Over the last few years, we have come to realize that for many motorcoach operators, marketing is just one more thing on that ever-growing list titled “Eventually, I am going to get to this.” However, this year, the tides seem to have changed and more operators are making marketing a priority, putting it where it belongs on the “It’s Getting Done” list. This has led to a groundswell of important questions focused on where busy operators should put their valuable time and resources first.
While it is difficult to try to generalize every operator and create a single marketing plan that could be rolled out across multiple companies, there are indeed some “best practices” that every company should implement when creating their own strategic plan. But first, let’s talk about a couple of introductory points that suggest a change in the way we have traditionally thought about customers and our role when they do business with us.
Most motorcoach operators that we encounter have a database (somewhere) of their “customers.” While it is often tied to the billing system, this list almost always shows who it is that booked or paid for a trip. Even though you need that information, the biggest problem with this line of thinking is that it represents only a small percentage of those who have been on our coaches.
The truth of the matter is this: everyone who sets foot on a coach, whether they were the person that paid for it or not, is a customer. They have experienced our service, our equipment, and hopefully, our company culture. At the very least, they were part of a group that had a transportation need and their experience with us is a crucial component of future business opportunities.
Now, you may be wondering why this is the first step in a marketing article, since we’re suggesting a new way of thinking as opposed to something to do. However, it’s the approach we need to take to utilize our marketing strategies for all of our potential customers.
Engineer an experience
When I have the opportunity to speak at association meetings around the country, one of the questions I love to ask to a room full of operators is, “What business are you in?” The standard responses are pretty predictable. Transportation always tops the list. While I agree that transportation is what we do, it shouldn’t be who we are. We are actually in the hospitality business.
Even Wikipedia knows this, as they define the hospitality industry as “a broad category of fields within the service industry that includes lodging, event planning, theme parks, transportation, cruise line and additional fields within the tourism industry.”
Our job is not simply to move groups safely from point A to point B; rather, it is to engineer experiences. We want people to leave any interaction with our company feeling like they have been taken care of.
I understand that this idea presents some very real-world issues. Often the act of providing transportation takes 127 hours of our 40-hour work week, and the idea of trying to engineer an experience at that point feels, well, distasteful. Sometimes, the job of safely getting people from point A to point B sounds perfectly adequate.
However, this mentality is what has put us in the price war that we currently find ourselves in: buyers who shop around for the lowest price, and customers who are wooed by a savings of a few dollars a day instead of being loyal to a company.
Brands like Nordstrom and BMW work hard to create experiences that are worthy of their customers’ loyalty. In every interaction, they look for ways to create a connection and build that loyalty, because they know that loyal buyers will result in returning business with less regard for price. And, let’s be honest...it goes without saying that you’d like more of this happening in your own business, right?
So, now that we have addressed these two paradigm shifts, we will move into the more “tangible” aspects of a best-practice marketing program. Keep the following questions in mind as you consider each tactic. First, how can I use this to engage with my entire customer base, including those who are passengers, not bookers? Second, how can I use this to shape the experience that my customers have with me?
Email is probably the lowest hanging fruit for most companies. It is reasonably inexpensive and allows for a direct one-on-one connection. Use a real-email marketing system, one that gives you statistics, delivery reports and support. Begin with today, and if you ever have time to go back and dig through old emails to try to build a big list, do that later. I have seen far too many companies wait to implement email until that elusive day when they have their list cleaned up and exported out of whatever program it is in only to never get it done. So, for starters, begin with the here and now.
There are a number of ways that companies can effectively gather emails. The first, and probably most obvious, is quoting. Every booking that we create was, at one point in time, a quote. It is surprising to me how many companies who use email marketing miss the quote stage and gather emails from the booking stage.
Getting started with this can be as simple as making sure that all quotes are emailed instead of being given over the phone, and that those emails are captured and recorded within the system.
