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In the late 1990s, coachbuilders began making limousine buses almost as fast as stretch limousines. By the mid-2000s, all major coachbuilders were producing limo buses. Eventually, operators added shuttles, mini-buses, and charter tour buses to their fleets.
I was no exception. After more than a decade of running limo buses, I decided to take the next step in my fleet line-up and buy a charter bus. More and more operators have diversified into motorcoach service in recent years. [As a contributing editor of LCT Magazine, it also helps to have firsthand experience in Limousine, Charter & Tour, our formal name since February 2009]. In April, we acquired a 55-passenger 2000 Setra S-217 motorcoach as part of a bus lease agreement with an unnamed company client.
Limousine Scene owner and LCT contributing editor Jim Luff gained a valuable perspective on running a motorcoach this year.
Entering the bus business
The business path to a motorcoach in many ways resembles that of a limousine bus. My experience running a limo bus prepared me for the decision to take on a motorcoach.
In 1999, we jumped in head first into the bus market. It wasn’t very well thought out and at first caused great financial pain. The bus business can be lucrative on some days and dismal on others. A local competitor had bought the first limo bus in our area. Everyone who saw it loved it. Our clients began calling and asking if it was our vehicle or if we offered such a vehicle. I contacted the competitor to build a farm-out relationship. Because they were in a financial mess over this bus, they were eager for business regardless of where it came from and willing to work with me. This worked to my benefit. They billed me on terms of 30 days. This allowed me to farm it out to corporate accounts that had terms of 10 days to pay us.
We eventually bought the limo bus from our competitor, which went out of business.
Whether you plan to buy a limo bus, shuttle, or motorcoach, I suggest you first farm-out work to other companies in your area already operating them to make sure you will get enough business. Once we got to the point where we were farming out five to eight jobs a month during a period of six months, it became apparent we should buy our own bus.
But the operation of any bus varies a lot from that of a limousine or sedan. You must be aware of laws that apply to buses and drivers, or you will pay huge fines. Ignorance is no excuse.
One of the first things you must consider is who will drive your bus. Bus drivers must hold a commercial driver’s license with a passenger and air-brake endorsement (if equipped). In some states, the cost of a commercial driver’s license far exceeds that of a standard driver’s license. In other states, no special license is required to drive a limousine for hire, but the federal Department of Transportation regulates buses in all states. Many states also regulate buses through a state DOT agency with respect to passenger safety.
Jennifer Kemper, a bus chauffeur at The Limousine Scene in Bakersfield, Calif., drives its first motorcoach, which it acquired in April to complement its 19-vehicle fleet of sedans, stretches, SUVs, and limo buses.
Bus drivers are required to maintain logbooks for trips that travel beyond a certain radius from your base of operations. I hired a bus driver from a charter bus company to provide knowledge and guidance in training new drivers to operate our bus. There are federal DOT laws pertaining to drug and alcohol testing and how it must be administered. Having an experienced person provide guidance can spare you huge fines levied by state and federal authorities for violations. Logbooks are examined by both state and federal DOT inspectors. By hiring experienced bus drivers, it is presumed that they know right from wrong and what needs to be done to remain legal. Don’t become a training ground for new drivers.