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While Rock n’ Roll acts have tended to lease buses for tours, the stars of the country music scene used to buy their own tour buses. In 1995, the Department of Transportation brought private coaches under its jurisdiction and complicated matters for touring artists. So, managers began hiring transportation experts to handle the tours, says Chip Huffman, CEO of Huffman & Rice Inc., a Nashville, Tenn.-based company that provides driver training and placement in the entertainer coach industry.
Huffman has spent most of his life in the music business. After attempting to break into the scene as a musician, he eventually found a career in transporting the stars. He has 20 years of driving experience and 26 years of owning and operating Nitetrain Coach Company, a major entertainer motorcoach operation based in Music City itself — Nashville.
“Entertainers, musicians and artists march to a different drum and are very demanding,” Huffman says. “This market niche requires an understanding of the entertainment business personality. That said, most of the companies in the entertainment transportation industry came up through the ranks of the music business, promoting or performing or driving, like I did. It is difficult for someone outside the music industry to break into the entertainment business and know how to do things right.”
Mike Slarve, president of Four Seasons Coach Leasing in Lebanon, Tenn., says there’s really no place for a company to advertise except in music industry magazines such as Billboard. Slarve founded his company in the early 1980s and is considered by Huffman to be a “powerhouse veteran” of the business. At one point, Slarve had more than 100 buses on the road transporting musical acts.
Slarve also came from the music business, having managed a band in Los Angeles and, prior to that, promoted different acts. After entering the transportation side of the business, he founded and served as president of the Entertainer Motorcoach Council.
While the chances of new operators breaking into the entertainer coach niche are slim, it is still possible. Huffman has seen a trend of non-music business people with “deep pockets” taking over companies that have music industry connections.
The best way for an operator to get into this niche is by developing connections with people in the music industry, specifically promoters, agents and managers, Huffman says.
What bands look for
The tour bus becomes the band’s home for days, weeks and even months on end, so the level of service must be consistent at all times.
“We have always stressed that we are in the customer service business, not the bus business,” says Erin Blankenship, president and co-owner of All Access Coach Leasing in Gallatin, Tenn., a 40-bus operation founded in 2002.
Blankenship has deep roots in the music scene. He wanted to be a singer and eventually took up a job with country artist Ricky Scaggs. He got his license to help drive the tour bus and later ended up driving for several different artists. The first coach company he worked for was Nitetrain.
He attributes his success to being flexible and meeting demands. What separates companies in the industry are those that say, “Yes, we can make that happen,” to any client request, he says. “When you pull that miracle off in the last hour, you make something happen for a client. It really makes a difference.”
Blankenship says he’s done things from putting dog kennels on a bus to installing a studio and bedrooms in the back. He once bought a new bus with tile floors and was going to lease it to a client. But the client wanted hardwood floors. So, although the bus was brand new, Blankenship modified it to the client’s request.
“We have a lot of long-term clients, and it’s because we’re taking care of what they want and need,” he says.
Slarve says dependability is the ultimate concern of musical acts looking to lease coaches for a tour. “Bands look for consistency in quality, consistency in driver experience, and reliability.”
Captain of the ship
Echoing Blankenship, Huffman says his main rule for bus chauffeurs is to never forget that they are in the service industry. “It’s very easy for a driver to start wanting to be part of the band or the show, and yes, a lot of times [the band members] will accept you and take you in as part of the ‘family,’ but [the driver’s] job is to give them a smooth and safe ride, keep the bus cleaned up, stay out of their business, and definitely stay off the Internet and social media. A lot of celebrities will have you sign a non-disclosure agreement.”
Trips are usually made at night, after shows and while the band sleeps. Bus chauffeurs are paid to sleep during the day so they can be alert and aware at night to provide the smoothest possible ride. Huffman says they should clean up the bus and go straight to the hotel to sleep.
“More than occasionally, some of the band members or entourage may come up to the driver and talk to them while they’re driving at night, and [drivers] should know how to be a friend, confidant, and psychiatrist sometimes,” Slarve says with a laugh. “But at the same time, they need to keep it a professional space.”
The first rule Slarve drills in drivers’ heads is “safety, safety, safety.” The second thing is that they are the captain of the ship, and if they feel like they may be driving into unsafe conditions, they should stop until they know they can drive safely. “I don’t care what’s going on or how big the show is, or how much pressure is on them — and drivers can be under a lot — I tell them to pull over and stop, that’s it, end of story,” he says.