Collecting the email addresses of your passengers will prove to be something more difficult, but it can be done. Companies who do this well utilize creativity, such as sponsoring a contest where passengers can enter to win anything from trips to cash. Others are leveraging technologies such as Wi-Fi systems that require the user to log on with their email or social media account, a great way to add contacts to your database. If you want to go the low-tech way, offering a monthly prize drawing and little pieces of paper for them to fill out can be an effective alternative as well.
Your website should be your most effective sales tool, working for you day and night whenever someone is looking for the services you offer. It should provide them with enough information that they can clearly see what you provide and what your company stands for. Your brand and all that makes your company unique should be there, ready for a buyer to find at any time. It should also be a tool that your live sales agents lean on in their daily interactions with customers and potential customers. From fleet pages to better sell your equipment over your competition’s, to all of the types of services you specialize in, this should be their first go-to and last end-all sales tool.
If you have a website and the above description makes you feel less than confident, it may be time to upgrade. Here are some best practices that will help:
- Make sure it is responsive. If you don’t know if your current site is, find out. Responsive sites make sure that no matter what device a buyer is on, they will have a great experience. With upwards of 60% of all traffic coming to most operators from people on mobile devices, this is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity if you want your business to boom.
- Create a great fleet gallery. One of the key components that sales people need to leverage from your site is a solid fleet gallery. Take photos of the coaches from the outside and the inside. Also, take photos of all of the little details: reading lights, air vents, power outlets, foot rests, luggage bays, restrooms, and anything else that makes the coach special. Remember, buyers don’t know all that you know about coaches. They are looking to make a decision between your product and someone else’s. Your job is to give them all the selling points, all the details they need to recognize that you’re the obvious choice.
- Build service pages. Anyone who has heard me speak knows that I talk a lot about giving customers what they want. If I have a customer that coaches a youth sports team, I don’t want to send them to a page that talks about how good I am at wedding charters. Build service pages that your team can send buyers to that will show them how good you are at what they’re interested in.
Social media has changed. It started as a way for frat houses to figure out where the party was, and it’s now one of the biggest influencers in consumer behavior on the Web. Social media has moved past simply interacting with a customer base; today, it’s the foundation of how entire generations of people vet companies they want to use.
The first way to approach this is to take a step back and look at your social presence as if you were a consumer. Ask yourself a few questions:
- Is this company serious about what they offer?
- Are they responsive to customer issues?
- Do they have good equipment?
- Is safety a priority?
- Do they seem to care about the same things I care about?
If you are like most companies, you’ll start to feel uncomfortable after only a few of these questions. This goes back to the beginning of this article where we discussed the need to master your experience. Chances are, what you want to convey and what your social pages are currently conveying may not be the same. If they are not, fix it by posting regularly about the things your company cares the most about. Make sure that if someone comes to your page investigating whether you are the right company for them, they’re going to leave feeling like they know what you are about and the type of services they can expect from you, your staff and your fleet.
Marketing mandates some planning and thought before requiring execution. Like any journey, it is wise to begin with the end in mind and plan for what you want to accomplish — and, in this case, how you want the public to view your company. Some companies may want to convey professional concept, some opt for fun, others will choose cheap and others just want to be known as a company that’s easy to work with. A well-crafted campaign is essential, as it will ensure that you don’t shoot for professional and convey cheap.
The motorcoach industry is poised for a major change. Our traditional buyers are aging and not being replaced by their younger counterparts at the rate they need to be. We are facing a demographic change with millennial buyers who are consuming differently than any generation before them. The days of marketing strategies that start with “this is how we have done it for the last 20 years” are over. In the next 10 years, there will be companies who will emerge as leaders of the industry, not necessarily based on their equipment, staff or company values, but rather, because they will execute marketing programs that bridge the generational gaps of our buying public and offer the products and services that will put more of these new consumers on their coaches.
The future is bright for operators who choose to dedicate the time and resources necessary to give marketing the priority it deserves in today’s busy motorcoach operations.