As COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease up in much of the country, business is gradually picking up for motorcoach operators. And while tours and charters are not yet approaching pre-pandemic numbers, some operators are reporting near-normal — and in some cases better-than-normal — business.
But there also is a downside: Many operators are struggling to hire back drivers they had to let go when business all but dried up in March 2020. That means operators are being forced to turn down jobs because they can’t find drivers for all of their buses.
“Business would be back to normal if we could find more drivers,” said Jason Briggs, Vice President of Business Development at VIP Tour & Charter Bus Co. in Portland, Maine. “Schools are calling us, almost begging for buses for sports trips and for door-to-door bus service for students. Colleges are getting back into it. People want to go on gambling trips.”
Briggs said VIP had a chance to do a 17-hour-a-day shuttle service but didn’t have enough drivers for the job. Most of the company’s motorcoaches and shuttle buses remain parked.
Many laid-off drivers took jobs with trucking companies, where they are paid more than they can make as bus drivers. Others opted to retire or got jobs in other industries. Still others reportedly are unwilling to wear masks all day while driving buses.
“I think this would be a banner year for us, especially in the third and fourth quarters, if we had drivers for all our buses,” Briggs said.
Cruise company contract
Business is even better for Louisiana Motor Coach, which is based near New Orleans but has expanded into the Pacific Northwest to handle a lucrative contract with a cruise ship company.
Ryan Sanders, Director of Operations for Louisiana Motor Coach, said American Cruise Lines contracted with the family-owned operator to provide transportation for passengers taking its Columbia River and Snake River cruises. He said the company has moved half of its 35-vehicle fleet to Oregon to handle the business and has been able to find drivers because of the guaranteed work.
The operator also is providing transportation for three movie projects in Louisiana and has seen its charter business pick up.
“We’ve had to turn jobs away,” Sanders said. “If this was a regular year, we would have had to add 15 buses. We were set to explode before the pandemic, and then everything stopped. We hit a pause, a really long pause button. Now we are coming out of it and we are basically sold out.”
‘We’re busy now’
Victory Travel Inc. of Glen Allen, Virginia, also has the advantage of having a regular customer. Kev Crossley, who handles safety and compliance and social media for Victory and also drives its buses, said the company provides transportation for WorldStrides Educational Travel & Experiences. WorldStrides, which runs student trips around the world, has begun resuming travel in the United States as more areas open up.
“It’s been running decent now as restrictions start to lift,” Crossley said. “We’re busy now. But you still have to be cautious. Even though I’ve been vaccinated, I’ll test (for COVID-19) after every trip, just to make sure.”
He said that during a recent trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, “I saw 30 buses rolling away. We’re not where we should be at this time of year, and only a small percentage of companies are rolling. There are some companies that literally have no business, that don’t have anything on the books. But schools are getting the OK to travel because of vaccinations, and there are more places like Gettysburg that are open. I do see more companies starting to roll, a lot more than what I saw a month ago.”
‘More calls’ in California
Even California, which had some of the tightest COVID-19 restrictions in the country, is starting to open up. Tom Giddens, President of Pacific Coachways in Garden Grove, said that means business is picking up, at least a little.
“We’re getting more calls,” Giddens said. “It is looking better, yes, better than we thought it would be.”
He said most of the company’s business has been with schools and moving around nurses and other health care workers. But as the state lifts its restrictions, he expects more business this summer from day camps and churches. Giddens said Disneyland and Universal Studies still aren’t allowing visits from large groups on buses. Yosemite National Park also has limited capacity, he said.
But large buses are now allowed in Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks if the passengers have been vaccinated or test negative for COVID-19, he said.
Although a few of Pacific Coachways’ drivers have moved out of state and don’t plan on coming back, most have either returned to the company or plan to when there is enough business.
“It definitely looks better than what it was a couple of months ago,” Giddens said.