Vehicle Pick of the Week: This shuttle looks comfortable, clean, and perfect for tourists.
As limousine operators embrace larger vehicles such as Sprinter Vans, minibuses, mid-sized coaches, and motorcoaches, they’re adding a layer of luxury. Operators are working with clients to provide more advanced amenities and high-touch interiors.
What follows is a rundown of the vehicles that are proving to be the best fit for the meetings and conventions market, some of the latest bus models being put out by manufacturers, and the amenities that meetings clients request on buses.
Group vehicles are trending toward more polished interiors and more creature comforts. Many of the features that were considered specialty items as little as a year ago are becoming standard equipment.
“They’re starting to put more and more equipment in them,” said Barry Hines, general manager of Ameritrans Bus Inc. “Flat-screen TVs, plush seats, leather seats, charge ports, USB ports, nicer stereo systems, better lighting. It’s getting to the point where they’re almost all ordering simulated cherry-wood flooring.”
Hines has racked up a lot of sales of the 28 ½-ft Ford E Series with rear luggage. He’s also seen an increase in executive-type shuttles, with a small drink refreshment center and video screens. Even the operators opting for all forward-facing seats are upgrading to leather seats. The E Series works well especially for charter events and small executive trips that require a nice vehicle but not necessarily limo style, Hines said. Ameritrans’ latest vehicle is the F330 mini-coach built on the Ford F550 chassis, which offers a 102-inch cabin and can accommodate 23-31 passengers.
A.J. Thurber, sales manager for Don Brown Bus Sales, also has seen the trend toward high-end interiors with the Sprinter picking up a lot of that market. “Meetings and conventions has definitely shifted toward high-end executive interior Sprinter shuttles. Also the mid-size buses with luxury upgraded interior, high-end coach seats, audio-visual packages.”
Meanwhile, Ed Grech of Grech Motors believes that demand for more affordable options has driven operators toward the versatility of minibuses. Grech has seen significant demand for the Grech vehicles built on the Ford 650 and Freightliner chassis. “They’re going with higher end seats, in particular, the Premier seats or Amaya-Astron seats, and wooden floors are becoming very popular. And the high-end interior luggage racks,” Grech said.
One feature Grech offers that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing is the front viewing window, which is great for tours and enhancing interior atmosphere. “People don’t feel closed in when they see the road,” he said.
Across the board, operators and builders say that Wi-Fi and 110-volt power outlets at every seat will soon become standard. “Now everyone wants power in their seats,” said Brent Maitland, vice president of marketing and product planning for Motor Coach Industries (MCI), which also distributes Setra in the U.S. “We moved from nothing standard, to putting 10 outlets through the coach standard, to continually having to discuss whether we need to start putting power in every seat, which is a more expensive upgrade, but demand is pretty high.”
Operators are increasingly calling for the ability to connect tablet devices through USB ports so that tour guides or hosts can show Powerpoint presentations or videos, Maitland added. For the meetings and conventions segment, this is especially important so time spent in transit can still be productive.
Randy Allen, owner of Richmond, Va.-based James Limousine, has operated a 39-passenger Federal Coach built on a Freightliner chassis for meetings and conventions work. “I’ve used that for larger local shuttles, corporate transportation,” Allen said. “We’ve been very successful with that. It fits the needs of our corporate market a little bit better. It’s designed for what we do with more local runs, taking people a couple hundred miles.”
Group travel has been a growing segment in Allen’s market and he expects his fleet will mirror that trend in the future. “We are outsourcing quite a large amount of 55-passenger motorcoach work. As soon as we bring that to a large enough segment, we’ll be purchasing a 55 passenger.” Allen added that he’s eyeing a Setra.
In terms of seating, thankfully the multi-color print fabric seats are waning. Operators are favoring solid colors or black leather for a more corporate feel. Some are opting for more spacious seating arrangements, sacrificing some seating for increased legroom and comfort.
A new trend is to remove a section of bus seats to make room for a lounge or table area. Grech has done this for some of his customers. “It seems to be very popular,” he said. “It gives the bus more of a high-end image.”
Scott Riccio, the vice president of the New England Bus Association and owner of Northeast Charter & Tour Company and Crown Limousine & Towne Car Service in Lewiston, Maine recently retro fitted a 47-passenger Setra motorcoach with tabletops.
He knocked it down to 32 passengers, turned around some of the seats and installed three tables in the front and three in the rear. “People love it, colleges love it,” Riccio said. Fitted with 110-volt outlets, riders are able to set up laptops and do work. “You’ve got the comfort and dependability of a full-size bus yet you’re spread out and comfortable with 20 people.”
In fact, Setra will soon be offering a “club corner” in its TopClass S 417 motorcoach, a feature which has been in use in the European market. “It will lend itself well to the limo industry, especially business conventions and meetings,” Maitland said.
Seeking Middle Ground
Every operator’s desire is a single vehicle that will do it all, which is an especially alluring idea when just entering the group travel market. Owning both a charter bus and limo company, Riccio has a good perspective on this kind of work. He cautions that operators shouldn’t expect to run a vehicle meant for shuttle work on long-haul trips without encountering maintenance problems.
“When you’re in the charter business you might do a shuttle today and tomorrow you’re going 12 hours away,” Riccio said. “You got to have that dependability. If not, it frustrates the customer and it’s just a maintenance nightmare when it comes to getting it repaired, and tow trucks and hiring buses for customers.”
Midsize coaches often can provide the needed versatility. Riccio recently demoed the Temsa TS 35 and was very pleased with its performance and handling abilities. The TS 35 features a monocoque integral construction, an American Cummins-Allison driveline, and is constructed from stainless steel. Temsa also has a T 30.
“A lot of the components that make up that bus are the same components that make up a full size motorcoach,” Riccio said. “In terms of the axle, the engine, the transmission, the rear-end, the drive-train, the wiring, the harnesses, etc. If you don’t buy one that has those over the road components, like a motorcoach, you’re just buying a vehicle that in three, four, five years is giving you maintenance nightmares and breaking down constantly.”
An added advantage to a mid-coach is the ability to handle inter-metro shuttle scenarios. “We’ve sold a few [TS 30’s] to a company in New Orleans because the French Quarter will not allow coaches above 30 feet long because of the tight roads and narrow turning,” said Shannon Vaught, National Sales Associate for CH Bus Sales, the U.S. distributor of Temsa. “Our coach fits down there, will handle all the turns well, and you still have all the amenities ofa big coach.”
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