Making More Money: Part 1

Every now and then, I place my regular articles on "Safety and Liability" on hold, and substitute a series of installments about other subjects that appear timely. Two years ago, this departure created a nine–piece series on motorcoach specification titled "Buying Tomorrow’s Buses Today." While this series was not likely responsible for very much of it, motorcoach sales increased 33 percent that year.

Now, as our economy is struggling, I am beginning another journey in NBT titled "Making More Money." This series of installments will explore ideas for expanded uses of motorcoaches by commercial operators as far "outside the box" as safety and reasonable investments will allow. And it will take advantage of the dramatic changes in our society, particularly over the past two decades, that make some usages of motorcoaches almost unthinkable even a few years ago well worth exploring today. Among them, ironically, will be suggestions for some types of service that were in vogue decades ago, but which have long since been forgotten.

Means, Ends and Goals

Throughout its history, for most riders, motorcoach travel has been seen as a means to an end. It need not be. Most of us have noted, at one type of another, non–traditional uses of buses, most of them not operated by commercial operators. Many of these scenarios used the bus when it was not even moving (i.e., thus generating no operating costs). More importantly, a motorcoach’s unusual, longitudinal configuration is not very unlike a classroom, nightclub or small theater – except with better features (cushy, reclining seats, individual A/C and reading lights and often better acoustics). Moving and not moving, lift–equipped motorcoaches (as all new ones must be starting in 2012) are the ideal vehicle for large scale evacuations – replete with reclining seats, restrooms, huge storage bays, and two entrances or exits (much less capable of food storage, refrigeration and disposal when outfitted with portable equipment for it, including their quick installation in luggage bays). They might provide taxpayers and their local governments with far–more–affordable homeless shelters than do motel rooms or other facilities (e.g., gymnasiums wall–to–wall with cots and no opportunities for even minimal privacy), particularly for commuter/express services that rarely operate during the same hours the vehicles would be needed for transportation purposes. (They could easily be cleaned and disinfected in the mornings by their guests.)

Another largely–untapped market is the active class–room bus. Such vehicle might operate in rural areas – or even urban areas (e.g., the District of Columbia) that do not provide general education school bus services – particularly in the early PM period when the peak travel for schoolchildren is roughly a full run earlier than the earliest peak run for commuter express service –– and along the way, provide their passengers with extended, on–board classroom activity, as their fold–down trays might serve as desks or laptop surfaces, and their instructors could simply replace tour guides. Only a handful of relatively inexpensive amenities – compartmentalized seating (now available for motorcoaches, with seatbelts embedded within them), crossing devices (which could be quickly and easily retracted for non–school bus use), school bus mirror systems (Rosco now manufacturers a full–size cross–over mirror for mounting adjacent to the exterior, side–view mirrors) and even the yellow color could be camouflaged by magnetic signs quickly attached to the coach’s side body panels and rear cap for non–school bus usage.

Insofar as the additional FMVSS requirements needed for perform in this role, (rollover tests, side impact tests, etc.), any genuine motorcoach would meet such requirements as an afterthought – and in fact, would not even have to undertake the test: Vehicles can self–certify their compliant with most requirements. Such a scenario would not comprise a replacement for school bus service – it would simply involve the provision of it, for perhaps a single run – in places where the purchase of a school bus for an entire school year (deployed only 180 days a year, for perhaps four hours a day) simply lies beyond a school district’s means. But the use of a motorcoach providing AM and PM commuter/express runs has most or all of its costs already amortized. Deploying it two hours earlier for a school run would not only add revenue, but at a cost affordable to its secondary market or funding agency.

When motorcoaches cannot bring people to things, they may be able to bring things to people. During their off–hours (or if compensated for it, during traditional hours or by deploying vehicles from fleets not fully booked), motorcoaches could be outfitted to serve as smaller, localized versions of the famous Good Ship Hope, dispensing medicine and healthcare services to remote or poverty–stricken areas whose residents otherwise have no access to such services. And they can transport things other than passengers – like blood, medicine, food and mail – the latter of which many coaches used to do routinely. Doctors or hospitals need not purchase such vehicles and the complexity in "foreign" field associated with them: They would be far better off simply contracting for these vehicles from commercial operators. The point is, there are many non–traditional sources of revenue to support such usages whose agencies are paying significantly more for the delivery of such services via more conventional means – partly because the costs of the vehicles or facilities must generally be amortized solely by that usage. With motorcoaches deployed mostly in other revenue–generating activities, their part–time deployment for other purposes would not only generate additional revenue, but save the purchasers of the services a considerable sum compared to other means of service delivery.

One thought that I hope some of these examples trigger is the notion that there are some uses for motorcoaches that might justify subsidies. While the enemies of this S–word may see these innovations as a slippery slope, I view it as a bridge to our industry’s survival and growth.

In an NBT article years ago ("Alcohol and Public Policy"), I ridiculed the notion of a "dance bus," and mocked a litany of party bus themes to which a motorcoach’ length and linear configuration lent itself (the shuffleboard bus, the bocci bus, the darts bus, the bowling bus, the archery bus, the javelin bus, etc.) Yet in contrast to dangerous motorcoach uses –– like dance buses – that actually exist –– there is actually an enormous range of uses – with the vehicle in motion and/or not – to which a motorcoach can be put. An entertainment bus is only one of them. Frankly, with the removal of glasses and glass containers, and a execution of a handful of safety procedures (selection of safe bus stops, safe access to destinations, door–to–door passenger assistance to those vulnerable via their inebriation, driver assistance on and off the coach, crossing assistance where appropriate, etc.) – I see feasible possibilities for a drinking bus, of which many already exist without most of these safety–related amenities in some sub–regions of the country. Similarly, where regulations would permit it, I do not see why motorcoaches transporting passengers to casinos cannot have revenue–generating slot machines and other modern digital casino games temporarily embedded (and thus easily removable) into the fold–down seatback trays.