Celebrity Bus Driver Academy
Huffman and his business partner, Tandy Rice, a former Country Music Association president, run The Celebrity Bus Drivers Academy in Tennessee. They teach drivers how to make the transition to entertainer coach driving. They also offer placement throughout the industry for qualifying drivers through Top Billing Driver Placement Service.
The next training academy will be held Nov. 14-16 at the Nashville Prevost Branch in Goodlettsville, Tenn. More details can be found at www.huffman-rice.com/driver-school.
The right equipment
The standard brand in the entertainer coach industry is Prevost, which invested much research and development to engineer a coach for the market. Popular Prevost models include the XL, XLII, H3-45 and X3-45. The XLII is the workhorse and coach of demand, Huffman says.
These coaches are known as sleeper coaches and have bunks for band members to rest during the drive. The Prevost XLII is a 12-sleeper, which means they have four sections of three-high bunks. These are adaptable and can be adjusted to accommodate eight or 10 bunks, depending on how many people ride on the bus.
In addition to their Prevost coaches, Blankenship and Slarve also run MCI coaches, and Slarve has a couple of Van Hools. “It’s a very expensive playing field to get into, as coaches are typically $850,000 and above after they have been customized,” Slarve says.
Slarve offers a variety of coach designs, with his earliest model year being a 2000. “You have to be able to supply equipment for a variety of acts, and some acts are going to be bar bands who can’t afford a new or late-model bus,” he says. “You have to have a pretty wide spectrum of coaches and interior styles to satisfy the demands of different clients.”
Coach amenities across the board
Each tour will differ in its amenity preferences depending on the needs of the client(s). But here are some things that are standard:
Working The Show Biz Circuit
A veteran California operator shares a behind-the-scenes look
at celebrity transportation.
By Jim Luff, LCT contributing editor
Known as Nashville West in the country music industry, Bakersfield, Calif., is the home of my company, Limousine Scene, which has a long history of serving the stars that visit and perform at the world famous Buck Owens Crystal Palace. The city hosts concert production companies and is home to the rap-metal bands Korn and Adema.
Bakersfield is the birthplace of country legends Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, who are credited with creating “The Bakersfield Sound,” a distinct style of country music carried on today by artists such as Dwight Yokum, a frequent Bakersfield visitor.
Over the years, we have had the opportunity to drive many stars such as Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, George Strait, Randy Travis and of course our own hometown band, Korn. While chauffeuring stars from the airport to a venue or hotel is certainly exciting, it is nothing like working on a tour and traveling from city to city, staying in the same hotel and seeing the same show every night, except in a different city. This is the super-sized version of being behind the scenes. You see the flowers, love letters, cards, photos and trinkets left behind on the stage, eagerly deposited by fans for the artist. They are swept into a pile of trash after every show in every city.
About 15 years ago, we became the exclusive provider of crew and talent transportation services for DBL Entertainment, a production company. A production company is hired to rig the lights, provide the sound, and manage the stage and the performers. Wherever DBL goes, we go. When they do a show in Palm Springs, we deliver the Bakersfield-based production crew and remain on location. We take our vehicles to Palm Springs, staying at the same hotel as the performers.
When the talent arrives, we are there to pick them up at the local airport, no matter what city it is. We have been fortunate enough to work tours with Kool & The Gang, Reba, Merle Haggard and Wynona Judd.
Spending hours backstage, I have seen the interiors of many tour buses. Tour buses are often owned by the performer and driven by a band member or the band’s own driver. If they are not owned, they are usually leased for the duration of a tour. That could be as short as a month or as long as two years. In long-term tour leases, the lease is entered into by the management company of the tour. The gleaming bus beauties can sleep as many as 10 to 12 people in specially built bunks and include kitchens and full-size showers. They are used to the maximum potential in most cases.
A tour might hit California by starting in San Diego and progress through the month doing shows in Orange County, Los Angeles, Bakersfield, San Luis Obispo, Fresno, Modesto, Sacramento and San Francisco, alternating between driving days and performing days. In most cases, when a show is over at the end of the evening and the gear has been loaded up, the transportation to the next city begins and runs through the night to arrive in the next performing city, even if the performance isn’t for another day.
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