Management & Operations

Motorcoach Operators Go the Whole Nine Yards

Posted on April 1, 2002 by Joey Campbell, assistant editor

At every level from the college ranks up to top-flight professional leagues, such as the NBA and NFL, sports teams rely on motorcoaches to service a considerable portion of their transportation needs. Because even a hotel-to-airport transfer is a crucial element of any team’s business agenda, the transportation of athletic organizations has become an important market segment of the motorcoach industry. “The sporting side of the market is one that virtually every motorcoach operator that chooses to be is involved in at some level,” says Steve Kirchner, president of the National Motorcoach Network. His statement echoes the sentiments of many operators who understand that motorcoaches are in high demand to sports teams, making these teams potentially valuable customers. But how can an operator gain this type of business? With many traits that separate them from other customers, sports teams represent a challenging aspect of the motorcoach business. Contacting the right people, positioning services against competitors and catering to special requests are some of the issues facing operators that seek to market themselves to sports teams. As is true for all areas of motorcoach marketing, a business must select a suitable method of spreading awareness about its company among potential clients in the target audience. But before they can choose a strategy, operators should learn more about the business and figure out the costs involved in running a motorcoach for a sports team. David Foote, CEO of Illini Swallow Lines in Indianapolis, says that operators need to become more sophisticated in how they market and price their product. “You have to know what is going on before you get into this business,” he says. Conferring with experienced operators and asking individual teams for their preferences are good places to start. Contacting teams directly Motorcoach operators and sports teams often reach transportation agreements simply by calling each other directly and proposing a deal. “The biggest booking source for charter business right now is the yellow pages,” says Matt Eyre, marketing and research coordinator for Eyre Bus Service Inc. in Glenelg, Md. “If a team thinks they need a bus, they pick up the phone book and look up a bus company.” According to Thomas Weeks, president of Grand Tours in Lockport, N.Y., sports teams tend to get in a comfort zone with their transportation provider, and communication between the two parties becomes very informal. For years, Grand Tours has handled much of the bus transportation for the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. “It’s gotten to the point where sometimes the teams will e-mail their usual driver and let him know they need him before they even contact us,” Weeks says. Using a marketing firm Another avenue to consider is the use of a third-party marketing company that specializes in linking motorcoach operators with potential customers. The National Motorcoach Network uses an online reservation center to connect companies looking for motorcoach solutions with more than 100 operators nationwide. “Motorcoach companies come to us because they are intrigued by our reservation center concept,” Kirchner says. “We have affiliated carriers that have cooperated with us in advertising and at trade shows, and they have benefited from our sponsorships and sports marketing efforts.” Working with a marketing firm saves an operator from having to spend a great deal of time and money scouting out and attracting customers. In addition, it can help smooth out the kinks in a deal before it’s made, which is very beneficial when dealing with demanding sports teams. “We require people who use our reservation center to put their itinerary in writing, forcing them to see that sometimes they have a lot of holes to fill,” Kirchner says. Conducting mass mailings Direct mail campaigns are another good way to attract new business in the sports market. The first step is finding the right people to send promotional information to. Most professional teams have a travel secretary or similar position dedicated to handling transportation needs. But with colleges, says Kirchner, the best person to contact is not necessarily who you think it may be. “It may be the coach or athletic director who signs off on the deal, but the decisions are usually made by business managers long before they ever reach that point,” he says. Many lists, including the National Directory of Collegiate Athletics, with these specific contacts are available for purchase. For an operator wishing to expand sports team business, a mass mailing campaign should reach a wide range of professional, amateur and collegiate athletic programs, emphasizing specific selling points. Eyre describes how his company, which transports college and professional teams in the Washington, D.C., area, has designed an elaborate marketing campaign that mails creative promotional pieces to sports teams. “We hit teams with a postcard that has a message, photos and a pull quote,” he says. “They’re very eye-catching and they let teams know that we are out there.” Eyre’s mailing campaign starts well before autumn sports seasons begin and consists of mailings every couple of weeks with a new sports-related message and free gift promotion. There’s always advertising Advertising is always a powerful marketing tool in the transportation industry. