While motorcoach industry experts say that business is getting better due to the improving economy, tools to help generate new leads — from online sources to simple word-of-mouth — can still help many operators continue to bolster business.

We talked to industry experts who have seen success with various lead generation methods and shared some tips here.

1. Use online databases
One of the most effective lead generation methods that operators are using now is establishing a presence in online databases of charter bus and group travel associations such as the United Motorcoach Association’s (UMA) BusRates.com, the American Bus Association’s (ABA) charterbusconnect.com and Trailways’ Trailways.com.

Eric Elliott, GM, BusRates.com, says BusRates’ goal is to put charter-seeking customers in direct contact with bus companies, saving them a broker fee, and more importantly, provide clear communication for itinerary details so that their trip goes much more smoothly compared  to using a third-party resource.

“We do the homework,” Elliott says. “We’re a consumer advocate for charter-seeking customers. Unlike [with] airline or even train travel, customers don’t know what to expect, and they’re looking for a resource to do the homework for them, and most importantly, get them in contact with the right person.”

Nearly 1,000 motorcoach operators are currently listed in the BusRates.com database. Usage increased recently after BusRates.com added hotels and attractions, enabling travel planners and other users to use the site to plan every aspect of their trips, from chartering the bus, to booking the hotel room and activities. Anyone may use the site free of charge.

“We’re putting you directly in touch with the bus operator, the director of sales at the hotel or the director of sales at XYZ theatre, etc.,” says Victor Parra UMA president/CEO.

BusRates has more than 85,000 listings, including approximately 1,000 bus companies, 6,500 hotels, about 1,000 restaurants, and nearly 500 attractions and events. More than 120,000 group travel planners use BusRates each month, and 15% of them are located outside the U.S. The site currently serves more than 100,000 visitors each month.

Operators can go to BusRates.com/join, fill out the membership form, which asks for the operator’s U.S. Department of Transportation number to verify they have proper operating authority and insurance. UMA members receive a discounted rate. Every customer receives a free one-month trial. After the month is up, BusRates and the carrier discuss pricing.

Another service that generates new leads and helps operators market their businesses is charterbusconnect.com, a part of GroupConnect, the ABA’s network of tour and motorcoach operators in North America.

Dan Ronan, ABA’s senior director of communications, says the association encourages operators to use the service to help their business.

Charterbusconnect.com allows trip planners to search for vehicles available in their departure city and for the length of the travelers’ visit, get quotes from up to 10 companies at one time and book directly with the bus company owner for free. One-thousand motorcoach operators are currently listed on the site. All of the operators featured are ABA and Ontario Motor Coach Association members. The site also features ratings and reviews of the listed carriers.

“We have in our membership ranks very good companies,” Ronan says. “Every 90 days we go through our whole membership list and compare scores on the FMCSA website to make sure those companies have a high, satisfactory score. If it’s conditional, we give them 180 days to [reach] a satisfactory level. If they don’t, or if their company is unsatisfactory, we no longer have them as members.”

Trailways, which began offering charter and tours two years ago in addition to regular scheduled route service, also started a charter and tour website to help its members get more leads, by offering free quotes online, as a direct response to the demand, says Tracey Simmons, communications liaison, Trailways.

All Trailways member are listed on the website, so customers can easily get quotes. Trailways also has a live call center. “We’re trying to make it one-stop shopping for our brand as well as convenient,” Simmons says. “We’ll typically send a lead out to operators in the region so they can have a chance to respond and get the business and the customer has one place [to] get a variety of price options for comparison purposes.”

Because customers do business directly with the Trailways office, Simmons says motorcoach operators benefit by saving time since they’re not dealing directly with the customer.

2. Identify client, tailor message
The first step that operators need to take is to identify their client, Stephen Story, president, James River Transportation, says. Because limousine companies are starting to branch out into motorcoaches and buses, and motorcoach companies are starting to branch out into smaller buses and town cars or more corporate work, there is a wider variety of client types for operators to contend with.

Second, operators need to identify the best way to market or advertise to that particular client. “Each market segment or client type responds differently to different messages,” Story explains.

For example, he adds, in the motorcoach business, certain market segments respond well to a safety message. “Some transportation companies advertise [that they are] safe, provide on-time service, or have clean vehicles and professional drivers. That’s a minimal expectation for most of our clients, especially corporate clients, school bands and sports teams,” he says. “Some of these client segments have really high expectations. When you’re advertising message is basic expectations, then it doesn’t impress them.”

James River uses about 15 different methods of advertising, ranging from social media to postcards. For example, Story says, there are certain client types that don’t email, such as seniors or school teachers, who may not be allowed to get emails at their school addresses. That means the operator needs to find the best, most economical, affordable method other than email blasts for reaching those customers, such as e-newsletters,  print brochures or social media.

Then a step that many carriers miss, Story says, is specifically tailoring the message.

