Among the most inspiring aspects of the United Motorcoach Association’s annual EXPO are the awards given out to UMA members who are improving the industry in many ways. This year, the awards spotlighted the efforts of those who are raising the bar in a variety of areas, from safety to marketing to driving.
Those who attended Motorcoach EXPO in Nashville heard the stories of these trendsetters and ideas they could take home to their own organizations.
2019 Small Fleet Operator Vision Award
Small-town service with big-time trips and luxuriously appointed coaches keep customers traveling with Rustad Bus Services of rural Minnesota. The family-owned business started in 1947 and has evolved by catering to repeat customers and adding new riders through innovative ideas and “A+” tour packages. As they say, they do it all: “We wash. We clean. And we drive.”
Chuck Rustad, accepting the award with his wife, Jean, said, “Thank you to our amazing, dedicated, hardworking Rustad family, with our drivers, tour directors, office staff, mechanics and our cleaning crew. Thank you, UMA, for keeping operators large and small on track, providing us with tools to operate our business safely. Thank you to all our friends in the bus and tour industry, working toward the same goals.”
2019 Large Fleet Operator Vision Award
Founded in 1983 with one bus and an initial focus on school charters, Cline Tours has grown to 10 locations throughout the South, ranking it among the top 50 motorcoach fleets in the United States. Every customer relationship starts weeks before a trip, with staff reaching out to review every detail. Once the tour begins, staff and drivers are in touch around the clock to make sure that every need has been met. Owners John and Donna McCommon accepted the award with their vice presidents, Frank Leyden and Tom Skinner.
“I want to thank God for putting me here, right now, in this place with my family and my employees,” said John McCommon, company president. “We’ve got over 300, and I’m proud of every one of them and am accepting this for them. Also, I want to thank IMG, and I want to thank our customers. Now, I want to thank all the vendors and suppliers that are here. I couldn’t open my doors any day of the week unless we had them behind us.”
MCI Leadership and Environmental Sustainability Award
Cassidy Group, which owns Coach Atlantic in eastern Canada, puts the environment at the forefront of every aspect of its operation, whether it’s operating a fleet of coaches that are all three years old or newer or working with the local university to develop alternative fuels. Not only do these initiatives help the environment and save money, but they readily promote the advantages of green travel to customers.
“As motorcoach operators, we can be a solution to the environmental problems,” President Mike Cassidy said in his acceptance speech, suggesting an industry-wide marketing campaign highlighting buses as a green solution. “Why can’t we have, in the back of every one of our motorcoaches, a saying that could be, ‘Would you rather me in front of you or 56 cars?’ … (or) ‘Our buses working hard for the next generation.’”
UMA Maintenance Competition
As the main sponsor of the UMA Maintenance Competition, ABC Companies provided the cash prizes of $4,000, which have increased five-fold since the competition began nearly 20 years ago. This year, to level the playing field, organizers decided to begin rotating vehicles to include another manufacturer beside Van Hool. A Prevost vehicle was brought in as a second vehicle for testing competitors’ knowledge.
President Roman Cornell of ABC Companies, the exclusive U.S. Van Hool distributor, encouraged UMA members to invest in mechanics by giving them access to manufacturing training classes and proper tools. “(Mechanics) lead the way in keeping your cost-per-mile low. Their attention to detail is key in not only maintaining your fleet but delivering a superb customer experience.”
The contest’s Grand Champion for the second year in a row was Darren Haines with JAG Motorcoach in Gladwin, Michigan. Les Kellogg, with Royal Hyway Tours in Skagway, Alaska, was the first runner-up, and Jonathan Thomas with All Aboard America in Mesa, Arizona, was the second runner-up.
“I’m honored to be a part of this program that UMA offers, the maintenance interchange and then, to top it all off, the competition,” Haines said in his speech. “You got to walk into a room and see there are 1,500 years of experience working on motorcoaches. That’s awesome.”