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of great outlets for directly reaching people in charge of contracting motorcoaches for sports teams. Furthermore, advertising is traditionally expensive. “In the bus industry, we don’t have a massive advertising budget sitting there that we can do a lot with,” says George Marudas, vice president of sales for Coach USA Los Angeles, the official carrier for UCLA sports teams. “We do a few ads in the intercollegiate directories but most of our new business comes from our reputation.” Still, there are available opportunities to advertise in the sports transportation market. For example, publications such as collegiate athletic directories, game programs and sports team media guides provide significant advertising space and have a focused readership. There is also the potential for sponsorship of sporting events, which will attach the name of a company to a major competition or tournament. Some operators like to increase exposure by placing the name of teams they transport on their buses, or in many cases on the motorcoach’s destination sign. Attending industry events At trade shows, operators and decision makers for sports programs have the opportunity to meet one another and negotiate for business. For instance, a large number of professionals involved in the management and administration of college athletic departments attend the annual meeting of the College Athletics Business Managers Association. “People who tend to be purchasing motorcoach services have business managers who attend this show,” Kirchner says. He says that one of the National Motorcoach Network affiliates even handled the transportation of delegates at last year’s trade show. There are also events that offer an opportunity to promote motorcoach transportation to professional sports teams, including annual meetings of league commissioners and business administrators. Bobby Hull, director of operations for the northeastern region of Coach USA in Paramus, N.J., says that all of the team travel secretaries get together in one room every year at Major League Baseball’s winter meetings. “Vendors can come in and make presentations to them,” he says. “And if you get one or two of them to like you, they will use your business and recommend it to others.” This may classify as high-pressure sales, but nonetheless it’s an opportunity to gain business and increase industry presence. Offering a complete package Most sports teams want as few distractions as possible and thus require a comprehensive transportation deal that doesn’t interfere with their central mission, which is to concentrate on games. “It’s really about the total package we offer,” says Steve Temple, director of sales and marketing for Maineline Tours in South Portland, Maine, a contractor to several college and minor league teams throughout New England. “We find out what teams are looking for in a transportation company and we build a plan around those specific needs and present it to them.” Like any other customer, athletic programs are generally concerned with cost. In fact, Foote of Illini Swallow Lines says that sports teams seem to want preferential treatment in pricing. “The biggest problem with sports teams of all types is that they tend to want extremely discounted rates. Some professional teams even expect discounted rates,” he says. Although the sports industry is lucrative, you have to be very mindful of the prices you give teams. It never hurts your offer to throw in pricing breaks, special giveaways or promotional gifts for teams that spend a lot of money. Teams also like to occasionally receive free transportation for family, fans and associates. An integral part of your whole package should be a good insurance policy, especially when dealing with professional sports teams. “The last thing you want is a quarterback who makes $5 million a year to take a tumble down the steps getting on the bus,” says Weeks of Grand Tours. “That would be a big lawsuit.” Providing consistency, loyalty A number of teams and schools use the same motorcoach operators that they have been using for years. They will stick with the operators who give them the most consistency in price and service. “In this business, increases can happen pretty dramatically year to year, so there is a big value to promising that you won’t increase costs more than a set percentage annually,” says Temple. “There are so many changes going on in the sports market every year that we have to constantly review what we are going to do for the next year,” adds Kirchner. “Organizations change and merge, women’s sports continue to emerge and there are also many issues with team van and vehicle use. So a lot of these issues have impacted the market and our potential for reaching that market.” It’s important to adjust and adapt to the changes in the industry while remaining loyal to your customer base. The last thing a sports team wants to worry about is a hassle with its transportation provider. They depend on the stability of an operator. “Once you find a hook with a team, you can continue on for a long time with them,” says Coach USA’s Hull. “We have had a relationship with most of our clients for 10 to 15 years.” Maintaining a relationship Hull’s attitude represents one of the strongest themes of successful motorcoach marketing to sports teams — maintaining rapport. Building and then keeping a solid relationship with sports teams pays off in more ways than one. Solid relationships create a solid reputation, which saves money and increases prestige. Additionally, strong relationships lead to countless business-generating referrals and recommendations. “When you keep your reputation clean and you do the job properly, teams talk about you to other teams, and this swings new business your way,” says Marudas of Coach USA Los Angeles. When teams search for transportation solutions, the first thing they do is ask other teams where to look. Gaining business this way allows an operator to dedicate limited resources to interests other than marketing. “Name recognition and word-of-mouth have been our most useful tools to help market ourselves,” says Michele Austin of Wade Tours in Schenectady, N.Y. “Without needing to dedicate a large number of budget dollars to marketing, we have been able to keep a larger budget for maintaining our motorcoaches and our service.”

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