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Also known as tour buses, luxury entertainer coaches now make up a small but lucrative segment of the motorcoach industry. They cater mainly to musicians who make their living performing live shows now that the internet and low-cost or free music streaming have cut into their recording incomes.
“It’s a very niche market within the bus industry, but it is a very stable business,” said Steven Zeigler, director of the bus shell division at Prevost, the primary motorcoach manufacturer that produces “shells” converted into entertainer coaches.
The Prevost X3-45 VIP Entertainer shell is the preferred coach of artists and crews that tour throughout North America. The shell includes Prevost slideouts, a fully integrated Volvo powertrain, and the integral structure and body of the motorcoach. It leaves the factory essentially as an empty box on wheels, Zeigler said. Conversion companies then finish the interior and amenities, including electrical and plumbing systems, bathrooms, kitchens, HVAC, flooring, custom windows, bunks, lounges, and satellite, stereo, and Wi-Fi systems.
Zeigler said Prevost also manufactures shells converted into custom motorhomes that sell to individuals for up to $2 million. The shells converted into entertainer coaches end up in the fleets of an estimated 20 entertainer coach companies operating in the U.S. and Canada. There also is a market for used coaches.
New entertainer coaches cost between $800,000 and $1.3 million, depending on their amenities, and are leased to traveling entertainers for days, weeks, months, or in some cases up to three years. Artists who lease the coaches long-term are given the option of picking out interior finishes and other amenities.
Average industry leasing rates range from about $1,200 to $1,600 a day, including the coach, driver, fuel, tolls, linens, satellite, Internet, and cleaning. It can take about four to seven years to recoup the cost of an entertainer coach, depending on whether it was bought new or used, the purchase price, and the number of days it is leased each year.
Many entertainer coach companies are either based in or near Nashville or have offices there because the city is home to the country music industry and is a major transportation hub.
“Nashville is the entertainer coach capital of the country,” said Douglass Oliver, general manager of Pioneer Coach in Nashville and chairman of the American Bus Association’s Entertainer Motorcoach Council, which was formed to improve communications and relationships within the industry.
About half of the entertainer coach companies have large fleets, with some running more than 100 coaches, while the rest are smaller operations with one or two coaches up to about 20, Oliver said. The smaller companies tend to buy used coaches. He said there are about 900 entertainer coaches on the road.
Most of the larger companies, including Pioneer, purchase shells from Prevost and finish them in their own in-house conversion shops.
“Our conversion shop is an important piece of our business,” Oliver said. “It is a pipeline to future growth and it allows us to control the quality of our coaches.”
Pioneer produces about six conversions a year that are added to the company’s fleet. Older coaches in the company’s fleet are sold to smaller companies or those operators just entering the industry.
There are also five or six companies that only do conversions for sale to entertainer coach operators, while a handful of others focus on motorhome conversions.
Because of the upfront cost and complexity of entertainer coaches and the different client base, it can be difficult for startup companies to break into the business and survive long enough to start making a profit.
Some established charter bus operators seek to diversify their businesses by adding entertainer coaches to their mix, but Oliver said such crossover companies make up only 10% or less of the industry.
But there are established charter and tour operators who have successfully added entertainer coaches to their businesses. Some have done so by buying existing entertainer coach companies, while others have started small, adding one or two used coaches and growing slowly from there.
Village Travel of Wichita, Kansas, an established charter bus operator, chose the first path to entering the entertainer coach industry by purchasing an existing company, Four Seasons Coach Leasing of Nashville, in August 2018.
“We went all in,” said Kyle Filiatreault, general manager of Four Seasons Coach, Village’s entertainer coach operation. “Our owner was intrigued by the industry and the way they run their businesses, and he thought he could be successful in the entertainer coach industry. We’ve come a long way in a year.”
Four Seasons now operates 23 entertainer coaches within Village’s overall fleet of 150 motorcoaches. It purchases shells from Prevost and sends them to conversion companies for completion for an overall cost of just under $1 million per coach, Filiatreault said.
Arrow Stage Lines of Nebraska, another established charter bus company, decided to enter the entertainer coach industry in 2014 when it launched Arrow Entertainer with one used coach.
