Making More Money, Part 9: The Conference Motortel
Supply and Demand: When it comes down to it, the ultimate dynamics of survival in life on Earth. More poetically, 70’s pop artist icon James Taylor crooned, “You provide the satisfy, and I’ll provide the need.” So here we go on another jaunt to expand the scenarios for motorcoach usage. However, along the road, we are actually inventing a brand new mode – not that no one has necessarily tried this particular one before. But if one has, it has clearly not come across the radar of our industry at large.
Conferences! No matter what we do, if we are in a professional field of almost any kind, we love to go to conferences. We also need to. Yet usually only the “top dogs” in an organization get paid to attend them. However, for many tiny businesses like mine, the costs to attend national conferences (when I am not “comped” for speaking at them) are often prohibitive, and particularly in my case, doing work in virtually every passenger transportation sector, I would like to attend more conferences than my schedule and resources permit me to. With the value of my time, plus the travel time, plus the hassles and delays, plus the often high hotel costs and local taxi fares, the costs are high. Further, f I must drive to them, I waste time that I could use doing work as a passenger, not to mention the cost of fuel, maintenance and parking. Lose, lose, lose, lose, lose.
For those without the means to attend a genuinely significant conference and/or trade show – perhaps only the most important one a year – not doing so it a shame. But it is not a shame simply because we cannot afford to do so. It is a shame because we have not figured out how to afford it. With plenty of exceptions, most conferences – and certainly those in the transportation field – are not sales scams or junkets. Instead, they are important, often exciting and fulfilling events packed with valuable information typically presented by the top experts in the country in their respective fields, and often accompanied by a comprehensive trade show exhibiting the newest and most sophisticated products and services on the market. With few exceptions, almost every industry hosts at least one national conference, and many also host regional or state conferences.
I am not typical in my ability to attend a conference, or even several, a year. I make a fair amount of money, I am occasionally paid or “comped” (my air fare and hotel costs covered) to speak, I need to maintain and exchange information among my network of associates, and most importantly, as a forensic expert, I must keep up with the “industry standard,” and absorb as many details about it as I possibly can. However, many or most conferences within our own industry are designed to attract and accommodate drivers – even though this is more true for conferences in certain sectors (e.g., the pupil transportation field and the Disabilities Conference) than in others (e.g., APTA conferences).
In contrast, conferences in many other fields are geared not solely to top officials and managers, but more importantly, to a broad cross-section of employees. Particularly in industries with large cores of mid-level management, conference attendance can improve their knowledge, skills and performance substantially, and their attendant at their field’s major conference could also provide a boost to their careers. This is also true in “blue collar” industries, particularly with respect to the construction industry and others with large numbers of independent contractors wishing to “move up a notch” against their competitors and learn more about new technologies and approaches, such a “green technology.” But many such individuals enjoy only moderate incomes, unemployment levels are high, and even marginally-extravagant investments comprise a risk. Finally, many work is seasonal – including professions like teaching and fishing – leaving plenty of time for individuals in these field to attend conferences and workshops. For all these individuals, the ability to attend a conference or two a year at a pittance of its normal costs could be a powerful enticement, and could make the difference between them attending or not.
Travel Costs and Trade-offs
Regarding comparative travel costs, if one makes a 300- to 500-mile drive (consuming 12 to 16 hours of round-trip driving), hundreds of miles of gasoline at $4.00/gallon, has to awaken at the crack of dawn the night before a conference and return late the final night of it to save the cost of a night or two in a hotel or motel, that individual will not only be exhausted, and the entire conference experience unpleasant, but his or her presence on the road would be dangerous. In contrast, if one must stay over even a single night or additional night at a hotel or motel, plus pay for all the fuel (and add mileage to the vehicle), plus purchase incidentals (like food more expensive than one might normally have access to), the trip’s cost can quickly become prohibitive. It gets significantly worse if the traveler must fly or take a long trip on AMTRAK. While no formal study has ever been done to quantify the impact of all these deterrents on conference attendant, the sparse attendance at most transportation conferences (the Kortrijk conference excepted) is, frankly, pathetic.