“Ask, ‘What type of message fits with that client?’ ‘What would that client respond to?’ ‘What would make that client say this is someone I want to travel with?’” Story says. “Many people have one brochure. Even if it’s electronic, that’s very generic. Whether you’re a corporate client, a school client or a senior citizen, you get the same brochure.”[PAGEBREAK]

3. Tap your customers
Other steps that operators are taking to get more leads include tapping current customers riding their bus, Parra says. For example, more operators are successfully gaining more leads by putting flyers on their bus seats advertising their services to get future business from current customers and to get them to spread the word to potential future customers.

“While the tour operator or mom at the kitchen table booking Girl Scouts trips will be a buyer, potentially everyone on that bus [has travel] needs, whether it be family outings or group trips,” Parra explains. “You’ve [got] one buyer, but potentially 40 other customers on that motorcoach.”

Autumn Dipert Brown, president, Dan Dipert Coaches and Tours, who recently conducted a training session at the UMA Expo on communication and the sales process, also advises seeking new leads from current customers. The last step of the sales process, she says — asking for leads — is one of the easiest ways to get them, but, unfortunately, most operators don’t do it. Dipert says that most small businesses in the motorcoach industry, or anywhere, for that matter, don’t follow the sales process, simply because they have never been made aware of it.

“It’s not something that is widely discussed or learned by either owners or salespeople,” Dipert Brown says.

She recommends operators educate themselves on the process by checking out any of the many books published on the topic.

Dipert Brown emphasized the final step of the process, which is to ask current customers who are happy with the service for leads of other companies and travelers that might be interested in the same service. Including a question on a survey form sent to recent customers is an effective way to get that information.

“A significant customer — or any customer — may know somebody who’s going to do significant business,” she points out. “It’s worth picking up the phone and saying, ‘How’s it going? Glad you liked our driver, isn’t he wonderful? Do you know anyone else who might be planning a trip that could use a motorcoach? We sure would like to be able to help them the same way we were able to help you.’ It’s pretty easy. [Contact] people that already know you and like you.”

Even people who don’t respond to surveys or send letters can end up providing good leads, Dipert Brown adds.

“Your current customers are the best sources of leads, period,” she says. “Social media, newspaper advertising, cable TV, they all might bring you a few new people, but the reality is your current customers are your best advocates. People ought to take advantage of that.”

Dipert Brown also recommends a training program provided by Ireland-based Oak Training (www.oaktraining.com/selling). In particular, she points to a module called “Selling Professional Services,” which covers the sales process.

4. Look to social media
Bronwyn Wilson, president, International Motor Coach Group Inc., says that using the Yellow Pages; database management; past clients; and local, school and affinity groups and trade shows to foster relationships, have in the past been effective ways for lead generation for many motorcoach operators. Operators still are able to rely on many of these tools, but she concedes that digital marketing and social media tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, are always evolving and can be potential lead generation tools as well.

The challenge in using digital marketing and social media for lead generation, Wilson adds, is once an operator obtains the lead through social media, it can be difficult to move forward with communicating the details.

“The details that the consumer gives you, [so you can] price correctly, understanding the vehicle requirements, sometimes the digital world doesn’t really allow that conversation to occur,” Wilson says. “While lead generation may come from a digital environment, at some point [there needs to be a] conversation to fully understand the consumer’s needs.”

The conversation can also give the operator the chance to show off their services, and aspects such as the newness and luxuriousness of the vehicles, and not just focus on price. [PAGEBREAK]

One of the most effective lead generation methods that motorcoach operators are using now is establishing a presence in online databases of charter bus and group travel associations, such as UMA’s BusRates.com and ABA’s charterbusconnect.com.

One of the most effective lead generation methods that motorcoach operators are using now is establishing a presence in online databases of charter bus and group travel associations, such as UMA’s BusRates.com and ABA’s charterbusconnect.com.

5. Attend trade shows
The advent of social media does not mean that tried-and-true tactics, such as attending trade shows, are disappearing, Wilson says, because face-to-face contact, particularly with specific clients, is fundamental to growing a business. “That relationship that you have with national clients just doesn’t go away,” she adds. “Trade shows are an important part of that.”

Trailways’ Simmons agrees, adding that operators who use the traditional approach of staying active in trade shows, such as the annual National Tour Association and Meeting Professionals International shows, which allow them to be in front of the customer, is also very effective.

One of the challenges is the cost to participate in all the trade shows you want to or may need to, versus the return, Simmons says. Additionally, competing for the time and attention of a charter planner and pricing can present a challenge.

6. Establish personal relationships
Like Dipert Brown, Simmons emphasizes being proactive in soliciting and not just waiting for the phone to ring. Tammy Knox, vice president, Group Travel Family in Salem, Ohio, recently spoke about being proactive, knowing who and where your customers are coming from and staying in front of them at Trailways’ annual meeting in February, Simmons recalls. “[She said,] ‘even if you don’t get the job that time, stay in touch with them throughout the course of the year.’”

At trade shows, Simmons says, reach out to attendees and try to build a personal relationship, adding that a personal touch and making an effort to understand their business’ needs is always appreciated, no matter how high-tech business becomes.

“People appreciate when you’re genuine, especially women travelers and meeting planners,” Simmons observes. “When you take time to get to know them that goes a long way.”