[IMAGE]Market.jpg[/IMAGE]More coach operators are devising ways to target customers — whether they are event planners or tourists — by appealing to their busy schedules and offering to do the legwork of the trip and, as a result, providing a more economical product.

There's also a gradual shift from print to some online marketing, though many operators are reluctant to go completely electronic, as print still presents some tried-and-true methods for outreach.

Creating package deals

In order to deal with current market challenges, Napa and Sonoma, Calf.-based California Wine Tours is offering package deals that involve more than just getting their clients from Point A to Point B. Incentives, such as discounts on their services combined with wine tours, dinner at a local restaurant, or a trip to a concert or sporting event, are what has drawn in more customers even during the recession.

With corporate business slightly off, the coach and limousine operator came up with some easy promotional ideas to get customers back in vehicles. The packaging is designed to make it as easy as possible for customers by doing the legwork for them. "We put together a package that's a no-brainer for them to say yes to," says Mike Marino, president/CEO.

For example, a typical package includes inbound and outbound airport service, a two-night hotel stay, onsite dinner and an activity with transportation included. "It's easy for meeting planners to be able to say, 'Wow, that really takes a lot of legwork away from what we have to do.' They can focus on selling the package to the customer," Marino ­explains.

A couple of years ago, when a group would call California Wine Tours for pricing, Marino explains, there were multiple logistics to figure out for groups of as many as 30 people, such as getting to dinner and any other events, and choosing a hotel.

In addition to package deals, the internal sales and marketing departments are instructed to offer to groups of 15 or more people transportation for $20 per person, which covers taking them to a winery, restaurant or wherever they want to go. "We made it really easy, not just for the hotel industry, but for the group coordinators, meeting planners and event planners," Marino explains. "The easier we could make that process for them, the better our chances were of getting the transportation."

Soon after, the operator took this successful tactic and applied it to the prom market. High school students attending prom, Marino says, often take limousines and stretch Hummers to the event. California Wine offers them a deal: If they get 35 or 40 friends together, they can charter their own motorcoach for a small fee when split per person. "We're in Napa, Sonoma and Santa Rosa, and a lot of these proms are held in San Francisco. It's an hour to an hour-and-a-half away," Marino says. "This gives kids a chance to charter their own bus, ride with a bunch of their friends and make it affordable.

"We're seeing more buses doing proms this year than ever. We're not sure whether it's our marketing effort, and converting the customer into another option that's much more affordable or, if it's a trend that might be catching on," Marino says.

California Wine Tours met with local school administrators, who have allowed them to put together an offer and created prom flyers. "We like to think of it as a discount, but in reality it's just that we're breaking the fees down per person. It looks like a discount when the total cost for the coach is $800 or $900 and you put 50 people on board. That's a pretty affordable price per person, versus limousines, which normally cost about $80 to $90 per person," Marino says.

Another way California Wine Tours is streamlining its marketing efforts is by focusing on advertisements that can produce immediate returns on investment. For years, the company used both long-term advertisement name recognition and immediate return on investment, such as advertising in magazines, on the Internet or using direct mail pieces. "Once we do an e-mail blast, or mail a coupon, we can, within a day or two, hear the phones ring and poll our customer on how they heard about us, what made them call and that's worked out pretty well for us," Marino says.

The operator also streamlined its e-mail marketing by utilizing Limousine Management Systems software. California Wine Tours is able to break down customer records by run-type categories, such as wine tours or a shuttle to a San Francisco 49ers football game. This enables them to quickly target what Marino refers to as their activity group customers, between 25 and 45 years old. "For instance if there's a barrel tasting in the wine country and tickets go on sale next Thursday, we will [e-mail] our group of customers that we know are potentially in that demographic about the ticket sale. We let them know, 'if you want transportation we've got a special going, this is what it works out to be.' That has worked extremely well," Marino explains.

Perhaps just as important has been the operator's willingness to re-examine its marketing practices and phase out what isn't working. When the economy started to dip, California Wine Tours did a house cleaning of advertisements and marketing that weren't giving a return on investment.

For example, Marino says, the Yellow Pages has been a very expensive area of advertisement. They ran the numbers and discovered that an ad costs approximately $3,000 per month, per section. "We like to be in the limousine and the bus section, and we want to be located in a couple different areas, under airports and under wine tours, so it's not uncommon for one county to cost $8,000 or $9,000 per month per spot, and we advertise in Sonoma, Napa, Marin and Solano Counties," he adds. "The Yellow Pages wasn't giving the return on investment that, for example something like Google would give. So, we shifted quite a bit of money from Yellow Pages to the Internet, which was a much higher return on investment."

