Bus and motorcoach manufacturer Prevost has started gearing up for the end of the coronavirus-induced industry shutdown, though it is anybody’s guess how soon that might occur.
Prevost, which shut down its manufacturing plants in Quebec, Canada, and Plattsburgh, New York, in March and idled about 500 employees, reopened the Canadian factory on June 1 and brought back about half of the laid-off workers.
“The Quebec factory is operating at a reduced production level, and we are focusing on social distancing, wearing masks, and washing and disinfecting work areas,” said Prevost Vice President and General Manager François Tremblay. “It took a lot of energy and effort to make sure it was safe.”
Tremblay said the company plans to reopen the Plattsburgh plant in August, when it will start production on 330 commuter coaches ordered last year by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority. That order will keep the factory busy through April 2022.
Since the pandemic basically shut down the motorcoach industry in March, sales of Prevost vehicles to private operators have pretty much dried up, with customers either canceling or postponing purchases. But the company has kept its 19 service centers open and has shifted its focus to customer service and support, including offering extended warranties on motorcoaches placed out of service and training sessions for mechanics to help operators prepare their coaches for the eventual restart of business.
Prevost also has launched its Clean + Care program, which includes protective shields for drivers and passengers, air-purification kits, emergency hatches with fans, hand sanitizer dispensers, electrostatic spraying applications, face masks, and social distancing seat and floor decals.
“We acted quite quickly to help operators add safety features,” Tremblay said. “People have really pulled together on this. We want to make sure to focus on support and service so operators are ready when their buses begin rolling again.”
He said such safety features would likely be necessary on motorcoaches until a coronavirus vaccine is developed. “That’s kind of the new reality.”
David C. Moody, of Holiday Tours in North Carolina, a longtime customer who runs 67 Prevost coaches, said the company’s support network “has been invaluable since this all began. They have conducted research and development on all the technologies we need to consider adding to our coaches, and on cleaning procedures and storage procedures for parking buses for a long time. They also offer weekly Prevost tips and online instruction.”
“Our relationship with Prevost is more than a typical vendor-client relationship,” he said. “It’s more of a partnership.”
Benjamin Blunt, of Concord Coach Lines in New Hampshire, said that nearly 100% of his coaches have been Prevost models for the past 12 years.
“They have been good partners for those 12 years and continue to be,” Blunt said. “We have had fairly regular contact with them throughout this, and they have been transparent and communicative with us. They also have been proactive in helping operators come up with creative solutions and products to keep drivers and passengers safe.”
Blunt said he was particularly interested in the passenger partitions because they are designed to increase the number of people that can safely social distance aboard a motorcoach, from about 14 without shields to 28 with them. That number would rise if passengers were members of the same family and could sit next to each other. Operating a coach with only 14 passengers wouldn’t be cost-effective, he said.
“We are working very closely with Prevost about partitions because we want to maintain good social distancing safely.”
‘The big unknown’
Both Holiday Tours and Concord Coach Lines have been shut down since March, although Moody said military troop transportation requests have picked up slightly in the past few weeks. He said if summer camps open in July, his company could get some business, and that groups have been booking fall trips.
Blunt said he has a few mechanics working to conduct preventive maintenance and bodywork. “That will give us a head start when this is over,” he said.
Tremblay said it is difficult to predict when the motorcoach industry will start up again.
“From the ridership standpoint, the psychological impact could last awhile,” he said. “It could change the way people vacation by choosing to drive instead of taking group tours. That’s the big unknown. How long will it take to get back to the previous level? The jury is still out.”
‘Still waiting’ for funding
The last time the industry was disrupted was during the Great Recession of 2008, Tremblay said. Before that, it was the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“But there has been nothing of this magnitude,” he said.
Tremblay expressed his dismay that the motorcoach industry has been left out of the government funding used to help bail out other industries, including airlines.
“We’re still waiting for our share,” he said.
“We’re struggling to get support. We provide essential service during major disasters. We move a lot of military troops, and we serve rural areas. We are an essential service to America, more so than airlines. Yet we’re kind of forgotten. It’s really sad.”