In terms of marketing, what works for one motorcoach operator may not necessarily work for all. Keeping your mind open and learning about all possible avenues is probably the best possible marketing plan.
But, before figuring out how you want to market your operation, you have to decide upon a well-developed positioning statement — it can be a simple sentence or two — then understand what image you want to portray to prospective customers when marketing your services, says Jim McCann of Spader Business Management.
"It's about identifying which market segments you are really going after and developing a plan to penetrate those markets," McCann says. "You need to know what the needs of those segments are, then address those needs through your business."
For example, Largo, Fla.-based Escot Bus Lines President Brian Scott says that his operation's business was once totally charter until realizing their market would only support so much growth in that area, and the competition never got easier. So, Escot expanded into contract work and scheduled service.
"We got tired of always fighting over the same piece of pie with our competitor where, often, the only thing that separates you from them is a lower price and it becomes a constant game of 'lowering the bar' on price," he says. "We have been effective at creating the need for our own equipment."
Outside of the usual advertising avenues — TV/radio, press releases, Yellow Pages ads — there seems to be a push as of late toward Internet marketing; however, one industry professional is imploring operators to not forget the past successes that were gained by developing relationships through community involvement.
Once you decide what your market segments are, deciding how you will attract customers, explains McCann, is really the decision of the business, depending on what fits their model and what they are comfortable with. And, both the Web and community involvement will have great benefits when trying to grow your business.
"Clearly, social media and the Internet is gaining popularity, but the forming of relationships is still very important," says McCann. "The best thing to do may be finding a happy medium between the two."
The Internet is your friend
At last January's United Motorcoach Association Expo 2011 in Tampa, Fla., a key message for operators was increasing your operations' exposure on the Web, via your site and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
For the more seasoned operators, embracing the Internet is a huge leap forward, since many long-time industry veterans are usually pretty green when it comes to technology, in general, and how to make the best use of it, specifically.
Younger operators who have grown up with the technology, however, are embracing the Web and finding ways to make it work for them to grow their businesses.
"I use Facebook and that sort of thing almost exclusively," explains Ray Land III, president of Fabulous Coach Lines in Branford, Fla. "You'll find something about Fabulous on Facebook quicker than any other way. As far as marketing goes, I use it heavily and it works."
Fabulous' focus on the Web has led Land to trying out many new things, including posting videos on YouTube and writing blogs for his site.
One successful YouTube video featured the relationship with Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University's (FAMU) "Marching 100" band.
"We tried to make the FAMU video 50 percent about the band and 50 percent about our company, so that it would hold people's attention but, also, have a certain amount of pride for them as a customer," says Land, who adds that he is currently building up content to begin doing video blogs, or vlogs, because he thinks it's a "cool way to connect with people."
The idea for both the blogs and vlogs is to focus on some of the places Fabulous goes as well as on some of the groups they serve, which Land says includes many non-profit organizations.
[PAGEBREAK] Back to Basics
Not to take away from the success many operators are finding on the Web, International Motor Coach Group President Steve Klika says that operators are getting away from the basics, including becoming involved in the communities that they serve.
"Yes, technology can help deal with things a little more efficiently, but it's not going to replace that personal touch," he says. "I really try to emphasize with our folks that it's about getting back to the basics of being engaged with what the community needs and showing that you're invested in the community. Once you do that, people have a tendency to pay you back."
Klika says his idea of getting back to basics stems from the industry's past when operators were in touch with the needs of the community, providing services from school bus to charter to line haul, to fulfill those needs.
"When we didn't have all this technology back when our granddads started the businesses, they were forced to talk to people and, now, you find at a lot of sales offices where they sit behind a desk and computer and wait for the phone to ring instead of getting out there," he says.
To become part of the community, Klika explains operators can get involved with city or local councils, Parent Teacher Associations and chambers of commerce, for example. He adds that simply going to meetings is not enough and, instead, urges operators to get involved in leadership positions, such as getting on the board of directors of some of these groups, so you can be recognized for the value that you as an individual have.
For his part, Land says he likes to keep involved in the community by remaining in constant contact with the existing customers he has and, since many of is larger customers are non-profits, participating in as many of their functions as he possibly can, including parades and other community-based events.
Escot's Brian Scott has also found success by getting involved in his community.
"The future of your business is in your own backyard," explains Scott. "If you are not at the table, you not only don't hear about new opportunities, but you also get planned over."
Escot representatives are active in local chambers, attend political events, and serve on various planning and transportation boards in all of the communities it serves in its home base of Florida, including Tampa, St. Petersburg and Orlando.
"This involvement has identified new contract opportunities, which we have capitalized on, and areas to expand our offerings of scheduled/line run services," says Scott.
He adds that Escot also works on forming partnerships with other local business owners and entrepreneurs, who can also benefit from the traffic that the operation's services will bring.
"[It] requires constant relationship building, rather than writing a check to cover advertising costs, but it is often times far more effective and rewarding," he says. "It also builds stronger ties in your community."
A happy medium
The success that Scott has found is exactly Klika's point.
"It's an easy step to reach, and it also helps you figure out how the needs might be changing in that community and where you can be on the front end to help deal with some of those changes," he says.
To be clear, community involvement should be seen as simply another aspect of an operator's larger marketing scheme, but is often a low hanging fruit-type step that is being overlooked by the industry.
Klika is quick to point out that he is not slamming operators who use the Internet or have moved to computerized phone answering systems, rather he sees it as the evolution of an industry that has gotten smarter and become more proficient in doing more with less. Still, he emphasizes not to lose sight of the value in the human touch.
"The e-marketing opportunities are a way to keep your name out there, especially for people you're not familiar with. And, it's going to take care of that portion of the population that operates better on computers," says Klika. "At some point, there just has to be a human behind the screen who will pick up the phone and solidify that relationship or a person who will get out from behind their desk to become engaged with the community."
[PAGEBREAK]Marketing an alternative service
Trying to find a way to maintain customers that find his Fabulous Coach prices a little out of their range, Ray Land III had a brainstorm - launch an economy line, which he calls Breezeways. The line was launched a couple of years ago with four white, 49-passenger Van Hool 940s.
"We don't ever want anybody to be disappointed in our service and, certainly, don't want them to be disappointed in the price and wonder why other people are always cheaper," explained Land. "So, we have Breezeways. It will be nice, reliable and have all the amenities that you expect standard on a motorcoach. It's kind of like a Southwest Airlines or a Jet Blue of the motorcoach industry, something that is nice but just a bit cheaper."
Land said that when a new phone call comes in, his team simply talks to the customer to determine what they are looking for in terms of quality and price, before quoting prices for Fabulous or Breezeways.
He added that establishing a cheaper option for some of his customers was a necessity, not only to better serve his customers but, also, to continue maintaining his high-end Fabulous line without compromising some of the aspects that help it stand apart from the competition.
"We really want to keep a certain standard for Fabulous. We want that brand to be very top tier. We want these coaches to look nicer than anything else on the road, to really stand out and be something extremely fancy," he explained. "You can't just put Fabulous on a plain old coach, our brand has to live up to the name. So, that's why we came up with this idea."