Making More Money: Part 4: The Lecture Bus

The lecture bus is admittedly a new idea. But it’s has its roots in a mélange of changes in travel behavior both in an automobile and on a motorcoach. It also has enormous potential for altering the nature of commuter/express service, while it has far more creative possibilities for tour and charter service — and even some potential for making segments of long intercity travel less monotonous. Further, the logistics are relatively easy. Many of the lecturers would likely speak for free (e.g., for a chance to sell copies of their latest books). There is almost no end to the growing number of people who have no time to explore more and more things they would like to and need to, yet simply do not have the time to do so. Otherwise, the most things that occupy a typical motorcoach rider’s time – since conversation and cell-phone calls are discouraged because they disturb fellow passengers – include only a handful of realistic choices (looking at the scenery, reading, working or playing on laptops or I-pads, listening to music (mostly on i-Pods) or napping are sadly things one could do almost anywhere. In contrast, the Lecture Bus provides an almost endless stream of opportunities to transform motorcoach travel from an end to a means.

While a certain segment of commuters may actually be able to get some work done on a motorcoach, the situation with most others is that a lot of time is simply wasted, and passengers are merely “killing time” by playing child-like video games to which they have become addicted. Yet these vehicle’s “captive audiences,” the thirst for would-be writers and lecturers to share their visions, and the need for so much learning in an increasingly competitive world combine to present an enormous opportunity for the Lecture Bus to not only increase fares on existing services, but introduce additional runs and trips that currently do not even exist.

Roots and Opportunities

The core idea for the lecture bus actually comes from one of the recent innovations in automobile travel: CDs are available through which motorists can actually listen to an author (or professional actors and actresses with well-known voices) read his or her full-length book. While this innovation had its origins in novels, it has expanded, as one might expect, to an array of non-fiction: Self-help books, spiritual presentations, how-to-succeed-in-business book-lectures, how to make extra money mini-lectures (some of them scams), how to succeed in the stock market, and an almost limitless range of other topics. While entertaining and informative, these presentations have their limits to motorists because they must also drive. Frankly, when the content of such information becomes mesmerizing, it may actually compromise driving safety, as the listener must unavoidable split his or her attention between driving and listening.

Regardless, the presentation is still “canned.” In contrast, beyond being freed from driving, a bus or coach passenger could not only receive such information from a live Earthling doing the speaking, but could even ask questions and receive answers – an interactive possibility not currently available in “canned” presentations (although it is only a matter of time before the digital landlords of our current existence will figure out how to enslave us yet further by canning even this – perhaps via holograms — and increase the number of accidents of no concern to them). In the meantime, an enormous window of opportunity exists for filling a growing need for both entertainment and learning that our normal lives have increasingly less time to accommodate.

Density, Career Growth and Commuting

For this idea to work, two things would obviously be needed: (1) 47 to 55 individuals interested enough in what the lecturer has to present, and (2) a lecturer willing to work such a “small room.” Obviously, it is unlikely that someone already rich and famous is going to be willing to lecture to four dozen people paying a dollar or two for the privilege – although I can easily envision a hundred busfulls’ of Wall Street brokers willing to pay $2000 apiece to listen to a top Apple official explain how to build a billion dollar company, and I suspect that individual would be willing to make $100,000 of spare change by spending two hours on an air-conditioned bus stuffed with fanatic admirers.

Otherwise, in our mainstream reality, our society is overflowing with people trying to get their messages out, and tens of millions are willing to listen to many of these messages. Particularly at the beginning of their careers, authors and lecturers of all types might be thrilled to earn $50 to $100 in a 90-minute commute to read passages from their latest novel (and in a single week of AM and PM commutes, this individual could read his or her entire, full-length novel).

