Big Group Business Bodes Well For Motorcoaches

Tom Halligan
Posted on January 23, 2016
Photo via iStockphoto.com

Photo via iStockphoto.com

There’s good news for large fleet operators who supply full transportation services for meetings and conventions — and  those smaller companies looking to gain a slice of the farm-out pie. 2016 is shaping up to be another growth year.

Positive economic trends combined with the global expansion of companies will drive growth for the meetings industry this year, according to the American Express Meetings & Events 2016 Global Meetings Forecast.

Bucking Bulls

Companies are bullish on holding employee face-to-face meetings, although we live in a 24/7 non-stop digital communication age, the report states.

“The resurgence of meetings and events over the past few years has allowed meeting professionals to demonstrate the strong value that face-to-face meetings continue to offer globally,” said Issa Jouaneh, senior vice president and general manager, American Express Meetings & Events.

Another bright spot for limousine companies is an expected increase in the size of meetings and conventions, which bodes well for operations that can supply a range of vehicles for multiple transportation needs during the event.

“Our buses are running nonstop and many days our buses are sold out,” said George Jacobs, owner of Windy City Limousine in Chicago. Jacobs notes that he also gets bus bookings for special event outings, airport transfers, road shows, concerts, college sports teams, bands and “even the debate team.”

He notes that sports teams, for example, may need a motorcoach or a mini-bus depending on the number of people, equipment and the distance they must travel, and whether or not they need a vehicle with a restroom. He emphasizes that operators need to be able to handle all requests.

Regarding convention business, Jacobs has noticed people are more worried about prices. “For example, they may use sedans when they arrive at the airport, but they’ll group together in a mini-bus to save money on the return and that saves them money.”

He also has seen heavy use of buses to shuttle large groups among hotels and conventions sites that run continuous routes. Convention planners are looking for a one-stop-shop vendor to provide all transportation needs, he says. They want a company to offer sedans, SUVs and buses to also take them to dinners, functions and events.

Cost Conscious

Still, operators embedded in the meetings and convention business say that planners hiring ground transportation are cost conscious, expect more services, and don’t always understand the difficulty of logistics and the operation of motorcoaches.

“Meeting planners are looking for vendors like us to do more of the legwork to help them design more trips,” says Tony Simon, COO of Reston Limousine in Dulles, Va. “Everybody is stretched these days. It’s twofold — clients are looking for low pricing and meetings planners are trying to make a decent amount of money.”

One of the trends Simon notices is that meeting planners are making more last-minute changes and expecting transportation providers to make it happen.

“Society is all about ‘now’ and people feel they can get anything they want, whenever they want,” he adds. “For example, a wedding planner may have ordered one bus and then ask for two more buses at the last minute and expect it to just happen. It’s actually becoming the norm so we have to scramble to provide more buses. We’ve basically adapted and are used to it now.”

Extra Services

Another trend Simon points out is that meeting planners want transportation companies to assist them on site, but they don’t always want to pay for it.

“We look at it as a risk assessment issue,” Simon says. “They want to spend less but that increases our risk of not performing to the level of their expectations, so we find ourselves providing staff to make sure everything goes right.”

Stephen Story, president of James River Transportation in Richmond, Va., says, “Meeting planners are looking for experienced, quality and very organized service providers — not the cheapest price. Companies that just provide basic transportation and rely on the planners to direct them are not successful. The event looks bad, the planners look bad, and the attendees have a poor experience.”

Adds Simon, “Meeting planners are using one full-service vendor for all of their transportation needs. We’ll tell them that if we need more vehicles, we’ll use our affiliate network and they are fine with that. In some cases, they know the affiliates, but they still want to hold one company accountable.”

A Windy City motorcoach outside Wringley Field in Chicago.

A Windy City motorcoach outside Wringley Field in Chicago.

Variable Fleets

Regarding trends, Simon says Reston is seeing more bookings for mini-buses and buses. In the big picture, Story says, “We are all over the board with meeting and event types. For us, the event type depends on the season. The more popular types are association and church conventions, corporate events, outdoor leisure events and sporting events.”

Echoing his colleagues, Story says groups are booking motorcoaches, mini-coaches, and sedans and vans for VIPs.

When dealing with convention clients and meeting planners, Story suggests consulting with convention clients to help them simplify logisics and save on costs, such as matching types of vehicles with capacities. “A client may come to us and say ‘we need five buses,’ but after we discuss the plan, they may need only two buses that can do quick loops to move a large group rather than more buses. It’s important to talk to clients about their transportation parameters.”

In another example, if a client can live with a 30-minute timeframe at the airport for a group coming in, James River can combine the group transportation so they can all travel together, saving money. “They may have budgeted 30-40 transfers but we can get their manifest and schedule a group pickup, and if the client wants sedans and vans for executives, we can manage grouping them together in a few sedans,” Story says.

A driver eases a Van Hool motorcoach through the parking lot of Reston Limousine in Sterling, Va., as he heads out on a chartered run.

A driver eases a Van Hool motorcoach through the parking lot of Reston Limousine in Sterling, Va., as he heads out on a chartered run.

One interesting trend Story has noticed is that corporate clients are requesting smaller buses so employees can interact. “Companies don’t want 20 employees spread out on a big bus I’m finding. They want them closer together for team building so the people in the front of the vehicle can talk to the people in the back. It’s becoming a big deal,” he says. He also reinforces what many operators have discovered with wedding transportation. “Big wedding parties are using more buses because it’s both economical and the “smush” factor. They’re all in formal attire and they don’t want to be all smushed together in sedans or limousines.”

Because companies such as Reston and James River are busy, they often farm-out mini-bus and motorcoach work to affiliates. To maintain sevice levels, it’s all about building a relationship with affiliates, Story says. “We have to make sure they have the expertise in dealing with meetings planners because they can be so stressed out and abusive to vendors at times. You need to develop relationships with operators who can stay calm, especially with big weddings.”

Real-World Logistics

One of the problems operators often deal with when they provide motorcoach transportation for large events is managing client expectations versus the realities of the real-world logistics management.

“Many people don’t understand that you just don’t rev up a bus and off it goes,” says Stephen Story, president of James River Transportation in Richmond, Va. “There is a lot involved in its operation, and also buses are big and it takes more time to navigate through streets, turns and other factors that take more time than using sedans.”

Communication and experience in logistics are also paramount to providing motorcoach service. “To get 500 people on buses in an orderly, timely manner takes experience.  You just don’t have the buses show up and pack people in. For example, you can’t have all the buses lined up and all loading at the same time because if the first bus isn’t fully loaded, it can’t leave and the other buses behind it are just stuck there.”

Story notes that logistics is about mixing and matching vehicles to meet the client’s needs, coordinating drivers, communication, and having staff and greeters onsite to manage a smooth operation.

“If the meeting planner is just using volunteers who lack knowledge of logistics who may load that backfires, it all can blow up in their face,” Story says. “If a meeting planner’s budget doesn’t include onsite greeters and supervision, we recommend it and explain why and what could go wrong. But if they turn it down, we try to make sure the client is aware of the issues because we want to be upfront about all of the potential problems than can go wrong and protect ourselves because our name is on the buses if things don’t go smoothly.”

Related Topics: building your clientele, charter and tour, charter and tour operators, Chicago operators, fleet management, George Jacobs, group transportation, How To, James River, logistics, mini-buses, motorcoaches, Reston Limousine, Stephen Story, Tony Simon, Virginia operators, Washington DC operators, Windy City Limousine

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