Last year, Mesa, Ariz.-based All Aboard America!, and New Orleans’ Hotard Coaches merged their businesses to form All Aboard America Holdings (which tied for spot #11).

Last year, Mesa, Ariz.-based All Aboard America!, and New Orleans’ Hotard Coaches merged their businesses to form All Aboard America Holdings (which tied for spot #11).

For METRO’s 2013 Top 50 Motorcoach operators survey, meant to provide an annual snapshot of the industry, we received input from a total of 87 carriers. This year’s results included a handful of operators who are new to the list and several ties.

New to the list this year is San Francisco-based Bauer’s Transportation, which came in at No. 16; Salt Lake City’s Lewis Stages; Wichita, Kan.-based Village Tours; and Cardinal Buses Inc. in Middlebury, Ind.

Operators who returned to the Top 50 list this year after an absence last year include Brea, Calif.’s Gold Coast Tours; Germantown, Wis.-based Go Riteway Transportation Group; and Sebring, Fla.’s Annett Bus Lines.

Another development reflected in the survey results is Mesa, Ariz.-based All Aboard America!, and New Orleans’ Hotard Coaches merging their businesses to form All Aboard America Holdings (which tied for spot No. 11) last year, strengthening their operations. Both All Aboard and Hotard celebrated their 75th anniversaries this year. The operations are keeping their original names.

Ranking breakdown
Once again, reported fleet sizes were larger this year. Predictably, the top four spots were taken by FirstGroup America, Coach USA, Horizon Coach Lines and Academy Bus Companies.

A few notable upward moves in the list were made by Halifax, Nova Scotia-based Ambassatours, jumping from No. 33 last year up to No. 23 this year; Premier Coach Co. in Milton, Vt., which moved from No. 38 to No. 31, and Owosso, Mich.’s Indian Trails Inc., climbing from No. 40 to No. 32.

There are 22,267 vehicles represented among the Top 50 carriers in this survey. Among all respondents, the vehicle total is 22,705.

The average fleet size among the 50 largest operators, not counting the top five, is 99. The median fleet size is 75.

All of the Top 50 operators plan to purchase more vehicles this year, up from last year’s 86%. Altogether, they plan to buy about 573 new and 131 used vehicles. Of the buying numbers cited, about one-quarter were firm plans, versus estimates. The most popular vehicle brands cited were, once again, Motor Coach Industries (62%), Prevost (54%) and Van Hool (38%). [PAGEBREAK]

Royal Highway Tours, owned by Princess Cruises and Holland America Tours, took the seventh spot in our list this year, with 327 buses and coaches.

Royal Highway Tours, owned by Princess Cruises and Holland America Tours, took the seventh spot in our list this year, with 327 buses and coaches.

More adding seat belts
As with last year, only about 6% of operators said their entire fleet, or nearly their entire fleet, has seat belts installed. Approximately, the same number of carriers reported having no seat belt-equipped vehicles in their fleets.

However, adding seat belts appears to be growing, possibly in response to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s recent final rule requiring lap and shoulder seat belts for passenger and driver seats on new motorcoaches and large buses. Slightly more than one-quarter said 10% or fewer of their vehicles were equipped with seat belts; one-quarter responded 11% to 20% of their buses had seat belts; one-fifth said 31% to 40% of their vehicles were equipped with seat belts; and almost all operators, at 92%, are planning to add motorcoaches with factory-installed seat belts to their fleets in 2014. More than three-quarters said they were only interested in buying buses with seat belts.

Business up slightly overall
While business was up for the majority of survey respondents, at 62%, this percentage is lower than the last two years — 79% in 2012 and 70% in 2011. However the average increase for the Top 50 operators was 30%, more than double last year’s reported 12% average uptick.

The number of operators reporting that business stayed the same for them — 27% — jumped from last year, when only 3% of responding operators reported no change, possibly showing more stability. Eleven percent of carriers said business was down for them, with the average dip coming in at 8%.

To grow business, nearly three-quarters of operators obtained government contracts, about one-half contracted with private companies and schools, slightly less than one-third partnered with other providers, and about one-fifth diversified into limousine or paratransit service.

Other actions operators took to increase business included soliciting new service ideas, increasing social media marketing and direct mail, “smarter” advertising, contracting with private/corporate companies, and attending more trade shows.

The most favored marketing method by far was word of mouth again, with nearly two-thirds of operators. Just about one-third of operators chose Internet advertising and a small portion of those selected social media in particular as their top marketing tool. Only about 2% of operators reported using mainly radio and TV ads for marketing.

Tech-centered innovations
Once again, Wi-Fi was the most popular innovation cited, with about one-fifth of respondents installing it on their fleets this year. Nearly as many added 110-volt outlets, at 12%, and about 6% installed GPS in their fleets. Some operators also cited bus tracking and online ticketing as their 2013 fleet innovations, at 8% and 4%, respectively. Most other innovations mentioned also involved onboard technology, such as adding a lane departure warning system and ticket scanning and iPads for drivers. In addition, Owosso, Mich.’s Indian Trails added hearing loop technology to assist hearing-impaired passengers, and Minneapolis-based Jefferson Lines implemented ticket scanning. One non-technology-based innovation worth noting is New Britain, Conn.-based  DATTCO Inc.’s addition of a wedding planner specialist to manage wedding transportation shuttles.

Staffing challenges persist
One-third of surveyed carriers reported their biggest hurdle in 2013 was recruiting and retaining quality drivers. This was the same top struggle cited in 2012. Coming in at a distant second was operations costs, at 16%, and low-ball competitors at 15%. These numbers were down from last year’s survey, in which one-quarter of all surveyed operators chose this as a primary concern.

Many skeptical of fed efforts
In response to our question about whether the federal government’s approach to coach safety is effective, the slight majority, at 51%, said no. Explanations for the vote of no confidence included a lack of consistency with enforcement, insufficient focus on small operators who fly under the radar and not enough resources applied to finding rogue operators.

“There are many companies in plain sight that have very high [Safety Measurement System] scores and need attention,” one operator wrote.
“We still see companies that have terrible safety records that are out on the road competing with us every day,” another reported. “We also see companies that we know do not operate according to federal [Hours of Service] rules get top ratings from federal audits.”    

To view the story as it appeared in print along with the complete list, click here.

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