Grand Champion, UMA International Driver Competition
Wren Nance won the UMA International Driver Competition on his first try. The driver with Northeast Charter & Tours in Maine figured he didn’t have a shot after realizing he spent a lot of time studying the wrong material. But he took his time on the written test, often reading questions several times to make sure he understood them. And with the driving portion, he focused on having fun so he wouldn’t be nervous.
The competition that tested the written and behind-the-wheel skills of drivers was sponsored by Prevost, Lancer Insurance, AMBest and Krapf Bus Companies Inc. At the request of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, troopers with the Tennessee State Patrol judged the competition.
The other winners in the competition were first runner-up Henry Jensen of Premier Transportation in Tennessee and second runner-up Steve Erickson with Escot Bus Lines in Florida. Also honored were David Ruhling with Stout’s Transportation in Ewing, New Jersey, and David Messick with Blue Ridge Coach Lines in Culpeper, Virginia. Both drivers received Master Driver certificates for having at least 12 consecutive years of crash-free driving.
Loretta Bitner, chief of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Commercial Passenger Carrier Safety Division, congratulated all the winners and encouraged them to mentor other drivers and share their mastery of skills. She also thanked the teams behind the drivers, including dispatchers, maintenance staff, supervisors and their families.
Nance, who has been driving coach since 2014, says he’s been a “bus nut” since before he learned to tie his shoes. “We lived by a major city bus route, and I just loved being out front and watching the buses drive by,” said Nance, 35, after the ceremony. “I love driving these beautiful pieces down the road. I love interacting with customers and talking to mechanics in the shop.”
UMA Safety Leader of the Year
Stout’s Transportation, a third-generation business, has grown to field a fleet of more than 100 vehicles across three states. The New Jersey-based bus and motorcoach company has the highest possible safety ratings from the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Defense. In the past year, Stout’s has partnered with Decker Consulting and Zonar, a fleet management technology provider, on a variety of high-tech solutions that increased visibility into vehicle and driver performance, maintenance and compliance.
“We’re aware that once the drivers leave our facility, there’s not much we can control for them on the road. However, we are doing our best as a staff to help them with reducing the risk by doing different things to our equipment,” said Tim Stout, company president.
Motorcoach Marketing Council Marketer of the Year Award
Village Travel marked its 40th anniversary by rebranding its entire fleet, driver uniforms and buildings with a fresh, modern look. The Wichita-based motorcoach and tour bus company also launched an extensive marketing campaign focused on current and potential customers. As a result, email subscriptions increased by 4,000, tour databases doubled and annual sales jumped 18 percent.
Michaela Tye, Village Travel’s marketing director, accepted the award and explained, “The theme is embracing change and innovation, which is certainly something that we did this year. Of course, we kept with a lot of traditional marketing things that have proven successful for us in the past, but we also definitely leaned into some new things, including our rebrand.”
METRO Magazine Motorcoach Operator of the Year Award
Since 1928, James River Transportation has grown into a diversified fleet of more than 80 vehicles with 200 employees serving a host of client bases, from the military to wedding parties. Key to the Richmond, Virginia-based company’s success has been identifying areas for improvement and adopting best practices from a variety of industries.
“James River has really become good at recognizing great performance and then implementing those best practices into our own organization,” said Stephen Story, company president. “Almost every aspect of our business represents the best of the best—the best of the transportation industry, the best of the tourism industry, and the best from our local business community. So I thank you again for sharing your ideas with us; it helps us become a better organization.”
BUSRide Motorcoach Operator Achievement Award
First Priority Trailways in Maryland opened in 1999 with a single motorcoach. Since then, the company has been an official transportation provider of every presidential inauguration. Founder Marcia Milton has served on the UMA board for the past six years. This is the second time she has won the award, given to a UMA operator for exemplary vision, unparalleled work ethic, significant contributions to the motorcoach industry and a lifetime of accomplishment.
“I accept this on behalf of all the other minority and small operators to let you understand that we, too, have a voice. I accept this on behalf of the employees at First Priority Trailways, who’ve supported me during my 20 years in business,” said Milton. “As most of you know, I’m not a second- or third-generation bus operator. I stand here as someone with a dream that just wanted to start a business.”