Making More Money: Part 5:The Bingo Bus

No, this is not a preparatory piece to The Gambling Bus. That would confront insurmountable institutional obstacles. But practically every old age home, adult day care center or assisted living center in this country “runs” Bingo game regularly. So I suspect our law enforcement community either does not consider it gambling or criminal, or recognizes that it’s so widespread that nothing can or should be done about it.

That being said, let us connect a few dots. First, what demographic profile plays Bingo? Second, what demographic profile comprises 60% of motorcoach passengers? Third – and most importantly –millions (if not tens of millions) of senior citizens play Bingo regularly, most of whom either reside in or visit institutional environments. Knowing this, what might the demand for this form of recreation likely be for elderly Americans who do not live in institutional environments? What would their demand be for those who even do reside in or visit institutions but where staff use their lounges, party or recreational rooms for other purposes and programs?

Magnets, Frosting, Arithmetic and Challenges

If 55 individuals paid even a $5 fare for a five-hour Bingo jaunt – during the hours they are most likely available for it, and during the very same time slot that a flotilla of motorcoaches in virtually every sector and every part of the country are lying idle (i.e., 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM), a coach full of these piddily fares would generate $275 of additional revenue – less the cost of the driver, fuel and maintenance – for a vehicle whose other costs are already amortized by the vehicles’ mainstream trips, and which are often available during these times for such usage. Or let me ask it a few other ways:

  • What do you do with a computer/express bus in between its AM and PM peak hour trips?
  • What does a charter or tour driver do during these hours when, on an “out-and-back” trip, to say, a casino, amusement park or other mid-morning to early evening outing, after the passengers have alighted?

How here is the challenge. And here is where it gets interesting. To play Bingo on it, the coach would really not even have to move. Otherwise, its 55 passengers could likely find a large room – perhaps the recreation room of a church, a community center, etc. – where they could use the facilities for free, and pay no fare. But they obviously do not because they lack the organizational capabilities to arrange them. Beyond a motorcoach company’s ability to accomplish this, this is where the frosting comes it: The Bingo Bus would likely have to take its players somewhere interesting or valuable enough to make the $5 fare worth it, while they “mark up their cards” along the ride. This destination need not be extravagant: Lunch at a low-cost family restaurant, a stop at a special store, a quick visit to a historic site, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry (fare zero, round trip time 60 minutes), a visit to the Grand Canyon (or hundreds or thousands of other geological or historical wonders with which our country is filled), a box lunch in the park or at the beach, a quick tour of a charming small community, a trip to simply get an hours’ worth of errands done in a small, downtown village, a ballroom dance class, a few large hair or nail salons, aerobics for seniors, a movie or play, a concert, or practically any magnet that would involve only marginal additional costs, if any.

Combined with hours of Bingo played while cruising alongside often stunning scenery (think New England in the Autumn, when the leaves turn into a never-ending rainbow of color, or an oceanfront cruise along Pacific Coach Highway between suburban Los Angeles and Santa Barbara (where, unfortunately, the lunches are not cheap). Whatever one might say about the United States, our geography is not only vast and diverse, but much of it is of stunning natural beauty. So between the Bingo “rounds,” and marking up one’s cards, the riders – already on their way to a special destination – could gaze out the coaches’ huge, oversized windows and take in a panorama that many non-Americans and Americans alike often sign up for simply to look out the windows. Regardless, while I don’t see a huge demand for the latter by itself (at least not from non-tourists), this “package” fits together so well it seems like an almost ridiculous bargain: Playing your favorite game, surrounded by friends, in a reclining overstuffed-chair, in an air-conditioned environment, with background music, a destination and gorgeous scenery – for five bucks, during the middle of a day one would otherwise spend staring at daytime TV? How is this not a bargain? ;

Respite and Relief

One interesting industry of which many of us are barely or marginally aware involves respite care – often paid for by government agencies, particularly at the state level in certain parts of the country. This service is designed to provide parents, guardians and other caretakers a few hours’ of relief from the otherwise exhaustive task of caring for aging parents, problem children and others. One would think a five-hour respite from their often around-the-clock responsibility would be worth five-dollars. Frankly, five hours of home care would cost exponentially more, even though taxpayers cover most of these costs (via Medicaid or, more often, state programs). The individuals “relieved” would simply have to transport the travelers to and from a handful of nearby, close-together pickup/drop-off collection points … and their days would magically become their own. In an urban area, even a handful of subway stations or major transit stops would do. Regardless, this approach is already a fully-developed industry. Why not do it much better, much cheaper, and by providing the traveler with a much richer experience? Why are we, as taxpayers, paying motorists $10/hour or more to keep a single person out of his or her caregiver’s (or parents’ or guardians’) hair when for a tiny fraction of these costs, a motorcoach could provide them with an afternoon’s entertainment, and make a profit in the process? If this makes any sense, some motorcoach marketing officials might do well to make a few appointments with the local branches of the funding agencies otherwise paying for these services. We might find that government agencies would be delighted to find these same services available for a tiny fraction of their existing costs, and thus having to ourselves charge the passengers nothing for them, we could be flooded with demand for such trips.

