Millhouser: Passing along survival lessons learned post 9-11

“You’re driving a coach, climbing a two lane mountain pass. On the right is a 2,000 foot drop, and to your left is a sheer vertical wall. Suddenly, as you’re nearing the top, and passing a gasoline tanker, a truck hauling explosives barrels over the crest, aimed down the grade right at you …. WHAT DO YOU DO?“ asks the safety examiner.

“I wake the Tour Guide”.

“Why?” the examiner asks.

“Because they ain’t ever seen a REAL ACCIDENT”

Many of us feel a bit like the Tour Guide.. waking up to looming pandemic disaster we can’t control. No one told us this could happen, because it never has before.

A huge percentage of bus business is seasonal (you knew that) and THE Season is Spring. Manufacturers build stock units, venues gear up and open, schools do field trips and athletic events. You probably “sized” your fleet to take advantage of Spring and Fall peaks, and hoped to make enough cash to comfortably survive the rest of the year.

9-11 was awful, but people adapted fairly quickly and traveled to places perceived as safe. Right now, and in the coming weeks, there’s virtually no place to go. The WTC attack changed the industry, and this will too.

A big viral meteor is impacting and helping Darwin thin the bus herd. Eons ago Mammals won the first round, and ended up running the world because they were intelligent and adaptable. Mammals 1, Dinosaurs 0. The trick, in this round, is to be a motorcoach mammal, but stay alert, remember that some of our warm/fuzzy colleagues were crushed by falling Tyrannosauruses.

A few things learned from 9-11 may help here, so it seems wise to pass along ideas stolen from some of you.

You’ve got to give back deposits and prepaid trips. No matter what your policy and the law say, public pressure is going to force it. Resisting will poison your relationship with the marketplace, and you’ll STILL end up paying. If they’ll accept leaving it as deposit on future travel, great, if not write a check and smile. You may be able to get away with a grimace, from a distance they aren’t that different.

Call your lenders and insurers… and stay in touch. They know you’re hurting, but your chances of getting help in the form of extensions etc. go way up if you have a real relationship. Don’t hide, they KNOW where you live.

In fact… call everybody. Common wisdom dictates maintaining your digital presence. Well heck… everyone does that, but internet excellence doesn’t translate into real relationships, and the public knows it.

If you (and your staff) have time on your hands… telephone customers. Keep them apprised of things, and make it clear that your relationship is more than just when they buy transportation.

Call drivers (the ones you want to keep) and spread some love. Vendors too. This is a one time opportunity to cement authentic relationships. Talk’s cheap, at least in terms of phone bills.

Do some thinking about who IS traveling, and schmooze them… The military, for example, still moves troops, and other groups will gradually spin up.

This too shall pass. It’s likely you’ll have to let folks go, but try desperately to hold onto the best ones because you’re going to need them to spin your business back up. The converse is also true, and this is a subtle way to get rid of dead wood.

I can say that… you can’t  😉

Since we’re asking employees to sacrifice, this might NOT be the best time to show off that new Rolls Royce SUV.

Try and keep the good ones working at something. Rehab, repair and deep-clean buses (using really potent cleaning chemicals… so they smell sterile). Pay your drivers to contact their favorite customers periodically. That sort of thing.

In the months before 9-11 it had become obvious to all the bus builders that the market was saturated with too much capacity. No one wanted to “blink” and cut back because they’d look weak. Virtually every manufacturer, and many operators, made major, needed, changes following the attack, without stigma.

The Coronavirus is ugly, but we’d be foolish to waste any opportunities it offers to evolve our business. Now’s the time to reflect on what the ideal size fleets should be, how much debt to carry, what markets and relationships really work.

Darwin stinks, and no one enjoys watching him labor (because we understand he is not our friend). We need to hold our noses and work with him to survive this ugly time.  Like the excited little kid digging in a pile of manure, we have to believe there’s a pony in there somewhere.

Hopefully by the time B&MC News publishes this, the crises is over, and you’ve found the pony.






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