As an example, the National Association of Pupil Transportation’s annual Conference draws perhaps 1,000 attendees; School Transportation News’ Western States counterpart sometimes attracts only about 500; and the Disabilities Conference (largely school bus industry-oriented) was recently sold because attendance could not cover the costs of sustaining its organization throughout the rest of the year. With more than 450,000 school buses operating in this country, and somewhat more drivers than vehicles, it is apparent that National Conferences are attracting perhaps one out of every thousand potential conference attendees.
As an illustration of how attractive the Motortel would be, it is interesting to note that many of today’s conferences and/or trade shows are already structured to accommodate it – although the current goal is to eliminate the need for a second night’s hotel, and to provide the opportunity for potential attendees to drive to and from the conference rather than attend it via costly air or train travel. In the transportation field, both BusCon and School Transportation News’ Western States Conferences have divided their essentially 8-hour trade shows into a two-day format, beginning the afternoon of the first day, and ending in the early afternoon of the second. This format allow a potential attendee the opportunity to awaken at the crack of dawn on the trade show’s first day [trade show costs are also usually a fraction of the full conference’s attendance costs], drive for as much as six to eight hours, and arrive in time for the conference to begin. That night, the attendee need spend only a single night in a hotel, and following the early-afternoon end of the second day’s trade show segment, drive the six to eight hours home.
Total costs thus compute to only a single night’s hotel or motel stay, whatever meals costs, plus lots of gasoline and the maintenance costs this mileage translates into. While the driving cost may be somewhat cost-effective compared to flying, the air traveler must still awaken really early to catch the first flight (and perhaps at the crack of dawn if a connection ins needed). But I myself would never do this: As a New Yorker maintaining “West Coast” business hours, I often do not retire until practically the crack of dawn. And I do not have the time to waste driving for 12 to 16 hours (whereas, as a passenger, I can get a lot of work done during an airplane or train trip – particularly when I am alert).
This comparison is critical to an understanding of the Motortel. For it replaces what is otherwise a moderate trade-off that replaces somewhat costly convenience (air travel plus two nights in a hotel or motel) with a less-costly yet still-grueling travel experience. In contrast, the Motortel provides an alternative at a fraction of the cost of either of the above alternatives, and with no driving requirement: One simply sleeps the night before the conference on the Motortel, arrives in time to attend the conference or trade show awake, uses the Motortel as sleeping quarters between the trade show’s two-day structure, and finally sleeps on the return trip home (or, rather, to the closest “staging area” to one’s home) the evening after. Particularly if the Motortel vehicle had fully-reclining seats, the traveler’s principal sacrifice would be the lack of a showering facility – in exchange for making the entire trip for perhaps $60, and not having to drive a nanosecond of it, in a vehicle exponentially more safe than a personal occupancy vehicle to boot.
As a footnote, a handful of U.S. motorcoach operators actually operate sleeper coaches, for various purposes. One example is the Supercoach interior from Vulcan Coach in Hueytown, Alabama, which contains 36 seats that convert to 24 “bunks.” Megabus similarly operates sleeper coaches with convertible bunks out of London. The point is, this mode is not a pipe dream. It is a mode that already exists, providing a far-lower trip cost than any alternatives, and whose use for attending conferences would be only one of countless applications that make enormous sense, and which would extend the ability to travel affordably to an almost incalculable number of travelers.
In today’s economy, where the average fixed route bus or coach driver may earn $15/hour or so for often part-time and/or disruptively-scheduled work, and the average NEMT or paratransit driver perhaps $8- to $10/hour, one can easily see why conference attendance for the vast majority is completely out of reach. Even for those people still working, in low-paying, blue-collar jobs (some of them part-time, seasonally or irregularly, as in the school bus or motorcoach sectors), this low pay, coupled with the enormous costs of buying so many high-priced things simply to remain employable in today’s modern economy – computers, I-pads, cell-phone services, internet service and cable television just for starters (plus the costs for constantly trouble-shooting hardware and software products intentionally over-designed to be problematic), much less the relentless costs of ink cartridges and one gadget after another – it is a wonder so many of us can even afford food. And this is happening in a time of obscene unemployment. So where does someone on this treadmill find the time and money to attend a conference – in a nation when the need for further education is growing more critical with every successive advance in the need for more knowledge?
