Change Agent, Part 2: Michael Giddens turns to technology for growth 

This is the second of three stories of young “change agents” seeking to move the industry forward through innovations of various sorts.

Pacific Coachways hasn’t been timid about investing in the latest technology. One reason is Michael Giddens, the son of owner and founder Tom Giddens, who launched the Southern California charter bus business in 1989.

Michael Giddens joined Pacific in 2005, after earning his degree in management information systems from Cal State Long Beach. Now, he’s putting that computer savvy and forward thinking to work in keeping his company relevant and growing.

This summer, Pacific became among the first in the industry to experiment with FlixBus, a German long-haul bus company that expanded into the U.S. with the launch of several routes across Southern California and Arizona.

“It’s different than our charter business,” Giddens said. “I’m optimistic that there will be a shift in people starting to think, ‘I can just take a bus somewhere like I get in a car or an airplane.’”

FlixBus operates similar to the intercity bus service Megabus, he says, except that FlixBus partners with independent operators, such as Pacific, to cover some of the routes. The Garden Grove, California, company is running two buses along a Los Angeles-Phoenix-Tucson route.

FlixBus is similarly targeting millennials, many of whom favor ridesharing apps over a personal car. It’s too early to say if the arrangement will be profitable, Giddens said. Pacific Coachways collects a portion of the revenue.

“It’s really in its infancy right now, but we’re hoping that it ramps up pretty quickly,” he said.

The company’s 25-bus fleet is a mix of motorcoaches and school buses. Currently, about 65 percent of revenue is coming from contracts to drive students to activities.

Aside from those steady contracts, the company reaches customers with an online strategy that includes a website, internet ads and social media. Giddens credits Google AdWords and SEO marketing for increasing the number of leads compared to traditional advertising, such as the Yellow Pages.

“As millennials have entered the marketplace, we are reaching them by the web because that’s the way they search,” said Giddens, who at 37 is on the leading edge of the generation that includes 22-year-olds at the other end.

While millennials embrace buses as a viable ridesharing option, Giddens acknowledges they are much less likely to follow their parents and grandparents on bus tours—until they’re older.

“Everyone kind of thought baby boomers didn’t want to get out of the car, but we’re obviously seeing that as baby boomers get older, they’re starting to take tours. So taking a bus tour may not have been something you’d want to do when you’re forty or fifty, but maybe at sixty it makes more sense.”

Multi-day tour series account for less than 10 percent of Pacific Coachways’ business, anyway.

“We do the same fourteen-day tour throughout the year for different tour companies that are typically bringing in international travelers. We also do a lot of one-off tours, but we don’t do the same kind of trips all the time,” explained Giddens.

The company was also among the first to switch over from traditional log books to an electronic version three years ago.

“We have a much better view of what the hours are, and we don’t rely on the drivers to tell us when they’re short on hours. We have a much better visibility of what their logs look like, especially if they’re on the road.”

When it comes to the driver shortage, the company is addressing one of the biggest complaints—the unpredictability of work availability—with technology.

A driver portal added last year lets drivers track their schedules, even though Giddens acknowledges those schedules can change at the last moment. The company also added benefits, including paid time off and holiday pay.

“We’re pretty picky about who we hire, so we try to get people in by treating them better and paying a little more.”

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