2014 Innovative Operators: VIP Tour & Charter Bus Co.

Posted on January 14, 2014 by Nicole Schlosser, Senior Editor

To adapt to the growing number of smartphone users, last year VIP took on a responsive Web design overhaul to make its website mobile-friendly.
To adapt to the growing number of smartphone users, last year VIP took on a responsive Web design overhaul to make its website mobile-friendly.
Strengthening customer relationships and adapting to their changing needs has kept Portland, Maine-based VIP Tour & Charter Bus Co. going strong ever since former truck driver Raymond Penfold, owner and GM, founded the operation in 1985.

After buying his first bus outright and fixing it up, he put a few small ads in the newspaper, which was the only marketing he could afford.

However, business for the operation, initially called Raymond Penfold DBA as VIP Charter Coaches, took off quickly, leading Penfold to purchase two more coaches just one year later.

Now, the company runs a fleet of 13 vehicles, having bought three Blue Bird activity buses and one sedan-style Ford Flex last year.

VIP is a small, family-owned business, with Penfold, his wife, Patricia Penfold, president; daughters Lana Sawyer, treasurer/director of operations, and Maureen Davis, director of marketing; working in the office full-time. Additionally, his son-in-law, Norman Sawyer, has been the lead driver since the business began.

Those tight-knit family and work relationships are an asset, Davis says, because they help VIP recognize the value of maintaining and growing its customer relationships.

“VIP is so successful because I believe in taking good care of my customers in every way, shape or manner that I can provide,” Penfold adds. “We maintain the best condition of vehicles possible. We’ve always been a competitive motorcoach company. I’ve grown only as I can afford it.”

Davis agrees that the operator made a conscious decision not to grow its business too big, too fast.

“We intend to stay a small family business that can remain connected with our customers and each other,” she adds. “This allows us the opportunity to focus on relationships and the service we provide from the first inquiry to the follow-up after the trip.”

Additionally, VIP aims to be innovative in meeting its customers’ needs and a leader in the industry, primarily by adapting with ever-evolving technology.

“We were one of the first in the state to install GPS and Wi-Fi on all our buses,” Davis points out.

To adapt to the growing number of smartphone users, last year VIP took on a responsive Web design overhaul to make its website mobile-friendly and added QR codes in a TV commercial, on tour flyers and in newspapers for its popular flower show tour.

Spotting an opportunity to get its foot in the door with younger customers, the carrier now offers ride-only tours to events, such as football games and concerts. People prefer buying the event tickets of their choice, then reserving VIP’s transportation service online. Those trips are consistently selling out, Davis says, because the ride-only option is also appealing to its older customers.

The operator is also growing business among a younger demographic by offering transportation for wedding parties and guests, which has been growing at a rate of about 15% per year, Davis says. The new Blue Bird buses accommodate about one-third of this service, since their smaller size makes them a convenient option for groups that do not require a 55-passenger bus.

VIP’s new Ford Flex also helps with this growing business niche, being perfect for airport transfers, and transporting family members and bridal parties.

“We have lots of weddings already booked for 2014,” Davis adds. “Some dates are selling out.”

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