“They said to us, ‘Why don’t you get an entertainer bus so we can book all of our coaches with one company?’ ” he said. “So we started with one used coach and we have been growing it slowly and learning as we go.”
Arrow has since added one or two used entertainer coaches a year and bought its first new coach this year. It now operates eight entertainer coaches and recently started offering them for long-term leases.
“An artist has locked up our new bus for an entire year,” Busskohl said. “He pays for it to sit in our yard when he isn’t using it so no one else can use it.”
Entertainer coach operators say companies looking to get into the business need to be aware of how it differs from running a “seated” charter bus business. For one thing, general maintenance is much more complicated on an entertainer coach.
“The electrical system is very complex,” Busskohl said. “They are kind of like a house. There is just more that can go wrong. There are 80-plus items to check before every trip. Everything in every nook and cranny has to be working like it is supposed to work.”
Besides having regular HVAC systems, entertainer coaches also have rooftop air conditioners operated by onboard generators when the coaches are parked in areas with no electrical outlets. The diesel-powered generators may need to run 100 to 150 hours a week, so they have to be constantly maintained.
Entertainer coach operators also have to deal with artists who can be demanding, as well as such people as booking agents, tour managers, publicists, and agents, said Finn of Nitetrain Coach.
“The logistics are much more complex than for a seated charter because you are moving five to 12 individuals in a bus that essentially operates like a hotel suite going down the road,” Finn said. “Just like in a hotel room, everything has to be clean, the beds made, and the TV and internet working. In a charter bus, the passengers sit down, buckle their seatbelts, and ride down the road.”
Another major difference between the charter bus industry and the entertainer coach industry involves drivers. Charter bus drivers might work just part of a day, maybe picking up a sports team at the airport and driving them to the stadium, then wait until after the game to drive the players to a hotel or back to the airport. If they drive multi-day tours, they sleep in hotels at night.
“Our drivers can be gone a month and a half at a time,” Finn said. “We’re dealing with a different caliber of drivers who put their lives and families on hold for months to take care of their clients.”
Entertainer coach drivers usually must drive all night, while the performers are sleeping, so they have to be careful not to brake too suddenly or turn too sharply. “The clients want to sleep,” said Busskohl of Arrow Stage Lines. “If a driver isn’t smooth enough, they will ask that he or she be switched out mid-tour.”
Among the better-known artists who have been clients of entertainer coach companies are pop/R&B singer Beyoncé, rapper Jay-Z, country star Luke Bryan, and the late soul singer Aretha Franklin.
Entertainer coach operators say finding good drivers can be difficult because of the challenging schedules and the industry-wide shortage of motorcoach drivers.
“Most of our drivers like being on the road for long periods,” Busskohl said. “Finding quality drivers definitely is a struggle, but we have some really good ones.”
Despite the challenges involved in running a successful entertainer coach business, there are plenty of positives, such as the high usage rate of the coaches. Where charter operators might have to find groups to lease their buses 10 or more times a month for short trips, entertainer coach operators only have to lease their coaches once every month or two to achieve full usage.
Some national artists will book six or seven coaches for a tour, and if they have a couple opening acts, it is not uncommon for them to book several more coaches, Filiatreault of Four Seasons Coach said.
Entertainer coach operators say they also enjoy playing a small role in successful music tours by transporting popular artists to thousands of fans, and they have overall positive impressions of their clients, although occasionally they can act like rock stars.
"You can’t imagine what they can do to a bus on any given day,” said Finn, although he declined to give specific examples or name the artists. “Some of the wildest things can happen, which can be frustrating. But as long as it can be cleaned up, we end up laughing about it at the end of the day.”
Arrow Stage Lines made the right move by expanding into the entertainer coach market, Busskohl said. “I’m grateful our company did it because we get to work with some really great people. It’s a higher commitment because it is a 24/7 gig, but it’s a nice piece of business to be involved in.”
Hal Mattern is a Phoenix-based freelance writer and former editor of Bus & Motorcoach News.
Related LCT article: Prevost Grows With Luxury Bus Customers
Related Topics: American Bus Association, building your clientele, buses, celebrities, charter and tour, charter and tour operators, client markets, Entertainment, How To, luxury buses, motorcoach operators, motorcoaches, new vehicles, operations, Prevost, tour buses, vehicle conversions, VIP service
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