But reading novels is merely the tip of the iceberg. The famous American author and social critic, H.L. Mencken, once said that, “The thing that keeps capitalism alive in America is every man’s dream that someday he may become a capitalist.” Superimpose this sensibility onto the current American political environment for even a nanosecond. We are becoming a society where the majority are willing to allow most of us to become poor in exchange for the remote chance to become obscenely rich. In this frenzied capitalist society, striving to “get ahead” is the goal of almost everyone’s existence: In the words of Vince Lombardi, winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

So other than someone already obscenely rich, given the choice between (a) having one’s driver chauffeur you into Manhattan’s Financial District, where parking is another $60 a day, or (b) sitting back in a comfy, overstuffed motorcoach seat and listening to some stock market guru run through some charts and graphs displayed on the coach’s video, I suspect that plenty of individuals would opt for the latter. If instead of their parking, driver and related expenses, 55 motorcoach passengers paid the lecturer the $200 their commute would otherwise cost, I suspect that there would be plenty of qualified lecturers also traveling to the same destination willing to earn an extra $10,000 ($200 x 50 passengers) on their way to work by showing off to a coach full of admirers willing and eager to lick their boots. With such sums involved, commuter/express subsidies would literally vanish with the fare from a single passenger.

This is an idea the most ardent Republican could embrace. And while Vince is no longer around to lecture us, I can see a barrel of big spenders taking this trip to listen to John Madden – as long as the trip is provided on an MCI, which most commuter/express trips already are.

While the percentage of Lecture Buses I envision being used by the super-rich represents only a minute fraction of the potential market, it is an extraordinarily-important fraction. This is because rich people almost never ride motorcoaches. Imagine what them doing so, for any reason, would do to our image. Otherwise, at the normal passenger level, where the fare is typically $2.00 to $4.00, I can foresee a significant number of passengers being willing to increase the fares by perhaps two additional dollars to learn about thousands of things.

The entire last 200 issues of NBT have fewer words in them that I could place on the list of what some commuter would love to learn about. Jumping around as crazily as even I could possibly do, this list could include fixing plumbing and wiring, winning at chess, gambling strategies, health and exercise tips, gourmet cooking (that could even be demonstrated by borrowing a few accoutrements from the motorcoach conversion world), bargain-hunting [“The Bargain-Shopping Bus” is a few installments away], history, politics, how to give your child an edge in the sport of his choice, increasing marital and other relationship harmony, geography, investment strategies, fashion, gardening, song-writing (an electric keyboard fits easily onto a motorcoach; the microphone is already their), martial arts, yoga, baking, yodeling, guitar or piano lessons.

I suspect one would have a hard time filling a motorcoach with oboe students, and there would be insufficient room (not to mention the distraction to the driver) for a coach full of Tuba students). But there is obvious merit to lectures or classes on weaving and sewing, photography, hunting, fishing and international geography. There is absolutely no way for a writer to end this list, and no matter how much I stuff into it, every reader will instantly think of a few things that were so obvious that he or she cannot figure out why I omitted them. More importantly, every reader can almost instantly think of another dozen or so topics that perhaps a different writer with knowledge and experiences more like their own could have included. At the same time, I think a few topics – bicycling, mud-wrestling and rock-climbing come easily to mind – are not likely to be workable.

Frankly, some topics – like learning about entirely new careers, or actually taking classes to learn the skills needed to qualify for them (different for adults than for the passengers of the Extended Classroom Bus in the previous installment) could consume literally years of riding. Similarly, immigrants could use their commutes to learn the English language – and those of us curious enough could use the commute to learn theirs. Similarly, an under-educated commuter could conceivably obtain his or her GED in a couple years of riding. Learning how to “play the ponies” could take months. Mastering chess could take forever – perhaps translating into a unique phenomenon in the passenger transportation field: The Lifetime Bus Pass.

Charter and Tour Applications

Since commuters have to get to work anyway, applying the Lecture Bus to commuter/express service is so natural it is almost lazy to explain. Yet, I believe strongly that an equal number of opportunities exist in the charter and tour sectors of the industry. That is because the Lecture Bus approach to charter and tour service would significantly enhance the experience, and as a consequence, significantly increase the demand for charter and tour service. Frankly, I am surprised that so few applications of the Lecture Bus to charter and tour service currently exist.

If I were traveling to a guided tour of a railroad, would not the experience be greatly enhanced if, on the way, a qualified speaker told me all about it? And on the return trip, answered questions about what I learned on the tour? Would I not be far more likely to take my son to a ball game if, along the way, a retired player spoke about his life on that team, and on the return trip, signed every child’s baseball? If I were traveling to an antique show or an auction, I think I would greatly appreciate someone explaining the process to me along the way, and showing me what was for sale or bid, and what its value likely was. On the return trip, that same speaker could evaluate the purchases now stuffed into the luggage bays. The reality is, we have a comfortable, climate-controlled environment with a restroom, reclining seats, luggage racks, the possibility of refreshments, video monitors and loudspeakers. These things make The Lecture Bus possible.