From the examples suggested, I will try to screen out those examples that might prove lucrative yet morally repugnant to many readers – such as the hooker bus or lap dance bus. Nor would I recommend, much less condone, many of the activities that regularly occur undeterred in limousines, such as sex, hard drug usage and alcohol in glasses and glass bottles. Regardless, other than at the extremes of compromising safety, regulations or morality, the criteria I will employ for selecting suggestions to use as a starting point for our readers’ imaginations will not reflect my personal tastes or preferences. I would not likely ever want to take most of the trips I will likely suggest our readers consider. But I am not King (at least not yet), and the point is that our industry has to survive. To do this our goals must necessarily change. No longer should a motorcoach be thought of as something to either bring people to things or to bring things to people. The goal should be to maximize the number of hours per week (168) to which the coach can be put to some use, at some cost or fare, or by a subsidized or philanthropically–supported public service. Regardless, as we travel through this idea–laden journey, and think about improving upon and translating many of these ideas into reality at the operating level, we must try to keep in mind that, travel–wise, nothing is as flexible as a modern motorcoach.

Scenarios and Sectors

In thinking through the countless new or abandoned uses to which a motorcoach could be put, one finds that few of them make sense for all four "sectors" in which motorcoach service is provided: Tour, charter, intercity/scheduled service, and commuter/express. In contrast, most of the innovative uses apply to either commuter/express service, or to charter/tour service (and a small handful to intercity/scheduled service). Few seem well–suited to more than one of these.

Further, given the configuration and size of Today’s motorcoaches, and the options available, uses for such vehicles that were inconceivable a mere decade ago are surprisingly easy to achieve today. Among the innovations at our disposal are fully–reclining seats (an interesting alternative to AMTRAK in the intercity/scheduled service sector), quick–change track seating systems, wheelchair lifts, electrical sockets, not to mention all type and manner of accessories long since available on luxury motorcoach "conversions" – long a staple of NBT. Nor must innovation come from only the motorcoach or even the bus experience. Borrowing from both passenger rail and commuter vanpool technology, there is no reason that commuter/express service cannot be enhanced with two–plus–one seating (i.e., first–class compartments) that recline more fully, and the "galleys" and microwaves that pervade our airline services, which could fit into relatively small spaces – as they already do on many motorcoach conversions. With fully–reclining seats (already available), noise and light reduction technologies (at the lower end of the spectrum, ear plugs and masks), and "separation" curtains, there is no reason commuters could not extend their sleep periods by napping on the buses – an approach that would extend the range of commuter services into those communities whose distance from center city areas would either be unrealistic or a significant hardship. Otherwise, especially with quick–change track seating systems (currently installed only in the rear to allow seats to be pushed forward to accommodate a wheelchair), the front of the bus would lend itself to a terrific lectern or small bandstand. We already have PA systems and video monitors. So accommodating a string quartet (in swivel–mounted rear–facing seats) or a televised science lecture would be child’s play.

History and Precedent

In my graduate school days, I paid my tuition partly as a piano player on AMTRAK’s "Montrealer," enhancing the pub–car experience during evenings between the otherwise overnight trip from Washington D.C. to Montreal and back the next evening – while the adjacent fully–equipped dining car passengers consumed their after–dinner drinks to live piano accompaniment (a handful of Accela runs actually contain dining cars – as do many freight rail lines that shuttle lobbyists and the railroad’s friendly Congresspersons and Senators between Washington, D.C. and many of their "home districts" most weekends). In my youth, red caps with baskets of sandwiches and beverages roamed the aisles of most intercity passenger rail trains. Occasionally, one could get his shoes shined on board. Our nation’s passenger rail and motorcoach history is rich with such services, but many have faded away as fresh food was gradually replaced with "industrial food" shipped thousands of miles, and our litigious society discouraged the sale of items whose contents could not be secured.

It is also worth noting that the motorcoach industry’s ridership profile – roughly 60% elderly and 30% field trips to schoolchildren – lends itself perfectly to increased innovation. During my days in the "pub car," I experienced almost this identical demographic: The vast majority of the passengers were either elderly (plenty of time and little money) or college and high school students (somewhat less free time, and even less money).

Creativity and Cash Flow

Intentionally, the handful of examples cited above are only the rawest of thoughts, and many likely conflict with some of our individual tastes and values. But those whose tastes and values would be violated by certain types of services could simply not take the trips that offer them. Otherwise, the markets I envision are virtually untapped, sizeable (in some regions, enormous), profitable, saturated with job creation opportunities for both the motorcoach operators and others – speakers, teachers, performers, service personnel, support staff, medical professionals, computer–repair personal, shoe shiners and dry cleaning pickup/drop–off clerks, and a hoard of similar participants as varied as our imaginations allow and facilitate. In fact, a truly innovative commuter/express operator could incorporate a short, mid route stop at a mini–mall offering an array of much–needed daily services – like dry cleaning, pharmacies, banks, ATM machines, stationary/office supply stores, computer support minimarts, quick–check–out markets, coffee shops and fast–food snack venues. In simple terms, with a little innovation, we could provide our passengers with the flexibility motorists enjoy – without the otherwise–needed stop to pump gas, and in far less time than most passengers would consume if they had to drive their personal vehicles to and from these services after alighting from their coaches at their typically residentially–oriented destinations.

Let us stop providing motorcoach service as it is. Let us instead begin to provide what it can be. Let us create more jobs and more service. Let us keep our vehicles occupied for as many hours per week, month or year as is reasonably possible. Let us make traveling by or simply using motorcoaches more productive and more fun.


Publications: National Bus Trader.