While motorcoach industry experts say that business is getting better due to the improving economy, tools to help generate new leads — from online sources to simple word-of-mouth — can still help many operators continue to bolster business.
We talked to industry experts who have seen success with various lead generation methods and shared some tips here.
1. Use online databases
One of the most effective lead generation methods that operators are using now is establishing a presence in online databases of charter bus and group travel associations such as the United Motorcoach Association’s (UMA) BusRates.com, the American Bus Association’s (ABA) charterbusconnect.com and Trailways’ Trailways.com.
Eric Elliott, GM, BusRates.com, says BusRates’ goal is to put charter-seeking customers in direct contact with bus companies, saving them a broker fee, and more importantly, provide clear communication for itinerary details so that their trip goes much more smoothly compared to using a third-party resource.
“We do the homework,” Elliott says. “We’re a consumer advocate for charter-seeking customers. Unlike [with] airline or even train travel, customers don’t know what to expect, and they’re looking for a resource to do the homework for them, and most importantly, get them in contact with the right person.”
Nearly 1,000 motorcoach operators are currently listed in the BusRates.com database. Usage increased recently after BusRates.com added hotels and attractions, enabling travel planners and other users to use the site to plan every aspect of their trips, from chartering the bus, to booking the hotel room and activities. Anyone may use the site free of charge.
“We’re putting you directly in touch with the bus operator, the director of sales at the hotel or the director of sales at XYZ theatre, etc.,” says Victor Parra UMA president/CEO.
BusRates has more than 85,000 listings, including approximately 1,000 bus companies, 6,500 hotels, about 1,000 restaurants, and nearly 500 attractions and events. More than 120,000 group travel planners use BusRates each month, and 15% of them are located outside the U.S. The site currently serves more than 100,000 visitors each month.
Operators can go to BusRates.com/join, fill out the membership form, which asks for the operator’s U.S. Department of Transportation number to verify they have proper operating authority and insurance. UMA members receive a discounted rate. Every customer receives a free one-month trial. After the month is up, BusRates and the carrier discuss pricing.
Another service that generates new leads and helps operators market their businesses is charterbusconnect.com, a part of GroupConnect, the ABA’s network of tour and motorcoach operators in North America.
Dan Ronan, ABA’s senior director of communications, says the association encourages operators to use the service to help their business.
Charterbusconnect.com allows trip planners to search for vehicles available in their departure city and for the length of the travelers’ visit, get quotes from up to 10 companies at one time and book directly with the bus company owner for free. One-thousand motorcoach operators are currently listed on the site. All of the operators featured are ABA and Ontario Motor Coach Association members. The site also features ratings and reviews of the listed carriers.
“We have in our membership ranks very good companies,” Ronan says. “Every 90 days we go through our whole membership list and compare scores on the FMCSA website to make sure those companies have a high, satisfactory score. If it’s conditional, we give them 180 days to [reach] a satisfactory level. If they don’t, or if their company is unsatisfactory, we no longer have them as members.”
Trailways, which began offering charter and tours two years ago in addition to regular scheduled route service, also started a charter and tour website to help its members get more leads, by offering free quotes online, as a direct response to the demand, says Tracey Simmons, communications liaison, Trailways.
All Trailways member are listed on the website, so customers can easily get quotes. Trailways also has a live call center. “We’re trying to make it one-stop shopping for our brand as well as convenient,” Simmons says. “We’ll typically send a lead out to operators in the region so they can have a chance to respond and get the business and the customer has one place [to] get a variety of price options for comparison purposes.”
Because customers do business directly with the Trailways office, Simmons says motorcoach operators benefit by saving time since they’re not dealing directly with the customer.
2. Identify client, tailor message
The first step that operators need to take is to identify their client, Stephen Story, president, James River Transportation, says. Because limousine companies are starting to branch out into motorcoaches and buses, and motorcoach companies are starting to branch out into smaller buses and town cars or more corporate work, there is a wider variety of client types for operators to contend with.
Second, operators need to identify the best way to market or advertise to that particular client. “Each market segment or client type responds differently to different messages,” Story explains.
For example, he adds, in the motorcoach business, certain market segments respond well to a safety message. “Some transportation companies advertise [that they are] safe, provide on-time service, or have clean vehicles and professional drivers. That’s a minimal expectation for most of our clients, especially corporate clients, school bands and sports teams,” he says. “Some of these client segments have really high expectations. When you’re advertising message is basic expectations, then it doesn’t impress them.”
James River uses about 15 different methods of advertising, ranging from social media to postcards. For example, Story says, there are certain client types that don’t email, such as seniors or school teachers, who may not be allowed to get emails at their school addresses. That means the operator needs to find the best, most economical, affordable method other than email blasts for reaching those customers, such as e-newsletters, print brochures or social media.
Then a step that many carriers miss, Story says, is specifically tailoring the message.
“Ask, ‘What type of message fits with that client?’ ‘What would that client respond to?’ ‘What would make that client say this is someone I want to travel with?’” Story says. “Many people have one brochure. Even if it’s electronic, that’s very generic. Whether you’re a corporate client, a school client or a senior citizen, you get the same brochure.”