Five industry leaders who took the stage to pick up industry awards during the UMA EXPO in January stood out for their age—as well as their obvious business savvy. We asked these young innovators to share how they turned problems into opportunities to raise revenues and save money.
Sustainability: Save money while doing good
Problem: Realizing that idling buses wasted gas and money, Arrow Stage Lines decided to tackle the problem. With a fleet of more than 250 45-foot motorcoaches, reducing this could help the environment and the bottom line.
“We want to do our part for sustainability,” says Luke Busskohl, 37, chief operating officer of the fourth-generation company based in Omaha, Nebraska. “We found that we can have some pretty significant savings even as a company if we really do this right and get the right type of buy-in with our people and explain what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Solution: The strategy was to reduce idling by just focusing on when the buses were idling in parking lots. Drivers were told if they collectively hit their goals, they would receive a share of the financial savings.
Using GPS technology, the company tracks its fleet of motorcoach operations. That data includes idling time for every vehicle. Every week, there is a report on how many hours motorcoaches were idling. If drivers are able to reduce idling as a group, then they will receive a portion of the savings.
“We definitely do not want to inconvenience our customer base. So what we identified is we could probably lower idling costs up to 40 percent if we just focused on our parking lots and when they’re out on trips and so forth.”
The drivers were told that the rule wasn’t intended to come at the expense of the customers’ comfort so the vehicles needed to have the right temperature when passengers were inside.
Part of the company’s investment was working with the University of Vermont and Professor David Kestenbaum, who is known for his work in sustainable transportation.
Takeaway: The plan took about three months to implement. Kestenbaum helped with employee buy-in by providing research that showed how small changes could make a big difference.
While management can see how every operator is doing, what is communicated company-wide is how the overall team is doing. If there an issue with a driver’s performance, that is handled with a private conversation.
“In general what we do is we say we’re all in this together and we succeed or not succeed together. So when the communication goes out, weekly, it’s for your region and then for the entire company… this is how we did this last week,” Busskohl said.
Marketing: Make sure you’re sending the right message
Problem: How to reach the decision-makers who book the charter bus trips.
Taking inspiration from other industries, Omaha-based Arrow Stage Lines aired proven marketing strategies from other industries with a message that resonated with its customer base. That message is timeliness. The company markets an on-time promise.
“We tell everybody that our motorcoaches are going to show up on time. If our bus doesn’t show up on time, we’re going to make it right,” says Alex Busskohl, 23, corporate operations and marketing specialist for Arrow Stage Lines
Arrow Stages knows that message resonates with the decision-makers booking the company’s charter trips after doing a double-blind study a few years ago. Nearly 90 percent put timeliness at the top of the list of features they wanted in a motorcoach company.
Solution: The company backs up its On-Time Promise with a guarantee. In situations where delays happen — excluding uncontrollable scenarios involving weather and traffic — the company offers partial refunds or future credit. In 2018, the company had more than a 97 percent on-time performance record and “exceeding expectations” customer service time.
One secret to that record is building in a 30-minute buffer. If a client wants an 8 a.m. arrival, then the company plans for a 7:30 a.m. arrival rate.
Putting a focus on timeliness was expanded to how the company responds to inquiries as well.
The company’s website has its trademarked Quick Quote, which lets that lets potential customers enter their information through four easy steps, eliciting a call from a salesperson nearly immediately.
The website also has a Live Chat feature used to quickly answer questions about charter availability, size of buses and features such as Wi-Fi. Pricing information isn’t provided but these online conversations let the company connect with potential customers before they move on to a competitor.
The instant chat feature is a free plug-in that integrates seamlessly with the website. There are a lot of options but Arrow Stage has used tawk.to successfully for the past 18 months, Busskohl says.
Takeaway: The company works with sales staff emphasize timeliness create sales, and to take advantage of the opportunities created with Quick Quote and Live Chat.
“We’ve had people say that they really like how quick it is, that makes life a lot easier for them. Our goal is making life a little easier for our customers to come to us and be confident that we can get the job for them every time.”
Safety: Make it a value and add to the bottom line
Problem: Matthew Dance credits a light bulb moment for changing how he looked at safety in his company.
He heard a safety expert suggest that companies should elevate safety from being a priority to a value that permeated every aspect of the business.
It made sense for Dance, Director of Safety & Risk Management for his second-generation family-owned business, Champion Coach in Greenville, South Carolina.
“If your value is safety, then all of your priorities are going to be based around safety. Whether it’s maintenance or electronic logs, everything is going to have safety in it,” Dance said.
