Homelessness crisis taking millions from bus industry bottom line

State bus association leaders look to be part of the solution

Homeless encampments are the latest fire for California motorcoach operators still feeling the negative effects of rampant wildfires in and around popular tourist destinations.

Increasing open drug use and related crimes among the homeless in downtown San Francisco and other major cities throughout the state have led major associations to cancel major conventions, and tourists to make alternate plans. That’s had a ripple effect on bus and limo companies that provide convention transport, says Gary Buffo, founder/president of Pure Luxury Transportation.

“Think about it,” he says. “Every single convention needs buses. Anything from a cutaway all the way to a motorcoach, you need it all.”

Conference cancellations by three groups, including a major medical association, has or will cost his business an estimated $100,000 this year alone, Buffo says. And that’s just one company, in one city, and one crisis. His wine touring business in Sonoma is already down 50 percent because that area’s hotel rooms are filled with residents displaced by last year’s wildfires and workers brought in to rebuild.

Factor in the impact of convention cancellations on other bus companies, and the amount tallies closer to $3 million, he says.

The homelessness crisis is a humanitarian one at its core, Buffo acknowledges, but the loss of tourist dollars not only affects hotels, restaurants and buses. It also depletes the tax money available for housing, drug and mental health treatment and other programs that lead to a solution. According to the city, tourists and conventioneers spend $9 billion in San Francisco every year, resulting in $735 million that goes back in the form of city taxes. The cancellation of just the one five-day medical trade show represents an estimated loss to the local economy of $40 million and untold dollars that could be going toward a solution.

The city has hired a safety consultant to keep convention-goers safe, and off-duty officers are paid privately by San Francisco Travel during big conventions. That hasn’t solved the problem, though, with attendees like those at a recent Game Developers Conference tweeting about car break-ins, knife fights and assaults and asserting that the conference should no longer be hosted in such a “dangerous city.” A researcher for the United Nations Human Rights Council, on an unofficial trip to California, compared conditions in Bay Area homeless camps to those in some of the most impoverished cities in the world.

Buffo, a board member of the California Bus Association, says he’ll raise the issue at the group’s annual meeting Oct. 21-23 in the hope that the industry might help forge a solution. He’s already been in discussions with close colleague Joe D’Allessandro, the president and CEO of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. Even D’Allessandro has been outspoken about the state of the city, saying, “We can’t be quiet anymore.  We’ve become complacent, and I think we’ve taken this as a kind of new normal, and it’s not. It’s wrong, and we have to do something about it.”

Buffo wants to see what colleagues in Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and elsewhere are seeing and go from there.

“If it’s a statewide problem, which I’d assume it’s going to be, what can we do as an industry to work with DMOs throughout the state to help them and work with city officials and county supervisors to come up with a solution? How can we create the solution versus talking about the problem?

“I don’t know what the solution is. This is huge, this is complicated. It’s going to take a lot of intelligent, educated people to come up with the perfect solution.”

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