Illustrative History Lessons
Similar challenges have been faced before in our industry. Yet we eventually managed to solve them. For example:
- The high costs of exclusive-ride taxicab service and the skeleton of a transportation system we otherwise have (compared to that of, say, Europe) led to the emergence, in 1983, of SuperShuttle, the creation of my first private consulting client, Mitchell Rouse, the owner of L.A. Taxi. Those willing to take some initiative always seem to come up with a solution. In fact, in this case, a completely brand-new mode of transportation emerged that did not even require any subsidies.
- One also need not invent an entirely new mode. Some exceptional ideas occasionally emerge simply as variations of existing modes, such as the Megabus pricing phenomenon that expanded the availability of motorcoach service to passengers with practically no income, or Coach USA’s deployment of double-decker, low-floor motorcoaches in intercity service (as well as its open-air, double-decker, sight-seeing coaches deployed in major cities, particularly New York City).
In terms of pulling together to address major challenges, America is clearly not what it was during the skyscraper boom, nor are we remotely the country that mobilized for World War II almost overnight, much less dominate the military landscape on two continents. But such sacrifices are not needed to address the challenges cited here, and as the examples above illustrate, those willing to innovate can still meet these challenges. Given the dynamics of modern America, we will not replace the frivolous AMTRAK branch lines through any political mandate or lobbying efforts. But unconstrained by the need to operate only on immovable tracks, we can replace these services by providing a clearly more flexible, cost-effective and service-friendly alternative. The Motortel is only a glimpse at what is possible to satisfy the need.
If one wants to attend a conference or trade show reasonably far away for a fraction of the cost of otherwise doing so (this vision is not practical for a cross-country trip) – even without fully-reclining seats – there is no reason he or she cannot do so on a conventional motorcoach, using a pair of seats as a mini-sleeping compartment. The vehicle’s reclining seats, electric sockets, restrooms, videos monitors and large luggage bays would cost a middle-distance commuter (e.g., New York to Chicago) a pittance compared to the combined air fare or gasoline-and-parking, plus a hotel room. A company with a large fleet could actually evolve this model further simply by replacing an additional pair of seats with a shower. And while I have seen its products at trade shows for several years now, one supplier has actually designed a coach seat that fully reclines. As noted above, a handful of companies have already done this, both in this country and abroad.
This vision is not exactly radical: Plenty of passengers already travel huge distances, often on multi-day trips, by motorcoach, and sleep on the coach. But the Motortel I envision would differ in three dramatic ways:
1. It would remain stationary at the destination, serving as a combination bedroom cubicle/storage compartment during the conference stay.
2. The pickup points could be arranged on a demand-responsive basis – much like that of paratransit service – the only difference being that the pick-up and corresponding drop-off points might be hours apart.
3. The very same vehicle would provide the return trip – which means that the traveler could leave most of his or her travel accessories (luggage, clothing, toiletries, laptops, etc.) on board throughout the entire trip.
Under current hours-of-service requirements, a single driver could legally and safely provide such a trip within a roughly 400-to 500-mile range of almost any destination (assuming a slight portion of the most direct travel route would be consumed by minor deviations). Truly demand-responsive, this mode would be significantly different than superficially-similar traditional intercity/regular route motorcoach service because the route could be configured on a one-time-only basis to create the “collection points” needed to pickup and drop off the travelers’ headed to and from their single destination (or even multiple destinations if they lie close together in a single city or geographic area).
Effectively, every trip would essentially be different than every other trip. In routing and scheduling terms, this mode would operate very similarly to an airport shuttle system, only on a larger scale of time and distance. It would also be more efficient and comfortable in most cases, for two other reasons:
1. Realistically, a passenger would need and want a double-seat – at least as much for reasons of privacy as for reasons for comfort.
2. The 25 or so passengers this mode would now transport (i.e., with two seats per passenger) would almost never require the vehicle to make 25 stops. Far more likely, it would make perhaps three to six, with only minor deviations often not significantly greater than those created by the mostly-diagonal structure of our nation’s highway system. So in many or most cases, the Motortel’s travel time would not significantly exceed the travel time for driving directly to the destination – although, as noted, the traveler would not have to drive, along with many other blessings this mode would provide.
Spatial Reality and Need
When it gets right down to it, how much space and privacy does one really need? If no one has noticed, this past decade has spurned a paradigm shift in new motel formats, all with tiny, mid-scale rooms often half to a third the size of a traditional hotel or motel room, yet with even greater amenities and creature comforts. Frankly, unless one uses his or her hotel room for some unusual exercising, or perhaps a group meeting, how much of one’s hotel or motel room’s floor space does any traveler normally use beyond (a) the bed, (b) the bathroom, (c) a small closet and/or dresser and (d) the path to and from the door?
