[IMAGE]Prairie-.jpg[/IMAGE]It's never easy launching a new motorcoach operation, but not being part of the industry before taking over an operation that had already been in business 10 years, is especially difficult.
"I was in banking and my wife was in sales. The opportunity came along to buy the operation, and it looked like a really good and fun business so we went for it," says Lee Peterson, president of Prairie Coach Trailways in Dell Rapids, S.D.
Lee and his wife Shannon took over the operation once owned by William L. Connor in January 2009, following the death of Connor, maintaining the entire staff, some of whom had been with the operation the entire length of its existence. These drivers and office employees, Peterson says, have been "absolutely essential" in helping he and his wife gain their footing in the industry and maintaining the quality of service to which its customers had grown accustomed.
In fact, in their first year running the operation, the Petersons' ability to grow the operation has enabled them to add employees and drivers, as well as increase Prairie's charter business by more than 36 percent.
"We went out and focused on our charter business a little more, and we were able to add services for some local colleges, our area's semi-pro athletic teams and shuttles to NFL football games," says Peterson, who adds that Prairie is also adding new tours in the coming year.
Recently, when Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Sanford Health and Fargo,N.D.-based MeritCare merged, forming the nation's largest rural, nonprofit health system, Prairie won a contract to transport employees between the two locations. The hospital even set up a software system enabling its employees to make reservations for the service.
"Ridership has been very strong for the service," explains Peterson. "Employees are also able to get on the bus at seven in the morning and, since our coaches are Wi-Fi equipped, they can do three hours worth of work on the way up. The feedback we get is that it's been very beneficial in building a bridge between the two health systems."
Peterson says that what sets Prairie apart from its competition, and always has, is its drivers and their customer service.
"We are known to provide a higher level of service, and we really push that customer service to ensure that our clients have the best experience they possibly can," says Peterson, who adds that some of his clients have been on as many as 26 of Prairie's tours.
The operation's focus on customer service has led it to find some drivers from some unconventional areas.
"We had a gentlemen here who took an early retirement from IBM when he was in his 50's, and he thought it would be fun to drive for a motorcoach operation," explains Peterson. "Since then, as our operation has grown, we've been able to add three more former IBM employees that he helped recruit. They already have all the customer service skills we want, we just have to train them to drive."
The initial driver training program includes a buddy program that pairs new recruits with seasoned veterans for ride-alongs, while ongoing training includes monthly meetings and working closely with its insurance carrier— Lancer Insurance Co. — and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"All of our programs combined really help our drivers stay up to date," says Peterson. "If there's a change in policy or a proposed federal regulation, they know about it and we adapt as an operation so that we continue to succeed."