Social media has been one of those Internet investments that is panning out well for California Wine Tours, Marino says. The company has a Facebook profile and a fan page linked to their Website, where customers can sign up to be a Facebook fan or follow the carrier on Twitter. Currently, the page has 263 fans. Exclusive drawings, giveaways and specials are offered to fans on the page. One recent deal advertised three hours of transportation for $150. Marino points out that they have been able to use these deals as filler during slow weekends.

Since the Facebook pages went up, Marino routinely points customers to the fan page when they ask about deals. "It's another way of building a base for electronic media, having all your people on a list so you can send out one quick message and hit everybody with it," he explains. "You can imagine how expensive that would be [in print] to reach those people, if you had to print postcards and mail it to them."


Demographic shift

Lee Peterson, president, Dell Rapids, S.D.-based Prairie Coach Trailways, has recently changed his thinking about the way his company reaches out to customers and potential customers after the company created a Facebook page. The page has about 102 friends so far, and is averaging more than 350 visits every week.

Prairie's typical customer, Peterson says, is in their upper-60s and looking to take a motorcoach tour. "We have 30 to 35 tours a year nationwide. We do a direct mailing piece and a lot of face-to-face with the customer. That's our tried and true traditional marketing effort, and it's been working pretty well," Peterson says.

However, Peterson notes the rapid turn toward electronic media in that demographic. "A few years ago they didn't even have an e-mail address or Internet access. [Now], they're accessing all our registration forms and flyers off the Internet."

Peterson estimates two years ago, approximately 10 percent of Prairie's customers were looking at their tours online. Now, nearly 40 percent of the company's customers are looking up tour information online.

"We're finding 70-year-old grandmas have Facebook pages, they're 'friending' us. Which is crazy to me," adds Peterson.

 While the Facebook page has only been available for approximately eight months, Facebook's weekly update of page activity shows that in the last week, Prairie had 357 visits. The previous week, they had 337. "It completely blows me away that 350 people looked at that. I mean, there's nothing on there," says Peterson. Still, he points out, that's 350 impressions the operator left with customers.

Prairie also monitors its Website statistics on a monthly basis. Last month the operator had 59,500 hits to its Website and 9,184 page views. Peterson explains that 10:19 a.m. is the peak time for views. They can pinpoint where viewers are coming from, what they're looking at and even gauge the popularity of various tours. "They go into the overall tour packages, and then from there they look at what we have going to Branson, [Mo.] and fall foliage. Our baseball [tour] is the eighth most ­popular," says ­Peterson.

Peterson admits that using Facebook influenced the way he views who he markets to. "I thought that my customers were 70-year-old people who don't use the Internet, don't have e-mail access. I've had to turn my thinking around 180 degrees after the realization that they are using it," he says. "We had 355 people search us out last month through Google. That blows me away. I thought the only way that we were getting to these people was through our direct mail piece, word of mouth and our 800-number. I thought, what we did 10 years ago was still the same. But, it's definitely not."

Still, for now, Peterson says Prairie will continue to use both print and online marketing. "I know that print is tried and true and it works for us. I think online is probably going to become more and more prevalent but, as of right now, it's really not proven. I certainly wouldn't put all my eggs in either basket. I think we'll continue to expand our online presence as probably every small business is."

[PAGEBREAK]Lamers' reactive marketing takes shot at airline business

A recent campaign ad run by Green Bay, Wis.-based Lamers Bus Lines took aim at Spirit Airlines' potential increase in baggage fees to $45 per carry-on bag. "It's reactive marketing, of course, but it was timely. It hits a nerve," says Eric Stadler, charter sales manager.

Lamers focused on minimizing verbiage to immediately get the point across, in hopes of reminding their corporate travel customers that may be on the fence when considering a flight or ground transportation.

"What we're trying to point out in those ads is pure and simple: Use the time wisely. Travel as a group. You can take more people in one [trip], and it may be less costly, less hassle with no layover time," Stadler explains.

Currently, Lamers is only running the ad in print. "We haven't expanded it any further at this point. We're considering [online] and maybe some radio we already contracted for. Right now, we are running it in some magazines," Stadler says.

For Lamers, the greatest marketing success is still found in direct phone and face-to-face contact. Stadler notes that these methods provide the opportunity to bond and create a relationship. "At this time, the ratio of our marketing efforts leans more toward print, radio, etc., versus electronic. We are constantly surveying the most effective ways to meet new customers and retain current customers. Our goal continues to be the conversion of casual customers into loyal customers," he says.

However, Stadler does foresee Lamers continuing to increase electronic marketing efforts in order to obtain more top-of-mind awareness.