In 2011, business increased for 70% of METRO's Top 50 operators, which is even higher than last year's reported increase of 42%. On average, the uptick for those operators is very slight compared with last year's 9%, at 9.4%. Twelve percent said business was down, significantly lower than 2010's 20% figure. On average, business decreased by 9.2%. For 17% of operators, business remained the same.
To increase business, significantly more operators secured government and school contracts than in 2010, at nearly two-thirds of respondents, compared with 46% last year. Seventeen percent of carriers formed co-ops with other providers, and the same number diversified into limousine and paratransit operations. Other efforts cited primarily included university and employee shuttle contracts.
Actions to offset costs, particularly increasing fuel prices, included fuel surcharges at 71%; rate increases at 55%; and fuel hedging, reducing idling and highway speed at 11%. About 28% of operators reported having to downsize staff, up 2% from 2010, indicating that while business may be growing for many carriers, they are not necessarily able to hire more employees or retain workers.
The most favored marketing methods were once again word of mouth, selected by 41% of respondents, and the Internet, chosen by nearly one-third of surveyed operators. Internet use for marketing is slowly increasing, on average, by about 2% each year. Selected by less than one-tenth of operators were print ads (6%), Yellow Pages (4%) and Radio/TV (2%). More carriers appear to be using the Yellow Pages, with an uptick of about 3% over the last two years. [PAGEBREAK]
Wi-Fi and GPS topped the list as the most popular innovation selected by surveyed carriers, at 29% each. Social media use, listed at 11%, increased by 3% since 2010. Search Engine Optimization and installing 110-volt outlets also came in at 11%. Other innovations cited included San Diego-based Sun Diego Charter Co.'s idea to provide an iPad or tablet "so that the client will be able to track their buses in real time, which is a great tool when providing time sensitive services such as airport transfers," and Northfield, Minn.-based Northfield Lines' ticket scanner that quickly processes boarding passes for its daily commuter bus.
Pricing and hiring and training and retaining good drivers are the biggest challenges that nearly one-third of surveyed operators are facing. The cost of fuel and "low-ball" competitors were other common concerns for one-tenth of operators, higher than in previous years. In fact, 40% of carriers surveyed responded "yes" to the new question, "Have you had to adjust your pricing downward this year to compete?" The average cost cut that operators offered to draw business away from competitors was 7%.
Additionally, in response to another new question about adding driver training in 2011, one-third of operators reported offering customer service training, while nearly one-third offered more safety training last year. New training topics coming in third place were ADA, CSA and security training.
In light of the new rules and regulations regarding cell phone use and hours of service, METRO also asked whether motorcoach operators think that the federal government's focus on coach safety will pay off. Three-quarters of operators responded yes, with most saying that they felt it was an important step in weeding out rogue operators. The other one-quarter was not so confident, judging from some of the write-in responses. Among these, several felt that there is "not enough manpower and too much bureaucracy," as one operator put it. Another carrier wrote that the new rules are "overdramatizing exceptions to the industry," causing "increased expenses in rebuilding/refitting coaches when the vast majority of the issues are caused by driver error." Another operator responded that the rules continue to focus on the wrong areas and the wrong companies. The operator added that "the increased inspections could be helpful, but they generally put too much emphasis on the number of violations (including oil/grease) that they find, rather than finding meaningful violations from people intending to break the law."
The average fleet size, excluding Dallas-based FirstGroup America - Greyhound Lines Inc., which holds by far the largest fleet, is 166. The median fleet size is 73.
FirstGroup America once again took the top spot among surveyed operators, with Coach USA coming in second, with 1,642 vehicles.
Forty-three operators plan to buy vehicles this year. Eighty-one percent of those carriers are planning to buy buses with seat belts, up slightly from last year. The mix of acquisitions will include 352 new vehicles and 100 used vehicles, showing a slight increase over the numbers reported in 2010.
For the full Top 50, click here.