Operations

Get The Goods: Investing In Group Vehicles

Michael Campos
Posted on September 21, 2012

There are many vehicle choices for operators looking to provide group transportation for the meetings and conventions industry, as vans, minibuses and motorcoaches come in many styles and sizes with various interior amenities. But vehicles are expensive. Operators should consider several factors before buying larger vehicles.

How Big?
Before investing in a group travel vehicle, it’s important to know what size groups you plan to transport, says Steve Levin, president of Escondido, Calif.-based Sterling Rose Transportation, which serves the convention-heavy San Diego region. “Vans and minibuses are great for midsize groups, which have about 150 to 200 people,” he says. “But operators serving any group larger than that will need motorcoaches.”

Steve Levin: The nice thing about a 21-passenger mini is that it’s not a huge vehicle, but it can transport a sizeable amount of passengers.
Steve Levin: The nice thing about a 21-passenger mini is that it’s not a huge vehicle, but it can transport a sizeable amount of passengers.

Barry Gross, executive director for A Goff Limousine & Bus Company, based in Charlottesville, Va., says, “If you have an extremely large number of people, it is very helpful to have people-mover type buses, double-door transit styles, but that’s not something that will be useful for many companies.”

Choosing the right vehicle results from closely scouring the market for opportunities to introduce something new or unique in the region. This differentiates a company from its competitors and can fill a void in the market. Sterling Rose has an executive passenger van that seats nine passengers and the driver, and has room for luggage.

“There aren’t a lot of these vans down here and it’s a very functional vehicle,” Levin says. “It has high-back, forward-facing leather seats and is very comfortable. It gets on the corporate radar because it’s not flamboyant looking. We get a lot of airport group transfer and dinner travel requests for it when business travelers come to town for an event. It’s a Ford E-350 that was converted by Tuscany Automotive.”

Levin is looking to add a larger version of the executive passenger van to his fleet, considering “the Turtle Top Van Terra XL or any of the Sprinter conversions, something that seats around 12-14 passengers with luggage.”

A. Goff runs Turtle Top Van Terras for smaller group work, but is strongly considering the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter because of its gas mileage and capability, Gross says. However, he warns that “operators in some metropolitan areas may have trouble [with Sprinters] because of low hanging garages and street signs.”

Minibus Madness
For a versatile, practical vehicle, operators should consider the minibus, which can vary in capacity but generally covers a range of 15-33 passengers. Ronald Montross, president of Elite Limousine in Norwalk, Conn., says he’s seen a trend in corporate travelers requesting minibuses for corporate functions. “As companies cut back on travel expenses, we saw more companies combining their travelers to leave the office at the same time to get to airports and meetings,” he says.

Operators agree that minibuses are versatile vehicles that can be deployed in different ways for groups of all sizes.
Operators agree that minibuses are versatile vehicles that can be deployed in different ways for groups of all sizes.

“We always want a vehicle that’s multifunctional, and we’ve found that a sweet spot within shuttling groups is a vehicle that can handle 20-22 passengers with ‘real’ rear luggage,” says David Mole, president of Niagara Classic Transport in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, which deploys 28-passenger Krystal minibuses. “These vehicles can be used for getting airport pickups for conferences, dinner runs, specialty runs with wine tours. It can even be an on-site shuttle for a particular hotel.” Niagara Classic Transport has about 75 vehicles and plenty of experience with groups of all sizes as Toronto is the fourth largest conference city in the world.

Levin also believes in the minibus sweet spot. “The nice thing about a 21-passenger mini is that it’s not a huge vehicle, but it can transport a sizeable amount of passengers,” he says. “You don’t want to go more than 15 passengers plus luggage, because it may seat 21 but not have the luggage capacity for 21. It’s great for midsize groups, especially for departures, because, more often than not, the departing flights will be consistent within a group and you can use your minis, whereas you may have used sedans and SUVs for arrivals because they were all over the place.”

Barry Gross believes operators always should purchase a vehicle with the most passenger capacity in its class.
Barry Gross believes operators always should purchase a vehicle with the most passenger capacity in its class.

Minibuses also work well for smaller resort-type hotels, offsite activities during conventions, and cruise ships that dock and transport passengers to other destinations.

Gross believes operators always should purchase a vehicle with the most passenger capacity in its class, “something along the lines of the Krystal KK38,” which seats between 27-39 passengers and sits on an International chassis.

Rolling out the big guns
The pinnacle of vehicles for meeting and convention work are the full-sized motorcoaches. These vehicles can handle many passengers and generate beacoup bucks. While a well-run minibus fleet can compete with motorcoach companies for meetings and conventions work, it’s still vital to have access to these vehicles.

“If companies don’t own motorcoaches themselves, they need an operating agreement with at least a couple of local providers,” Gross says.

A Goff runs a fleet of MCI D-Series motorcoaches. “I like running one type of bus because it’s a lot easier to stock replacement parts, less expensive to be able to buy in bulk, and a lot easier on the maintenance staff if they learn to get extremely good at one type of vehicle,” Gross says. “However, it’s not always practical [to run one type of bus] because different companies offer incentives to purchase their vehicles.”

Operators can keep up with the makes and models of motorcoaches being purchased throughout the industry by reading the LimoScene/BuScene department of LCT Magazine.

Michelle McDonald of All Resort Group in Park City, Utah, deals with a lot of groups using the company’s 164-vehicle fleet. She says water, seatbelts on buses, and snacks are essential amenities.
Michelle McDonald of All Resort Group in Park City, Utah, deals with a lot of groups using the company’s 164-vehicle fleet. She says water, seatbelts on buses, and snacks are essential amenities.

It’s the inside that counts
After an operator chooses a vehicle type and size, the next thing to consider is the vehicle’s interior features because meeting and convention clients have specific needs about vehicle amenities.

“Common group requests we receive are snacks, gift bags or welcome bags, and water — lots of it,” says Michelle McDonald, premium services manager at Park City, Utah-based All Resort Group. “Our most requested amenity on mini and motorcoaches now are seatbelts, plain and simple.”

Many convention clients want welcome material or convention-specific material playing on the vehicles when people are transported, so a properly functioning A/V system is essential, Gross says. “Having a DVD player is the bare minimum, and you want something that could accommodate some other form of media as well. The A/V system and a microphone are key because often there is a coordinator who has some instructions for the guests.”

Other interior features that meet the needs of meeting and convention groups are forward-facing seats, Wi-Fi Internet connectivity, and DC power ports.

Operators should plan their vehicle investments carefully with much research and aforethought. Understanding the market, looking for unfilled niches, and anticipating trends in meetings and conventions are important steps to take before a new vehicle purchase. It’s also important to query current and prospective clients, learn about their specific needs, and find a vehicle that can solve the most diverse set of demands.

Related Topics: bus market, buses, buying guide, buying vehicles, mini-buses, motorcoaches

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