This realization is not exactly novel: Trains have employed such a concept practically since their inception. 35 years ago, I slept on a fold-down, twin-bed (which covered the basin and toilet at each end of the narrow compartment when the wall-mounted, fold-down bed converted the compartment to “sleep mode”) during my short tenure working for AMTRAK. While I had the privacy of a door, a motorcoach counterpart could employ a curtain. Or if more security were needed (hard to know why, since millions of intercity coach passengers already sleep on long multi-night trips), accordion-style partitions could be created to expand above each seat back, and extend alongside each seat adjacent to the passenger aisle. Most interestingly, during non-sleep mode, both of these extensions would collapse effectively into a form of vertical and horizontal stanchion – two fixtures that would make negotiating to and from the restroom on a moving motorcoach exponentially more safe than it now is.
For the especially cost-conscious passenger, his or her compartment could also serve as a mini-luncheonette – for brown-bagged food, or “take-out.” At an almost embarrassingly low cost, a few features of motorcoach conversions – such as one or two microwave ovens and a tiny refrigerator – could be installed, perhaps in positions (e.g., over wheel well housings) that are not usable for seats anyway. For that matter, with a step-up, this housing could also accommodate a shower, given the coach’s ceiling height. Further, the restroom sink could be used to wash one’s portable dishes and cups (presumably not made of glass or pottery as a safety matter).
Frankly, with a microwave or two, and a small refrigerator, passengers wishing to do so could take several day’s meals along with them, keeping certain items cold or frozen, and thawing out and heating them when desired. Even more interestingly, the Motortel carrier could earn additional profits by selling food on-board – our industry’s version of the AMTRAK “pub car” – similarly eschewing glass dishes or containers in favor of plastic or cardboard ones. While I have never actually seen a vending machine on a commercial bus, I have also never heard of a regulation prohibiting one.
Ease and Economics
Let us first discuss service provider costs, and do some simple arithmetic. If a motorcoach operator could provide this service for a two-day conference – devoting the night before and night after a two-day conference/trade show to traveling while the passengers sleep on board (as well as sleep on board between both days of the conference/trade show), the entire trip would likely involve little more than 48 hours. So were a motorcoach provider to collectively charge perhaps $1500 for this jaunt, not only would it likely make earn than $1000 profit (most of the expenditures would be allocated to the driver’s salary and fuel – plus the driver’s sleeping compartment), but each passenger would have to pay only $60 for the entire trip, not including food, to generate this level of profit. From the traveler’s perspective, this is more than gasoline would likely cost simply to travel to and from the same conference in one’s personal car. Similarly, from the service provider’s perspective, fares at this level would cover three times the operating costs.
As an alternative to driving to and from the conference, compare travel costs by Motortel to the cost of the cheapest round-trip air-fare and one or two nights in even a cheap motel or hotel – assuming one were willing to fly out at the crack of dawn, and back the next night on an evening flight just to limit his or her hotel or motel stay to a single night. In many cases, the Motortel’s $60 fare would not even cover the four taxi trips usually needed (or barely so if one could use the hotel’s shuttle at the conference end of the trip). This does not even factor in the cost of parking at the airport were one to drive to and from it, nor would it factor in the cost of parking at many hotels and motels were one to use them. And, of course, in the vast majority of venues, the conference is rarely close to any of the hotels or motels near it. Thus, attending a conference by air could involve eight taxi or shuttle rides, not to mention parking costs at both the hotel (motel parking is usually free) and additional parking at or near the conference facility.
Like any mode, traditional or innovative, the Motortel would have its own unique set of challenges. For one, many convention sites do not provide parking facilities for motorcoaches, much less facilities enabling the coach to fill up with clean water while dumping its black water tank, or contain trash bins for removing each day’s or night’s on-board trash. In some cases, parking motorcoaches at conference sites could even violate local zoning ordinances.
But challenges such as these can be overcome. For one, just as with refueling, some of these chores could be performed off-site during the time the passengers are attending the conference of trade show. Otherwise, if the Motortel cannot park or even linger for long periods at the conference/trade show facility, it can certain swing by at multiple intervals to discharge and collect its passengers.
