has everything a festive crowd needs. Used for everything from nights on the town to sporting events, the buses, all brand new 2009 models, have recently increased in popularity.

Designer Limousines’ party buses also offer nightclub-style interiors, which include a VIP room; a hostess station; pop-up seats to make way for a dance floor; and a bar on both the first and second floors; a kitchenette equipped with a microwave; 15 flat-screen plasma TVs; Wi-Fi, Sony playstation, and an iPod dock that features a selection of more than 100,000 songs.

The Port Washington, N.Y.-based luxury limousine and coach operator’s fleet consists of 17 party buses, including two Krystal Limo Buses.

SIDEBAR 2: Accommodating Drivers

New Britain, Conn.-based DATTCO recently bought 10 Van Hools from ABC Companies, and two of their new additions are TD 925 double-decker coaches. One double-decker, acquired last year, has been operating for the past 10 months, mainly to accommodate the overflow crowds for casino service.

The coaches feature 81-passenger seating with seat belts, free Wi-Fi access, laptop power plugs, and multi-monitor video systems.

The provider has been training its drivers to acclimate them to the height and the lower ride position. Dennis Lyons, vice president of coach and tour, says that the transition has been smooth, with about two-thirds of their drivers qualifying to drive the double-deckers.

In addition to their own, DATTCO runs nine double-deckers for Megabus, Coach USA’s discount intercity motorcoach service based in Chicago. “Because of that operation, we’ve qualified about two-thirds of our drivers so far,” Lyons says.

Galusha adds that Silverado assigns its double-deckers to particular drivers, and provides additional training since the driver sits at a lower level than in a 56-passenger bus. He also points out that there is a GPS feature available in which all low-clearance bridges can be programmed into an onboard computer that will alert the driver when the bus is about to approach a low-clearance bridge.

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