Bus operators have forever believed that their most loyal customers are the youngest and the oldest passengers. Students and seniors love motorcoach travel; the challenge has been everyone in between — particularly the Baby Boomers.
In 2010, that no longer holds true. The Baby Boomers are still important, but the emerging “Bus Boomers” — young professionals in their 20s — are the ticket to surging growth in passengers who will be loyal for the next half century.
Some call them “millennials” while others have dubbed them “Generation Y.” But the important thing to remember about the Bus Boomers is that they are more open to alternative transportation than any previous generation.
Younger generations of Americans are not as wedded to the auto as their predecessors were because they’ve been inculcated with a sense of environmental stewardship and they want to show that they’re reducing the carbon footprint.
And they will drive the future of the industry — the operative term being drive, because they are the first generation in a century that doesn’t like to.
DePaul University Professor Dr. Joseph P. Schwieterman has produced a study on the topic, “The Return of the Intercity Bus: The Decline and Revival of Scheduled Service to American Cities, 1960-2007,” that’s now being updated for the second time in as many years.
The young professionals, it seems, are divorcing the personal auto with the same frequency that many Baby Boomers once divorced their spouses.
“Many younger folks actually consider this form of travel fairly hip, especially when they can step aboard an express bus from the center of a big city,” Schwieterman says. “They bring along Blackberries and electronic entertainment gadgets, and don’t have any particular emotional connection to a private automobile.”
The last phrase is the most telling. The 20-somethings don’t have any particular emotional connection to a private automobile! In other words, for the first time since America embraced the car culture, it is no longer a teenage rite of passage to get a driver’s license and immediately ask dad, “Can I have the keys to the SUV?” Consumer marketing experts all agree that brand loyalties are solidified when young adults leave the family nest, graduate college, and enter the work world because they are on their own for the first time in their lives as grown-ups. Naturally, they want to make grown-up decisions about how to spend their new paychecks. A demographic group in their 20s has 50 or more years of consumer spending ahead of them.
Operators such as Dave Bolen of New World Tours in Bristow, Va., have met the Bus Boomers and made an effort to get to know them — and what they want — by conducting onboard focus groups.
“You can plug in your iPod. You can share your songs, you can share your digital images,” Bolen says. “You can get on board our bus and display the photographs you just took.”
And it was in displaying such images that Bolen got the most emphatic candor from his young focus group.
“The kids said, ‘These small little screens stink.’ So we got larger monitors,” Bolen continues. “We’ve introduced display technology onto the coaches that allows passengers to see their own entertainment. People seem to be into having more choices. On most motorcoaches, you would put in a DVD and watch a movie. On our coaches, a section of the bus could watch [satellite] TV. One part could watch a movie, and another part could work on a PowerPoint presentation. That can all happen at the same time.”
In the Bus Boomers, operators have a potential customer base ready to be lifetime loyalists. They are at the age (young 20s) when the urge to define their lifetime spending choices is the strongest. They share a collective disdain for the personal auto and care about traveling green. They are technologically savvy, brandishing Blackberries and iPods.
Catering to the Bus Boomers may nurture the core of your consumer base and business growth for decades to come.
Eron Shosteck is the senior vice president of marketing, communications, and media relations for the Washington, D.C.-based American Bus Association.