Finding a facility to permanently park the vehicle overnight for sleeping purposes would usually not be too challenging either. But more likely, even the moderate proliferation of Motortel’s increasing conference attendance would result in either choosing conference/trade show sites that already contained such facilities, or would likely induce some that currently do not to install them.
In the scheme of things, the operating challenges for this particularly mode – whether serving conferences and trade shows or any number of destinations far too numerous and unnecessarily to list here – would be relatively minimal. Much of this is because, by the very nature of how much time a passenger would be willing to spend traveling one-way to a destination, such a mode would rarely violate hours-of-service requirements that would otherwise require a team of drivers. But particularly with a genuine sleeper coach whose seating could convert to flat beds or bunks, not only could a driving team be easily accommodated, but the tolerable trip length and travel time for the journey would likely be extended by several hours. The additional driver, fuel and maintenance involved for a longer trip than that employed in the model above – for example, a 12- to 14-hour one-way trip – might necessitate only $20 per passenger more in fares. As a consequence, traveling to and from a conference in Chicago from New York City, or from Boston to Washington, D.C., in the Motortel might cost all of $80.
Sense and Cents
If our country is falling increasingly behind in its education, and as there are limited opportunities for many forms of “continuing education,” we need to attend more conferences and trade shows. The promise that the internet would substitute communications for transportation turned out to be as deviously false as the promise that cable television would be commercial-free. To optimize our need for continuing education, we need face-to-face business and social interaction, face-to-face learning, and face-to-face networking. If we did not, our airports would not be nearly so crowded.
In terms of dollars and cents, if someone offered you a chance to attend a conference that you otherwise could not afford to at one-either to one-tenth the cost, do you think there is a reasonable chance you might actually do so?
Because we are in the transportation business, there is no better place to begin such an experiment like this than within our own industry, attending our own conferences. To start this ball rolling, a single conference or trade show need only engage a single service provider’s involvement, and incorporate this option into the registration process. An always-centrally-located conference like BusCon would be a logical starting point. In terms of ease, the modifications needed to our motorcoaches to fully accommodate every aspect of this vision – with the possible exception of adding a shower – do not even involve what is known in the automotive industry as an “engineering change.” Every element of it – including installing a shower as a retrofit – could be almost effortlessly accommodated by any of the hundreds, if not thousands, of motorcoach converters spread throughout the country – including CMI in Grove City, Ohio.
As a final social and possibly political comment, there are areas of our life where many would argue no expenses should be spared. These areas range from military spending to healthcare and education. But sacrificing a bit of space and a dash of privacy to attend a conference or trade show at an eighth or tenth of what it might otherwise cost is not among them. And regardless of how one may feel about global warming, no sane Earthling would argue that 25 passengers traveling by bus or coach compared to 25 automobiles or a considerable section of a large airplane would not serve our environment far better ecologically.
Like most installments of Making More Money, this vision of a Motortel is not confined to attending conferences. There are countless places we would benefit by traveling to and from if we did it more often. Expanding this vision to vacations for those with no other means of taking them is only another huge starting point. Otherwise, the range of destinations and purposes to which such a mode would make sense are limited only by one’s imagination. And if the only genuine cost for traveling by such a means is missing a night or two of showering, it is perhaps time to begin placing our priorities and sacrifices in perspective.
This vision is one we can begin implementing on a large scale almost immediately, with costs for any modifications to the vehicle completely amortized by the first handful of trips, and which require the marketing skills of a bobono. If, as I have often stated, we are the chameleons, can we not offer a simple variation like this?
Unless our economy improves, we will have to engage in the form and degree of innovation that our country is famous for. Discounting important travel costs by 800 to 1000% in exchange for sacrificing much of what is needless luxury and adding a few additional swipes of deodorant is not a great sacrifice. But it could make a big difference to our population’s ability to improve our ongoing education, it could facilitate business, it would expand conference revenues, and it could provide substantial cost-savings to those forced to attend conferences at otherwise great economic sacrifice. And for purposes of our industry, it could expand our fleets, provide more jobs, and increase our profits.
As a regular writer for National Bus Trader, all its readers know I am always accessible for comments by e-mail. In this case, I do not invite comments about this idea’s downsides. I dare you think of some and share them with me.