Eight years ago when Eddie Serrano and his family opened up shop as Empire Coach Line in Orlando, Fla., they had no idea what they were up against.
“As the years progressed, we realized what a tough, competitive market we picked, but have found ways to adapt and make it work,” explains Serrano, Empire’s VP, who opened the business with his mother Patricia in 2005.
Although Serrano’s father was in the bus business years before, he adds that he was too young to pick any of it up and has basically learned on the fly.
“Coming into the business without a whole lot of experience, pricing was always an issue,” he says. “In Orlando, the competitors are smaller operators who have to move their equipment at whatever price they can get for it. We have learned from that and realized we don’t necessarily need to compete with them. We can raise our price and leave it where it’s at while providing a higher level of service.”
Over the years, Empire has found that a great way it can provide quality services at a solid price is by using refurbished equipment. To do so, the operation has worked closely with ABC Companies, which has refurbished many of its coaches over the years.
“What we do is convert them to the Detroit/Allison powertrain and add the new 2013 front and rear caps, new interiors and updated graphics,” Serrano says. “We also have taken out all the old CRT monitors and replaced them with 15-inch flat screens and even added satellite TV to a select few.”
He adds that Wi-Fi and 110-volt outlets, which have become standard on nearly all of Empire’s equipment, have helped him stand out from the small- and mid-sized competitors in the area.
While convention work makes up the bulk of the operation’s business, the company began exploring other avenues in the fourth quarter of 2012, eventually landing its first contract with a major cruise line, Royal Caribbean.
“We have been providing transportation between Orlando International Airport and Port Canaveral for about a year now,” Serrano explains. “Once we tapped into the cruise line business, we found out how much more work there is out there that we can bid on.”
Since then, Empire has added two more contracts with Norwegian Cruise Lines — one providing crew transportation at Port of Tampa and Port Canaveral and the other providing port excursions for cruise line passengers out of Port Canaveral to Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando.
“It has gone great for us and looks really good on our resume when we’re going after other contracts,” says Serrano. “All of our operations are running smoothly, and now, it is time to sit back down at the table with our sales team and start figuring what other piece of business we want to go after.”
Serrano explains that one of the company’s biggest challenges is keeping on top of operations with a relatively small staff that includes five family members, especially after adding the cruise line business.
One way it tried to improve efficiencies was by introducing new technology, including a system allowing drivers to receive text or e-mail notifications when their assignments can be viewed via an online system.
“Moving to this system freed up a lot of time for our dispatchers, who used to have to call 35 to 45 drivers to give them their assignments,” says Serrano. “The system also allows our dispatchers to log in and see which drivers have or have not viewed their assignments, so they can follow up as needed.”
Drivers also check in on the job by scanning their fingerprint. If a driver is eight minutes late, dispatchers receive a text alert with their name so they can make follow-up phone calls.
Serrano says that one thing that helped him grow professionally in the last eight years was becoming a member of groups including the United Motorcoach Association and the Florida Motor Coach Association, where he serves as member of its board of directors.
“I would urge all of the smaller operators to become involved with their local and national associations to learn what this industry is really all about,” he says. “By joining and going to meetings, I have gained knowledge that has both helped me grow our business today and create a vision for where we want it to go in the future.”