Tour Bus Industry Sets Sights on More Travelers in 2023

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Anderson Coach & Travel has been in business for 85 years, but it is safe to say the family-owned business has never seen anything like the past couple of years.

President Doug Anderson said the bottom fell out on March 13, 2020. After providing 141 motor coach tours in 2019, the pandemic reduced business to 19 in 2020.

“We did have a few brave souls that did venture out on vehicles because they felt that the need to travel was more important than the government mandates,” Anderson said, noting it was mostly in fall 2020.
After feeling cooped up, more people were ready to hit the road again in 2021 and 2022. But others are still reluctant to get aboard.

At this point, the company is back at about 70% of the motor coach trips from just before the pandemic, as the traveling public’s comfort levels continue to rebound. For example, for traditionally one of their biggest events, the birthday bash, Anderson sent four motor coaches to Branson, Missouri, in 2022. But five years earlier, the same excursion filled 12 motor coaches.

To help get more people comfortable with bus travel again, Anderson has installed air purification systems into the buses, which has “helped with passenger peace of mind.”

Anderson also features a charter bus travel business, which provides rentals for those planning reunions, team travel, school trips and other outings. For the charter business, Anderson can accommodate groups needing as small as a 12-person van. Anderson said the charter bus business is at about 80% of where it was before the pandemic.

Melanie Hinton, vice president of communications and marketing with the American Bus Association, said Anderson is one of the lucky ones. The association’s statistics show some companies remain at 25% to 50% of where they were before the pandemic. About 25% of bus lines, many in the commuter industry, have closed or been absorbed by other busing companies.

Without as much major government financial assistance during the pandemic as other forms of transportation, the bus industry does not expect to fully recover until late 2024, although Hinton said there have been some signs of an earlier recovery providing there are not big, new variants on the horizon.

So what are some of the things affecting the industry coming back?

Anderson feels just when consumer confidence is slowly coming back, high inflation and stock market decline is now affecting the retirees, who make up the majority of his company’s business. Besides baby boomers, the other large group taking tours right now is Generation Z, many who often don’t want to own cars and want environmentally friendly travel options, Hinton said.

Even after a bus hits the road, there are obstacles. The entire tourism industry continues to be affected by staffing concerns. Anderson said some fast food restaurants in parts of the country have yet to reopen their dining areas, and a bus just cannot go through the drive thru. If a place is open, staffing shortages can affect how fast a group of 50 is served.

What used to be a 45 minute or an hour lunch break now extends to two hours, and hotels may not have enough employees to offer the baggage services that customers of motor coach tours have expected as a part of the service, Anderson said.

“So the travel experience has changed a little bit, but our customers have been very adaptive,” Anderson said. “Most of our customers are really appreciative of the efforts the office staff have done in rearranging meal stops and rest stops and that stuff to accommodate ourselves during this time.”

Driver numbers are down as well, limiting the number of buses that can go at the same time. Anderson currently does not have enough drivers to fully utilize his fleet, leading to the company actively soliciting for drivers and offering both recruitment bonuses and retention bonuses.

“We trained more drivers to drive motor coaches in 2022 than we ever had in the history of our company,” Anderson said. “A lot of that was because we had such turn-down for two years in 2021 that many people either chose to retire or look for another profession. It just changed the employment horizon for many of our good, solid people who had been excellent motor coach operators in the past.”

Unlike a semi driver, in the motor coach industry, Anderson said he needs drivers with the personality to hit the road with groups of people on board.

“We hire for personalities because we’re in the people business,” Anderson said, noting his company will train someone without experience who has the right personality. “They have to love people and enjoy seeing the United States.”

The trade association’s Hinton points out there was a driver shortage even before the pandemic hit, which the industry was managing to work through. But now the American Bus Association has created a Driving Force campaign to help the recruiting efforts, especially for small bus companies, many of which are family owned.

The price of diesel is also causing a struggle for the industry, as well as supply chain issues involving parts and new buses. At one point, buses were ordered six months ahead; now it’s 18 months.

“Every time you get an inch, you kind of get kicked back a mile,” Hinton said. “If it’s not the economy, it’s fuel, it’s the pandemic, but we are a resilient industry. We’ve been around for more than 100 years.”

The pandemic may change the industry long term. Hinton notes people are booking trips closer to the date of departure and want guarantees if they should have to cancel. People used to have to book trips 18 months in advance.

And more are seeking trips to places in the outdoors or to destinations with a reputation for safety.

Anderson said while his company has not experienced any problems for customers, he has seen a lack of demand for some larger cities like New York and Washington, D.C., where the fear of crime is growing.

“During COVID, the national parks, they skyrocketed in visitors because you get to see something gorgeous and amazing and it’s outdoors,” Hinton said, adding vineyards as another destination with greater interest. Anderson said trips to Dutch country; Niagara Falls; Mackinac Island, Michigan; Gatlinburg, Tennessee; and Asheville, North Carolina, are more popular than ever.

Looking for somewhere new to visit? The American Bus Association will hold its annual convention in Detroit in February, during which representatives of destinations interested in attracting tourists will give seven-minute pitches directly to tour directors and bus operators.

“Probably a year’s worth of business gets done in three days,” Hinton said.

While trips scheduled for early 2023 trips on the website, Anderson’s next catalogue comes out in February. One good thing that came out of the pandemic, Anderson said it gave them time to revamp the website to allow customers another option to book trips directly.

“If COVID has taught us one thing, it is that you can’t always just rely on one business model, that you have to be pretty fluid. And those who have been able to transition have done well and come back like Anderson,” Hinton said.

Pictured at top: More than 400 motorcoach companies from all 50 states arrived in Washington, D.C., for a rally to urge relief for the industry that took a massive hit as travel of all kinds ground to a halt. (American Bus Association)

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.