Demographics and Technology

Both these factors add much to The Bingo Bus equation. Foremost is the obvious point that our population is not only aging, but the size of our aging population is exploding. Sixty percent of our ridership is already elderly, and the costs of taking care of them – even when it amounts to little more than babysitting — are escalating wildly. But even if some of the Bingo addicts are medically fragile, adding another dollar to the fare to place a nurse on board would hardly knock this idea out of the box. Frankly, hiring paramedics as drivers, much less in our current unemployment environment, and purchasing a portable defibrillator and a few other medical devices on board (e.g., blood pressure sleeve and monitor, stethoscope, aural thermometer) would amount to pennies a trip over a period of years. This is an idea whose time is coming – and coming rapidly.

The part of the equation a bit less obvious it the technology component: Beginning this year, every new motorcoach purchased will have a wheelchair (or risk a class action suit or punitive damages if a wheelchair or walker user is injured boarding or alighting a coach without one – much less the FMCSA requirement that, if the coach is not lift-equipped, the driver must physically carry a wheelchair user up and down the stepwell, and store his or her chair, in the luggage compartment. (Talk about back injuries and workers comp claims, much less the liability exposure that comes from dropping the passenger!) Further, our sector of the public transportation industry was the first to adopt “quick-change’ track seating systems (which permit the ultra-rapid re-spacing of seats). So the costs of installing track seating systems and a few more sets of securement devices on a $450,000 motorcoach which already has a lift (another would obviously not be needed) is barely an asterisk when amortized over the life of the bus – not to mention the flexibility such amenities would provide for non-Bingo-playing trips. Of course, placing six wheelchair users on board would eliminate 24 other seats, for a net loss of 18. Thus a 55-pasenger coach would become a 37-passenger coach, and the fares for this trip might have to be $8. (Because of the ADA, one cannot charge a wheelchair user more than any fellow passengers). Still, we’re not talking about much of a fare increase. And for a wheelchair user, such a trip is not merely a bargain It could represent his or her continued participation in daily life. As an institutional footnote, I’m not sure Medicaid would not pay the fares, just as they do to transport passengers to adult day care centers and other non-medical venues (Medicare covers the costs of transportation for this class of individual taking medical or medically-related trips.) Were this the case, again, demand would explode.

Multi-Tasking and Killing Time

The last time I heard anyone use the phrase “killing time,” I was in college – and from that point on, I never had a moment to kill a nanosecond, but instead have simply struggled to keep up. Admittedly, I have a complex life. Otherwise, since the American “Age of Leisure” (i.e., the 1950s and 1960s), we have been consumed with women in the workplace, an obscenely uneven distribution of wealth, corporate impunity (white collar criminals are not prosecuted, there is no consumer protection, and we spend endless time fending off corporate and internet scams), computers have taken over our lives, and we spend countless hours learning how to merely repair, troubleshot and upgrade them — much less use them. And the recent explosion of digital variations and spin-offs (I-pods, I-pads, Smart-phones, and the endless “apps” we plug into them (and often pay extraordinary prices for when we add them up) have largely killed of much of the free time we used to have. But for elderly individuals whom this new age has passed by, time is the one thing they still have plenty of, and often nothing to do with it. At least while they are still alive, they often have precious little else to do than take care of their health and watch daytime TV. But they already comprise about 20 to 25 percent of our population, and this percentage is increasing disproportionately, with an increasingly lower birth rate to produce individuals to help take care of them.

Wisdom Once Again from the Jazz World

Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie used to say, “Old Cadillacs never die. They just fade away.” Somehow, I think it’s better to not surrender one’s golden year to loneliness and depression when the antidote is actually doing something. It takes little energy to plop into a cushy seat, have our wheelchairs lifted on board, and mark up a handful of bingo cards, and maybe win a stuffed animal or some other small reward. (Many bingo players play just for the glory of winning, and nothing else.) I can’t help thinking that grossly-inexpensive activities like that suggested, possibly even subsidized by public agencies, is not exponentially more rewarding than withering away in front of daytime TV.
“B12, I23, N39, G47, 072, Hike!” (Oops, wrong game). I mean “Bingo.” Here is your stuffed animal. Or cupcake. Or Bingo champion of the ride certificate. Let’s all applaud Mrs. McGillicutty, today’s champion!” For someone otherwise spending a dismal day at home or in an institution, is this not an improvement – even without the institutional and other opportunities noted? Can we not do better for these people? Can we not do more with our vehicles?

Publications: National Bus Trader.