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Limo-buses appeal to clients because they carry many passengers in a fun atmosphere, while allowing more freedom of movement than traditional stretch limousines. As more customers turn to these limo buses for nights-on-the-town, wedding events, and parties, limo operators are looking to put them in their fleet and capitalize on the growing market.
But party buses come with a unique set of challenges foreign to operators who have been running sedan-only fleets and traditional stretches. The high-passenger capacity of limo buses puts them in the most expensive bracket for insurance. The costs of maintenance and repairs far exceed those of sedans and stretches.
For operators to succeed in this market, they must be diligent about adhering to all safety standards and educating their clients on what is and isn’t allowed on the buses during transit. They also must be thorough with recordkeeping and maintenance because of the hefty losses of downtime and bus repairs.
One party bus operator who successfully navigates these waters is Art Rivas, CEO of Limo4me.com in Carson, Calif. The company has operated since 2001 with Rivas acting as silent partner, but three years ago, Rivas took over as sole owner and manager of operations. He quickly introduced new organization procedures at the company and has grown the fleet from 25 to now 50 limo-style buses.
“When I took a bigger role at the company, I knew I had to play to my strengths which are policy and procedures,” Rivas says. “Everything we do now is charted on paper. Every maintenance request or checklist is accounted for, and I have my contact at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on speed dial.”
Rivas has his vehicles routinely inspected by the CHP every 45 days. He uses a strict maintenance checklist for drivers to go over before they drive each bus, and has a thorough policy for educating clients on conduct before payment.
“We’ve had no choice but to get strong on safety issues,” says Rivas, expressing a universal truth to party bus operators. Because of the nature of the work, operators are dealing with passengers likely to be inebriated and walking, dancing, and jumping around the vehicle while it’s in motion. It is a potential liability nightmare. High-profile deaths and injuries on party buses have led to stricter regulations and higher insurance costs.
The demand for party buses, however, keeps growing. In some markets, business is booming. Chicago is one such hotspot for party buses where Chris Vecchio, owner of ChiTown Party Bus, has been capitalizing on the market. “We’ve been around for five years, and recently the demand has just exploded, bringing with it a lot of competition. The expanse of the city and large number of destination hot spots has made party buses popular here, and we’re looking to add more to the fleet.” Vecchio started the business with a single school bus conversion, and did most of the early driving himself. The experience gave him key insight on setting up conduct policies for his passengers.
“You have to take a realistic approach and lay it out for the customer,” Vecchio says. “If there is smoking on the bus, that is a fine. And if there’s damage to the bus, the client has to sign they are responsible.” ChiTown Party Bus doesn’t book pickups after 11 p.m. Vecchio trains his drivers to stop the bus and pull over if they observe any unsafe behavior, and address the issue with the individual who booked the ride and signed the service contract.
Operator Tom Soliman of Starz Limousine in Anaheim, Calif., says regulating passengers comes with the territory in party bus work. “We make sure everyone understands they can’t stand on the seats, there’s no leaning on windows, and all of our emergency exits and windows have driver alerts, so if they’re opened even a little bit, the driver will know and pull the bus over. You have to scare the client a little,” he says. “Go over everything and make them aware they have to be responsible.”
Once all regulations are in place, the party will go on. Rivas routinely packs his larger vehicles with 30+ eager patrons who imbibe and dance their way to Hollywood and Las Vegas. Soliman runs his “Silver Bullet” 40-passenger bus to Vegas and venues in Orange County. Vecchio provides safe and fun transport for an array of Chicago demographic groups cruising the city for a good time — with vomit policies in place of course ($250 for cleans, he says).
The Ps and Qs of party bus regulations and safety are just the first challenges for operators. Another comes in marketing a vehicle that requires many passengers to be profitable. Covering the overhead costs on an expensive limo bus means operators must be creative with their marketing and consistent with networking. The bus needs to move regularly to earn profit.
Online marketing and organic search engine placement has been crucial for operators in getting their party bus businesses off the ground. Rivas was quick to buy the domain LAPartybus.com, which brings in a lot of leads. Soliman is active at local Greater California Livery Association (GCLA) functions and gets many of his bookings from local affiliates in need of a large limo bus.
One of the important details in successfully operating a party bus business is finding bookings for the vehicles during the Sunday through Thursday time slot. “Anyone can book Friday night, and especially Saturday night,” Rivas says. “But now we’ve been going after corporate clients, who are booking trips for their employees, and that keeps the buses moving during the weekdays. We’ve also been doing a lot more Quinceaneras and weddings to make sure they move Sunday. That’s actually become one of our busiest days, and so many other party bus operators shut down on Sunday.”
ChiTown Party Bus is also moving into more corporate work. “We’re getting more corporations booking us to take their employees out for pub crawls or wine tours or what have you. We’re seeing more companies this year taking their employees out to have fun. That’s been a big trend.”
When the corporations come knocking, it’s important for operators to supply more upscale party bus vehicles and downplay the wild, party atmosphere of the limo bus. Vecchio has removable “dancing” poles for his daytime work, including weddings, and Rivas has been moving toward more upscale and newer limo bus vehicles.
Coachbuilders are seeing this trend as well and many are offering smaller limo buses, such as Sprinters, that have limousine interiors for multiple client preferences. Jay Glick, CEO of First Class Customs in Springfield, Mo., which specializes in building upscale Sprinters with limo interiors, says he has seen operators use his vehicles to successfully accommodate both the party bus crowd at night and corporate clients during the day.
“Our clients all over the country are seeing continued growth in the corporate travel market,” Glick says. “The Sprinter, when outfitted with an elegant and modern interior, can serve both retail and corporate clients. Both customers like the comfort and easy entry and exit the buses and Sprinters provide.”
He says as operators move into more corporate work, which brings a higher profit margin than retail, over-the-top interior party styles are becoming more modest — which could be a good thing. “People tend to act based on their environment,” Glick says. “If you make a crazy interior that looks like a strip club, people will act like they are in a strip club. If the limo bus interior is elegant and upscale, people will have a tendency to act more civilized.”
Rivas recently bought two Grech Motors shuttle buses with forward-facing seats to appeal to high-end corporate transportation. But he’ll operate the tried-and-true party buses as long as they’re making money. “I take a lot of pride in some of the older buses we have because they’re what helped build this company,” he says.
He notes one of his oldest buses, nicknamed “The Pirate,” is still one of the most popular and profitable vehicles in the fleet. “The kids love it, and I rent it out for the same rate as one of our newer buses of the same size.”
Related Topics: bachelor parties, California operators, compliance, First Class Customs, fleet management, Grech Motors, group transportation, industry trends, limo buses, party buses, passenger safety, retail markets, Safety, underage drinking, vehicle costs
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