by Hal Mattern
Longtime air travelers likely remember a time when booking a flight meant visiting a travel agency to buy the plane ticket.
Then along came online companies like Priceline.com that shook up the industry, allowing customers to book flights—as well as hotels and rental cars—via the internet at discounted prices.
Fast forward to 2019, and the same dynamic is taking hold in the bus industry as companies such as Global Charter Services Inc. (GCS) are offering online booking for group travel on motorcoaches, minibuses, vans and school buses.
“We are like Priceline for charter bus companies,” said Harald Kruse, chief executive officer of GCS and himself a former Priceline executive. “We are disrupting the bus broker industry like online travel sites disrupted the travel agent industry.”
GCS is the parent company of BusBank, Buster.com and FestDrive, which work with a nationwide network of operator partners to provide group transportation options for meeting and event planners and groups attending ballgames and music festivals. They do so by aggregating several operators to develop market prices for each trip.
One thing they can’t do, however, that online flight booking companies can do is access a global distribution system that provides up-to-date information about inventory availability. That’s because no such system is available in the motorcoach industry—yet.
“I’d like to build a uniform platform that would break down who is available and what inventory is available at any given time,” Kruse said.
Haniff Jackson, who joined GCS recently as chief financial officer and head of bus operator relations, said the lack of such a central clearinghouse for inventory can cause problems at major events such as the Super Bowl. Motorcoach operators providing buses during the game and related events run out of inventory and there is no way of knowing how many vehicles might still be available from nearby operators that aren’t participating.
“There is no way to gauge true availability,” said Jackson, who previously served as chief financial officer and general manager for Gray Line Tennessee, where he spearheaded the modernization of both its fleet inventory and booking processes. “We’re trying to solve that problem. It’s the Holy Grail for the motorcoach industry. Ultimately, we want to head in that direction.”
Meanwhile, the company is still working on the integration of BusBank, Buster.com and FestDrive, which merged a year ago and formed New York-based GCS as their holding company. Kruse, who had been CEO of Buster.com, became CEO of GCS. The merger came nine years after BusBank filed for bankruptcy reorganization.
BusBank, which began in 2001 in Chicago, took a major hit late in 2005 when a bus it booked to evacuate elderly nursing home patients from the path of Hurricane Rita along the Gulf Coast caught fire near Dallas. Twenty-three passengers died in the blaze.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the fire was “insufficient lubrication in the right-side tag axle wheel bearing assembly of the motorcoach, resulting in increased temperatures and subsequent failed wheel bearings, which led to ignition of the tire and the catastrophic fire.” NTSB found that Global Limo Inc. had “failed to conduct proper vehicle maintenance, to do pretrip inspections, and to complete posttrip driver vehicle inspection reports, thereby allowing the insufficient wheel bearing lubrication to go undetected.”
A multimillion-dollar lawsuit followed, and the high cost of defending itself sent the company into near financial ruin. Lancer Insurance, which at the time owned a small percentage of BusBank, and two other shareholders agreed to loan the company up to $3 million to keep it afloat.
However, when the lawsuit finally settled in 2008, there was more bad news. The financial world had begun to crumble as the economy hurtled toward the Great Recession. Motorcoach bookings fell off, and business at BusBank dropped significantly the following year. Unable to cope with the downturn, the company filed for bankruptcy reorganization in August 2009.
Eight months later, the company emerged from control of the bankruptcy court healthier and stronger. Lancer brought in a new management team and reorganized the national sales team, changed the way it worked with bus operators and began developing a new business plan.
Lancer remains part owner of the company, and Lancer CEO David Delaney and Senior Vice President Timothy Delaney are members of the GCS board.
These days GCS competes mainly with bus brokers, including small operations and larger ones such as US Coachways, as well as with individual motorcoach operators that handle their own bookings.
But unlike operators, which tend to focus on providing charter service in the region where they are based, GCS operates on a national scale. It not only finds passengers for its operator partners, it also provides marketing, which small operators often struggle with because they lack time or money.
“We see our company as the sales and marketing arm of operators,” Kruse said.
He said GCS fully vets its operator partners and uses a database to track their reliability. “We know who performs well and who performs poorly,” he said. “We pick the best operator for any given trip.”
Kruse said the company’s main customers are meeting and event planners, but it also books coaches for small groups attending sporting events or concerts. BusBank has nine sales representatives to assist clients, especially those planning large, elaborate trips, while Buster.com is more of a self-service online operation. FestDrive focuses on concerts and music festivals.
Not so long ago, bus brokers had terrible reputations in the motorcoach industry. Operators complained of having to wait months for their money or of not getting paid at all. Customers complained about coaches they ordered showing up late or not showing up. Some of the worst brokers searched for the cheapest operators, often canceling jobs just days ahead of a move when they found another operator who would do the charter for less.
BusBank wasn’t immune from criticism in its early days but has managed to emerge from all of its past problems to become a stronger, more successful company, Jackson said.
“We’re not a broker in the traditional sense,” he said. “We’re not in a race to the bottom in terms of pricing. We have a track record going back nearly 20 years. We have experience and credibility and we are established within the motorcoach industry.”