While the company didn’t have a safety problem, Dance saw an opportunity to do a better job of taking education and awareness to new levels.
Solution: Drivers now receive a report card at the end of every month based on data gathered that measures braking, speed, customer complaints and even body damage incidents.
“Some thought they were a good driver, but the data said they were an okay driver. A lot of them have taken that data to heart because, if you’re a true professional, then you’re going to look at that report card and say, ‘I want to do better,’” Dance said.
One measure of the program’s success is a drop in vehicle body damage for the 36-bus fleet. In 2017, Champion spent $$80,000 on these repairs. A year later, that expense dropped by two-thirds TO The company was able to reduce repair costs by two-thirds in just over a year. The safety metric is tied to a quarterly bonus structure.
Takeaway: Share data with staff so they can see the impact of their actions.
Bringing drivers together for regular meetings can be difficult since they are often on the road, so Champion introduced a quarterly webinar call with drivers to give an overview of the data. These virtual gatherings have been well received, and offer a chance for drivers to connect and learn.
Dance says the extra investment in giving drivers more information and education has paid off in better decisions.
“And at the end of the day, we’re asking our drivers to make good judgments because they are driving a half-million-dollar piece of equipment,” Dance said.
Technology: Use it to let customers track buses
Problem: Riders—and sometimes those waiting for them—wanted to know the location of a bus. Traditionally, they could find that information by contacting the company, but it could feel time-consuming for the customer and staff fielding the calls.
So, Cleveland-based Barons Bus decided to create an online tracking system.
“If the bus is running late or if you’re a parent picking up a kid at one of our stops, you can see exactly where that bus is. And then, for our charters, it is really nice to see where buses are during our trips. We do a lot of trips to (Washington) D.C. and New York with school groups, so parents can see on a map where the bus is,” said Patrick Goebel, vice president of the six-year-old family-owned business.
Solution: Company leaders are using software technology by Saucon, a tech firm Barons has turned to for all of its tech needs, beginning with electronic logs. Working out the bugs took about a year, but now customers can simply enter the charter number or the line run number to find the location of a bus on a map, anywhere in the U.S.
An added benefit is the service reduced the number of customer service calls the company traditionally fielded by nearly one-third.
Takeaway: The investment of time and money was worth it. The company might later develop an app instead of going to a website—but that option was a lot more expensive than just putting it on the website.
There were a couple of hiccups. In cases where the map wouldn’t load on people’s computers, they needed to clear their cache and try again.
Goebel, 31, who owns the company with his dad and brother, oversees the charter operation of the business. With a fleet of 48 MCI buses, the company has two garages—in Cleveland and Columbus. The business does both charter and scheduled runs across the U.S., mostly for Ohio-based public and private universities.
Tour operators who schedule the charter buses also like the service. They liked being able to track buses—especially ones traveling through the night.
“This gives a tour director a little bit of ease, knowing exactly where the buses are and if they are on time,” Goebel said.
Hiring: Red carpet treatment impresses applicants
Problem: Recruiting and retaining employees in a tight job market is even more challenging when you have a growing company.
It’s familiar territory for Trobec’s Bus Service, which has quadrupled annual hires to about 20 people per year to keep up with demand for services.
With a workforce of 110 employees, Trobec’s operations are spread between school and motorcoach service.
“I believe that the driver shortage is real but I think that we’re in the best place as far as drivers go that we’ve been in a long time,” said Bethany Schubert, Vice President of the family-owned company in Stephen, Minnesota.
Solution: Red carpet treatment is a key strategy. Job fairs are designed to be fun and friendly. Applicants are treated to a lunch of grilled hot dogs or burgers. A course is set up at the company’s yard so applicants can drive a bus around to get a feel for the job, and staff leadership is on hand to answer questions.
“The moment that that candidate walks in the door, we basically roll out the red carpet for them. We treat them like they’re our highest-paying customer because we want them to know they are that important to us. That’s how we get them to sign on with us,” Schubert said.
Social media is an important channel for getting that message to potential candidates. Schubert turns to Facebook and Instagram because they allow for targeted marketing down to age range, geography or interests, like traveling.
When creating social media ads, the focus is on creating a message that is professional, classy and always representing the brand. Trobec’s images look authentic because they feature actual employees rather than stock photos.
Takeaway: Employees are the brand. That’s why Trobec’s focuses on keeping drivers happy and making them feel appreciated. The result is they like coming to work.
“The last thing we want is somebody coming to work and being miserable because that’s not giving off the brand or the image that we want, so we really work hard to not have that.”