So many traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles to take part in this month’s rolling rally in Washington, D.C., to save their livelihoods, but their experience also bonded them and reminded them what is special about their industry.
As part of the Motorcoaches Rolling for Awareness event, thousands of drivers, operators and suppliers told the industry’s story and asked for funding to help companies survive through the economic shutdown until group travel can safely resume.
Bus & Motorcoach News spoke to some of those who came about their experience and why taking part in this historic event was so important to them.
“Everybody was glad they went,” said Grace Couch, who came on a bus that carried a dozen employees from sister companies Clark Travel and Roadrunner Charters, located near Austin, Texas.
Attending the rally was the idea of a driver who initially planned to take her own car but, when others wanted to go, they asked the company about taking a bus. The vice president told them if they could raise the money for fuel, they could take a company coach.
Honking in unity
“We raised $1,500 in three hours, mostly from furloughed drivers who wanted to go but couldn’t,” Couch said.
After they gathered the money, the vice president said he would cover the fuel cost, and told them to use the money raised for their expenses. The group drove straight through, spending the night at a hotel on the eve of the May 13 rally and then driving straight back to Texas, arriving the next afternoon.
The rally was everything they expected and more.
“It was amazing seeing all those buses. I don’t know how long they planned it, but it came together really well,” Couch said, adding that her favorite memory was the buses honking in unity for two minutes.
Ron Baker, one of the drivers, said he felt a deeper connection to the industry after meeting drivers he communicated with regularly on Facebook but who lived in other states.
“It was great getting out there and coming together as a family,” said Baker, who’s been a driver for Roadrunner Charters for five years, working his way up from driving limousines to school buses to motorcoaches. “Motorcoaches are my life.”
Support from the sidewalk
Erin Curry wasn’t on a bus but on a sidewalk showing support with homemade signs bearing the message: “Without buses, we don’t have a business!” As soon as she heard about the rally, she knew she would be there. She drove up with her husband, Grant, and their two sons from the Indianapolis area. She owns Appian Tours, which she started in 2011 at age 28.
“We wanted to attend the rally in D.C., not only to show Congress that the motorcoaches need assistance but to show our motorcoach partners that their tourism family is going to drive great lengths to support each other,” Curry said. “The motorcoach and tourism industry is the strongest community in the world, and we are proud to be included with this incredible group of people. We hope that Congress saw the commitment and continues to see the persistence of our motorcoach family over the upcoming days, and that they don’t ‘miss the bus’ again.”
Charles Rukstela, the owner of Rukstela Charter Service in Eastford, Connecticut, made the 800-mile round-trip journey with one of his drivers and one bus. Despite his mounting bills and no income for two months, he knew he had to be there.
“I think it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing for all of us to come together like that. I’m hoping it was once in a lifetime, because I never want to have to go through something like we are experiencing again,” said Rukstela, a third-generation bus driver. He joined the industry as a school bus driver in his teens before starting his own company more than 20 years ago and growing his fleet to five motorcoaches.
Convoy to D.C.
From Orlando, Florida, came husband and wife Raul Calderon and Carmen Bonilla, two of the five partners of JB Bus. Their yellow bus was part of a convoy led by ABC Companies to Washington, D.C.
“It was beautiful. It was very well-organized. We’ve never seen all the companies together like this,” said Calderon, a driver turned operator whose fleet has grown to 23 motorcoaches since launching in 2005. He qualified for his commercial driver’s license a year after coming to the U.S. in 1996, from his native Argentina. Partner Juan Londono, who wasn’t able to attend the rolling rally, says he’s proud his mom and stepdad were able to represent the company.
David Beach chronicled the trip on social media, driving for the Utah-based Smith Coaches Inc. He felt like he was on a mission for Cory Smith, the company’s second-generation owner, who stayed back so he wouldn’t miss important family engagements.
Beach, 32, said, “He was born into the industry.” And he could potentially lose his business. Beach started driving buses when he was 18, and motorcoaches when he turned 21. Over the winter, he transitioned from driver to tour company operator, opening his business, Royal Crown Tours.
“It was great seeing the industry coming together because we’re all struggling right now,” Beach said, adding that the public doesn’t realize closures during warm months are particularly difficult for an industry that makes the bulk of its revenues during spring and summer.
“It was great seeing the unification happening. You run into these people one on one, but seeing so many of them in the same place at the same time was powerful.”