With the pandemic shutting down most motorcoach operations throughout the nation, New Britain, Conn.’s DATTCO has been fortunate to keep at least a few of its business lines operating at some capacity to stay afloat during these difficult times.
“Here in Connecticut, we have been fortunate to keep running most of our school bus operations, with some exceptions, of course, which has really helped us during the pandemic,” explains Kyle DeVivo, asst. VP, sales, coach & tour group, for DATTCO. “We have also stayed busy thanks to our sports trips, as many Division I collegiate and some professional teams continue to play.”
Established in 1924, DATTCO is perhaps one of the most diversified companies in the industry, boasting not only tour & charter and school bus divisions, but also a commercial dealership, maintenance department, and truck refrigeration company. That diversification has been a key to DATTCO’s business for many years.
With the pandemic immediately shutting down much of its motorcoach operations, DeVivo says that the company has been operating at about 10% to 15% of its normal revenue for that line of business, with some “peaks and valleys.” While sports and military moves have made up a majority of that work, DeVivo explains that as the numbers were down over the summer, DATTCO picked up a lot of outdoor wedding work — a line they feel will be key as we move into 2021.
“We are very familiar with that segment of business and expect that it’s going to be a larger than normal aspect of what we do since so many folks had to cancel their weddings in 2020,” he says. “In fact from what we hear from our customers, the backlog for venues and vendors may actually keep that line of business busy for us going well into 2022 as well.”
Another business line that brought some opportunities for DATTCO was its dealership, where many of the companies’ customers were looking for ways to implement safety measures to protect its customers and employees.
“Given all the unknowns in March, we started to come up with some driver and passenger shield solutions, which proved to be pretty innovative,” DeVivo says. “In fact, we have sold a few thousand units to our existing dealership customers, local transit agencies, and school districts, which are currently still being installed here at our operation. It may be a temporary boost to our business, but it enabled us to provide work to our employees after the other aspects of our business took such a hard hit.”
As for its school bus line, DeVivo says they are operating about 85% of its typical work but points out that with many districts only open four days a week, that number takes another hit of about 20%. While the company has been fortunate to maintain much of its school bus operations, COVID-19 did still severely impact DATTCO’s overall school business, since many of the typical field trips taken during the school year have been cancelled.
“Overall, it’s been a challenging time full of ups and downs, but we have been fortunate to have diversified so long ago, which has really been the key to hold our heads above water,” says DeVivo.
Dealing with ‘New Normal’
DeVivo says the keys to keeping DATTCO’s employees moving ahead confidently with the company has been the creation of solid policies and an open line of communication.
“For the vehicles themselves, we invested in some electrostatic sprayers and more frequent cleaning of the vehicles,” says DeVivo. “For the drivers, we have provided masks and all the necessary PPE they may need, as well as all the cleaners and rags they need to keep the driver’s area and vehicle itself as clean as possible.”
He adds that at the beginning of the school year, each driver got a care package of everything they would need, so that providing their own masks and PPE would be unnecessary. In the ramp up to the school year, DATTCO worked with all of its school district partners to devise plans on how the buses would be staged, how to load and unload students, and what socially distanced seating arrangements might look like.
On the motorcoach end of the business, DATTCO has put new protocols in place to keep drivers and passengers safe, whether the customer requests them or not.
“Our drivers wear masks at all times while operating the vehicle and create as much social distancing as possible,” says DeVivo. “For instance, they are now the first and last person off of the vehicle, and where they used to wait for customers at the bottom of the steps, they now stand back and only come up if a passenger needs assistance getting off of the vehicle.”
Like with its school bus division, DATTCO also works with its motorcoach customers to help create seating diagrams that help promote social distancing and cleaning and sanitizing policies to keep both passengers and the company’s team safe.
“We know more now about the virus and how to mitigate it, but at the same time, you can take all the precautions in the world and there is still somewhat of a risk each time your vehicle goes out on a move,” DeVivo says. “In the end, we have been really impressed with our drivers and employees, who have continued to work during this time, and fortunate to not have any serious situations hit our operation or customers while out on a trip.”
Moving Ahead, Lessons Learned
The latest stimulus package did include $2 billion earmarked for the motorcoach, passenger vessel, and school bus industries, far less than the original $10 billion need outlined in the CERTS Act. The bill also provided some additional relief to companies with 300 employees or less by way of a second round of Paycheck Protection Program funding. Looking ahead to the next round of relief proposed in the “Biden Plan,” DeVivo echoes the sentiments of many who say that motorcoach operators need significantly more emergency funding right away in order to survive.
“Our big associations and lobbyists are both involved in the fight for funding, but in a lot of ways this feels like a grassroots effort,” he says. “There are many of us who have been part of these businesses as they’ve been handed down from generation to generation, so in a lot of cases we’ve known each other our whole lives and it only makes sense to go to bat for one another right now.”
That grassroots-type movement includes operators meeting and setting up calls with their local congressional members to discuss their urgent need for funding, or to explain how vital they are in providing transportation services for the military or during disaster evacuations, for example.
With hopes for emergency funding and the way out of this pandemic now placed squarely on the shoulders of the Biden Administration, DeVivo says there are lessons DATTCO, as well as the industry, has learned that will help make them stronger moving forward.
“One thing I was doing even before the pandemic is working on online sales and quoting technologies, as well as some other software that will help operations run more smoothly and efficiently,” he says. “When I spoke at both the UMA and ABA shows last January, I would have never imagined how serious of an issue sales and quoting tech would be, but as companies have had to make the hard decisions to let people go during the pandemic that generational knowledge is now gone.”
In addition to technology, DeVivo also believes the industry can continue to learn from each other, perhaps even more than the already close-knit community has in the past.
“This industry has always networked well, but I think this gives us a chance to get together more frequently and figure out ways to address our issues,” he says. “Right now, we have an opportunity to rebuild some things that have always needed rebuilding, which will make our companies and the industry as a whole stronger once we are able to get out of this pandemic.”