After the last two years of travel slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, FlixBus USA is gearing for the tourism and travel industry to come back in a big way very soon.
The national intercity bus network anticipates the first wave as soon as March.
“Our working assumption is that demand will come back and that we want to be there when demand comes back. And for this, we need a lot of buses all across the country,” said Pierre Gourdain, CEO of FlixBus USA, in a recent conversation with Bus & Motorcoach News from his office in the San Francisco Bay area. ”If you are an operator and want to partake in the big recovery of the travel industry, there’s a good chance that we have some work for you. Now is the right time to join because there are still some opportunities.”
A Flix team will be at UMA Motorcoach EXPO in Long Beach, California, on Feb. 23-26 to answer operators’ questions about what a Flix partnership looks like.
Bringing a successful model to the U.S.
Gourdain, who grew up in Paris, has been charged with duplicating his success in Europe – where he led the company’s first international expansion in France, Belgium and Spain – in the U.S.
Since FlixBus USA arrived on the West Coast in 2018, the company has expanded quickly with its bright green bus. In less than a decade, its parent company FlixMobility has gone from a German startup to a global transportation network of buses and trains.
In the U.S., FlixBus USA’s parent company shocked many when it bought Greyhound, the struggling legacy bus network, last year. So far, the operations are being kept separate and are serving their different markets, and Gourdain said his leadership doesn’t extend to Greyhound.
Flix appeals to the riders who want to buy tickets online, while Greyhound caters to a more traditional crowd who prefers to buy tickets in person with cash. The routes are also different. Greyhound has longer routes with fewer stops, mostly in dense urban locations, while Flix has shorter routes with more stops.
“I think you can have one company and have many brands and be very successful with each of them in its own way,” Gourdain said.
He says his focus is on growing the FlixBus network in the U.S. To keep up with demand, he needs more buses. In recent months, the company has announced new stops across the country.
Looking for partners
In some places where Flix has operated, such as Los Angeles and Seattle, existing partners will add more buses. But in key markets – New York, Boston, Philadelphia, the San Francisco Bay area, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Reno, Las Vegas, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans and Richmond, Virginia – the company is looking for partners.
Traditionally, the company likes operators to seek out a partnership, but because of the anticipated rapid demand of customers expected to begin as soon as March, Flix is actively recruiting partners.
The distinction between a partner and contractor is that a partner is expected to be an active participant in its success rather than fulfilling route demands.
“The type of partner we’re looking for is entrepreneurs. We are looking for people who deliver on what they say they will do, who know how to run buses efficiently, and who know how to maintain buses well,” Gourdain said. “We are also looking for a willingness to take risks and invest in the right things. Partners need to have an established business because it’s a significant investment for a fixed-price route.”
Gourdain said that in a partnership, the Flix team will spend time with operators to teach the company’s strategies for developing successful routes and to provide driver training.
“We’ve gathered so much experience by working with all of them that we now have a good idea of how we can fix things that are not working well. This has given us the ability sometimes to act as advisers to our partners,” Gourdain said.
But he added that Flix is eager to learn from its partners as well.
“Our partners come to us with a lot of good line ideas. We love to brag about our quantitative acumen and how good we are with data to plan routes, but in reality, a lot of the routes you see on the network come from our partners.”
Doesn’t fear inflation
Flix has experienced a slowdown like the rest of the bus and motorcoach industry, but Gourdain contends the company’s model offers an opportunity to operators to take their business to the next level.
He sees a silver lining in the rising inflation that is panicking many.
“We are seeing signs that people who travel are willing to even pay a bit more for the tickets to travel again, so the unit economics have improved,” Gourdain said, adding that inflation, especially the rise in gas prices, coupled with warmer weather and pent-up-demand as COVID-19 recedes, will increase bus travel in the coming months.
“With the sunny season starting again, you’re going to see an onslaught of demand,” Gourdain said. “We expect Easter might have a higher demand for us than before COVID. And then, of course, we expect a very strong summer.”
Spurring that increase in demand will be the restart of the global travel flow. With Flix now available in 30 countries, it’s often the top choice for foreign travelers to the U.S. because of their familiarity with the service.
“So it makes for a really nice opportunity,” said Gourdain, noting that the Flix demographic – in the U.S. and in other markets – tends to be young and female, and attracted to the quality of the transportation experience paired with affordable prices.
The model also appeals to drivers, who appreciate the schedule predictability of a Flix route that allows them to plan their time off. That in turn helps Flix partners with employee retention.
“With Flix, you have buses running all year, so your business becomes more robust as well,” Gourdain said. “You can spread your other costs across a larger revenue base and become more competitive. You also learn new ways of doing things. You learn to think of revenue per mile and a new way of working.”
He recommends operators interested in speaking with the Flix team at EXPO do their homework first.
“Hear what other people have to say about us and look at our network,” Gourdain said. “I was in L.A. last week and I met one of our first operators in the U.S. They have been very, very happy with the FlixBus experience. I see a lot of happy partners in the U.S.”