New bus sales are slightly down compared to last year, while used sales are slightly up.
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — One sign of upward industry growth on the vast LCT trade show floors has been the motorcoach exhibits, where towering 55-60 passenger buses are redefining the industry fleet mix.
In the last few years, the luxury ground transportation market has seen a steady rise in the number of makes and models, with such leading brands as Prevost, Van Hool, MCI, Irizar, Temsa, Volvo, CHTC, Setra, and Caio at LCT events.
What most of these brands all have in common are strong foreign ties and/or origins. Having honed their products and craft outside of the U.S., the manufacturers are expanding from established markets to one with a growing curiosity and demand for coach service.
Whether the U.S. market for motorcoaches ever catches up to the one in Europe cannot be predicted, but it can at least take some hints and apply some successes.
“We’re picking up a lot of new customers in the market,” says Jack Forbes, vice president of sales for Prevost, based in Quebec. “People are looking for longer trips and amenities, and that drives more customers.”
For Prevost, the U.S. market share has climbed steadily since 2013, Forbes says. Luxury fleet operators are seeing the benefits of bumping up from cutaway buses to motorcoaches. Prevost is getting more two-three unit orders as operators enter the market with the benefit of superior customer service.
One game-changer in the motorcoach market is the demand for reliable, high-speed WiFi since every passenger now expects to access entertainment and the Internet on their personal electronic devices, he adds.
Rider Culture Shift?
Demand for motorcoach service is tied directly to culture, and foreign nations have the U.S. beat on that front.
“It starts with the size of our country, and the culture of turning 16 years old, getting a car, a driver’s license, and owning and driving a car,” says Roman Cornell, executive vice president of ABC Companies, the Winter Garden, Fla.-based exclusive distributor of Belgian-built Van Hool buses. “In Europe, public transportation, trains, and buses are so refined. You have one or two cars for the whole family,” adds Cornell, who regularly travels to global motorcoach events such as Busworld Kortrijk, the largest B2B bus and coach exhibition in the world held every two years in Belgium.
With the Millennial generation, the U.S. is seeing more of a Euro-style shift toward group transportation and TNCs. “People aren’t buying cars like they used to,” Cornell says. “Why get a license when you can take Uber, Lyft, or a taxi? As that’s happening, more people are taking line-runs and figuring out this is not a Greyhound. There are nice modes of transportation with WiFi and plug-ins.”
Europe also favors the motorcoach market with its higher population density than in the U.S. with its vast rural and small town regions, says Brent Maitland, vice president of marketing and product planning for Des Plaines, Ill.-based MCI. “You can get across Europe and to a lot of different countries in eight hours.
“Everybody there knows how to take the bus because they’re used to it,” Maitland says. “I don’t know if you’re going to teach people here. But we’re starting to get [more riders] with the different line-run operations and scheduled service.”
Areas such as the Northeast Corridor, California, and major Texas cities offer motorcoach service potential.
Bus Growth Drivers
Fueling the demand for motorcoaches in the U.S. are airport shuttles, especially for longer point-to-point trips, employee shuttles within metro regions, and the growth in line runs between cities, whether touring or regular business commutes.
Cornell advises operators to consider opportunities among younger generations, corporate business and functions, and employee shuttle work. “In these high-density areas where they don’t have enough parking, you don’t want to drive. You have corporate shuttle programs popping up all over the U.S. following what Silicon Valley pioneered.”
Line-run services, whether on fixed routes or temporary service for special events or seasonal periods, is one niche market with a lot of potential, Cornell says. It can be a form of ride-sharing and crowd-organizing since you can sell tickets, and once you hit a minimum number to profitably fill a bus, it becomes a hard trip.” Such a business model works for concerts, rallies, protests, major sports events and games, or large multi-day conventions.
In Europe, you are seeing more of a motorcoach demand for luxurious 2-1 aisle seating and amenities such as self-serve galleys with coffee, snacks, and refreshments, Cornell says. “That’s one of the reasons Van Hool has been popular because it’s a European bus. It’s the Euro-ride feel, brakes, and suspension.”
Foreign-based bus brands bring over sleek European-style bus designs that are more modern and aerodynamic, and set the trend for the U.S. motorcoach market, he adds. “If you’re going to get someone out of a $40,000 car with all the amenities, then you need to have nice WiFi. It needs to be a comfortable bus with easy amenities, such as a clean bathroom, and you have to be able to see out.”
Maitland sees potential for operators to fill gaps left by rail service, regional airline routes, and Greyhound. The growth of line runs shows a rider demand for no-hassle, easy-to-use ground transportation.
“There’s a company out in California that runs San Fransisco to L.A. called Cabin,” Maitland says. “So their whole business model is, ‘Get on our bus at night, we drive at night, you show up in L.A. in the morning.’ You sleep on the bus. You save money versus an airplane. What you’re seeing is [operators] trying to compete. It’s not like airports are some great high-level of service. You’re in lines, you’re waiting. There’s a lot of things a bus offers that planes can’t. You can hop on and off. It’s logistically a lot easier.”
Selling To Group Movers
To win over traditional operators, builders and sellers need to reassure them with aftermarket and warranty support now provided via regional repair and sales centers, service vehicles, and licensed dealers nationwide.
Prevost also uses social media and its presence at trade shows and events to advance more of a motorcoach culture.
“We strongly align with customers to provide support functions,” Forbes says. Those would include driver training via driver academies, safety education, and maintenance training. “We try to focus on direct contacts, and linking to associations plays to our strengths.”
Despite all the efforts, the most challenging hurdle is simply the U.S. mindset on ground transportation. The U.S. traveling public still relishes its fierce automotive independence, preferring air travel when not opting for a car.
People are just more comfortable riding buses in Europe, Forbes says. “In Europe there’s no issue jumping on a bus and going to the next city. Here in the U.S. you grab a car, and a bus is still a second or third choice.”
Operator Succeeds With Motorcoach Line-Run
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Long before LCT trade shows hosted a “motorcoach row” of makes and models, one Virginia operator took a risk and invested in a venture now helping redefine luxury coach transportation.
Dan Goff, co-owner and general manager of A. Goff Transportation in Charlottesville, closed a deal in late 2010 to buy Starlight Express, a scheduled motorcoach line run between Charlottesville and New York City.
The line run, available on NYCShuttle.com, does two round-trips per week, Thursday-Friday and Sunday-Monday, dropping off and departing from the New York meatpacking district. Goff uses 2004 MCI E4500 buses equipped with WiFi and USB ports. His concept fits the one gaining traction in urban corridors: Private inter-city services such as Vamoosebus.com, Vonlane.com, Ridecabin.com, and Megabus.com.
After seven years of operation, the line-run is one of Goff’s most profitable revenue streams when compared to his full range of fleet services, from sedans to chartered motorcoaches. He’s found about 70% of riders are professional upscale women headed to New York for shopping excursions.
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