More importantly, adding a live Earthling who is an expert on the topic or theme of the trip is almost an afterthought, financially. But it is likely far more valuable than any of these other accommodations. Would someone on such a trip not be willing to pay $5 more for this enhancement? If he or she were, most of the additional fare could compensate the lecturer. A portion of it – this might be considered the lecturer’s “commission” for this opportunity – could go to the motorcoach operator – who would already be providing more profit-making trips because of this enhancement.

Dynamics and Bargains

Let us be realistic and agree that the majority of our citizens will increasingly become less wealthy. Yet we would also agree that we do not wish the safety of our transportation to decline as a consequence. This means that drivers and management personnel will have to be paid more, compared with other employment opportunities, to maintain or even improve upon the level of safety we currently enjoy.

On the passenger side, motorcoach service might have vanished from the face of the earth had our society not transformed free television into an extravagantly overpriced cable TV experience. It even costs money to read certain newspapers on line today. In this context, an enriched motorcoach ride, whose costs can be shared among 50 or so people, is one of life’s genuine bargains. If we make the effort to enhance the experience, it will become an even better bargain.

And then there are fuel, maintenance and parking. In the coming election, guess what issue the outcome is likely to turn on? That is correct. Gasoline prices. This single issue is so volatile that it has become a major consideration, among politicians, in their positions with regard to preemptive strikes about nations whose goals are to wipe fellow nations off the face of the Earth. Such forces are certain to have a significant impact on what transportation professionals call “mode split” – the transfer from the use of one mode to another.

Strangely, the explosion of car-pooling we experienced in the Seventies and Eighties appears to have practically vanished. I think this is so because the car-pool provides relatively small and few benefits to its participants in exchanges for lots of hassles – including merely cutting certain costs in half or thirds or fourths – at the expense of making the trip longer for the driver (whose gasoline and parking costs might be covered by the fellow passengers). Compared to this, a motorcoach carrying 50 passengers, and for which none of whom have to pay for its parking, is a significantly more sensible alternative. But this “mode split” may need a push. At the commuter/express level, this push could come from the enhancement of the trip as The Lecture Bus, where the trip is not merely the end, it is also the means. At the charter/tour segment of the spectrum, the Lecture Bus would simply increase the quality of the experience, and by doing so, increase demand for it.

Facing Reality

Like it or not, our society is becoming exponentially more digital. Merely trying to keep up with the range and diversity of change has eliminated an enormous amount of most people’s otherwise free time. Tell me: When was the last time you heard the expression “killing time” used? We no longer have time to kill. We barely have time to sleep. The phrase “killing time” has been replaced, by our nation’s owners, with the phrase “multi-tasking.” And it has been exacerbated by forces like the feminist movement that effectively forced most female spouses into a workforce where both spouses’ combined incomes are now likely to be less, in Today’s dollars, than what only one of them earned 30 years ago.

All this, our increasing poverty, and our thirst for riches, portends for an future with the need for relentlessly accelerated learning. We are inexorably going to be forced to substitute the time needed for this learning for other things that we are now, or used to be, doing – like exercising and relaxing. (Remember “dining?” Remember home-cooked meals? Remember crock pots? Slow-cooked food?) But when one thinks about it, the most practical alternative to this is to learn while we are traveling. As noted in the beginning of this installment, this form of multi-tasking presents problems in the car world. But it makes perfect sense in the bus world.

Things that adapt survive, and those that do not generally disappear. There are economies of scale in any business, and many members of the motorcoach industry are already running on a margin as thin as a tightrope made of dental floss. Even Carl Walenda could not perform on such a tightrope. If we think we can, we are deluding ourselves. Realistically, to survive, much less prosper, we must adapt. The Lecture Bus, along with many or most of the modal variations included in this series of installments, provide examples of what we can do to accomplish this goal. Frankly, I do not even think of it as a goal. I think of it as a need.

Publications: National Bus Trader.