September 2010

Tips for Landing Motorcoach Contracts

by Claire Atkinson, Senior Editor

"Going green" is a growing focus for many corporations, government agencies and universities. For Peter Pan, this focus has meant emphasizing the operator's environmentally friendly efforts in bid documents and in discussions with prospective clients.

For this article, METRO talked with executives at motorcoach companies to learn about best practices for landing and managing contracts.

Have economic conditions had any impact on the contract side of business? "Very slightly," says Dale Moser, president and chief operating officer at Coach USA. "There's been some belt-tightening, more in the corporate end. The corporations that have used our shuttle services have to look for methods to reduce their operating costs, so they may have cut back some of the service, but it wasn't very significant. We've been pretty fortunate in this down economy that the contract businesses have maintained their levels."

Where the recession has caused other business segments to do poorly, Seattle's Starline Luxury Coaches has seen contracts as a good way to keep revenues afloat. The company provided transportation under a state Department of Transportation contract in May 2009 during construction that disabled the Hood Canal Bridge. The bridge connects mainland Washington to the Olympic Peninsula. Starline was one of the original bidders on the contract, which eventually went to a transit agency, but later fell through, President Becky Pritchett says. "They called us about 45 days before the bridge construction was to begin and we quoted them full rate. We did it with 25 motorcoaches, four minibuses and a couple of ADA buses. The contract lasted for about 35 days, so that was great utilization, especially going into what I call the 'Great Recession.'"

Since then, Starline has gotten involved in sports transportation contracts, including the "Civil War Game" between Oregon State University and University of Oregon's football teams.

1. Connect with colleges, universities

Peter Pan Bus contracts with government agencies, including the Connecticut Department of Transportation, for which the company provides commuter services into Hartford along with other carriers in the region.

The company says "a big and growing part" of its contract services is for area universities, including Boston University, University of Massachusetts, University of Connecticut, Harvard University and Boston College. Peter Pan provides shuttle services on campuses or between a university's various locations, as well as transporting athletic teams or other groups to their events. "We've been operating a service for Boston University, between their main campus and their medical school, for a few years now and [are] just about to pick up the option in that contract," says Michael Sharff, director of planning. "And, we're just about to start a new shuttle service for St. John's University in New York City, between different locations that they have."

2. Compile schedules for local, college sports

At the beginning of each school year, Pritchett gets the schedules for local university, pro and semi-pro sports teams to make a master calendar for Starline's marketing efforts. "We know well in advance. We don't wait until a month ahead of time and they give us a call and say, 'can you help?'" she says.

Using their schedules, Pritchett goes after the business, marketing Starline's services to the various teams. Based on the number of buses needed, Starline may plan to use a consortium of companies to fulfill those types of contracts.

3. Team with regional associations

Starline's CEO Gladys Gillis says she's seen a trend of college football games moving from weekends to weeknights in order to get television airtime. "Historically, the transit agencies have provided football transportation, at least in our region. But the transit agencies are busy, as you may imagine, on weekdays doing their normal stated work," she explains. "These colleges need a high volume of equipment at a time when they cannot turn to transit agencies or school buses. So, we've been given the opportunity, via the Civil War Game, to provide that service."

Because transportation for that game required a total of 80 buses, Starline teamed with the Northwest Motorcoach Association to get the job done.

4. Understand customers' needs, make recommendations

Coach USA's Moser says that with his company's cumulative years of experience, they have a significant knowledge base to advise customers. "We've seen all the different cycles in business, and bringing that forward to the customer solidifies the relationship," he explains.

With that in mind, he urges motorcoach operators to actively nurture that relationship - understanding the needs of the customer, monitoring those needs and going to the customer with recommendations. "You're more than just a supplier of a transportation service, you're actually a partner with them. Going to them proactively with recommendations on how to enhance services, control costs, anything that will increase the value, as opposed to allowing the customer to be the one thinking about how they should be doing things better or differently," is the best approach, he says.


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