ST. LOUIS — Rally Bus booked 755 charter buses in one day for the women’s march in Washington, D.C., and 10 satellite marches across the country in January, linking 135 motorcoach operators across 30 states.
Rally CEO Numaan Akram asked around and had not, as of his Rally Bus presentation at UMA Motorcoach Expo, heard of one company chartering that many buses on one day.
“I want to say this is not us brokering buses, this is us selling individual seats, working with the operators,” Akram said during a seminar explaining how Rally works. “How did one little small company like ours do this across 30 states? It’s technology.”
Rally does more than book rides, he said, adding that anyone can put up a website and book seats.
“What we’ve done is create apps for the riders, for the drivers, for the operators,” Akram said. “Everyone’s looking at the same data, everyone’s sharing that same information.”
For example, Rally posts trips on its site to a pro baseball game, and when a trip gets the minimum number of riders for it to pencil in for the operator and Rally, say 25 seats, Rally contacts a preferred operator to fulfill it. Once the trip is confirmed, operators are paid before the trip.
Rally also lets people use its platform to arrange trips. Akram used the example of a group of New York Mets fans that wanted to travel to Cooperstown, N.Y., to see former Met Mike Piazza inducted into the Hall of Fame last July. The group came to Rally, put its trip on its platform, spread the word and sold $60,000 worth of seats in 60 minutes, he said.
“We ended up moving 700 people, networking together five different bus companies and no one had to lift a finger to organize all of that,” Akram said.
That’s the power of crowd funding, he said.
Customers who want to create a trip can see online what they’re paying based on the number of seats filled on the bus. For example, they can watch the cost per seat decrease as seats filled increase. That encourages social networking to boost ridership.
Motorcoach operators don’t have to advertise, they get the call to roll when Rally has the minimum needed for a trip. If more reservations arrive than there are buses available for an operator, other operators are contacted.
It’s deferring risk, Akram said. Rally manages all customer requests and service issues.
If a trip doesn’t get enough riders and has to be canceled, Rally handles customer service, doesn’t charge any riders’ credit cards and can offer incentives like a free upcoming ride.
“It’s a platform. Whether we start with the trip or somebody else does, at the end of the day it all feeds into the same back end and goes out to the operators to fulfill,” Akram said of the system that combines ridesharing, crowd sourcing and crowd funding.
He got the idea for Rally, which he calls the ultimate rideshare, in 2010 and launched it full time in 2015. Based in New York City, it has about 20 full- and part-time employees spread around the country.
Two motorcoach operators who participated in the Rally panel at Expo reported only positive experiences with Rally.
“They’ve not let us down, we’ve not let them down,” said Tom McCaughey, owner of Flagship Trailways in Cranston, R.I., whose trips have included Boston-area concerts.
He’s impressed by Rally’s platform, including real-time e-communications with passengers that coordinate on-time boardings and departures and the ability for operators to watch online as seats book for trips.
“It’s great to see young people riding the bus,” McCaughey said. “In most cases, these are young people. These are young people that don’t have cars, they’re taking Uber, they do Airbnb. This is the world we live in and it’s pretty cool.”
Motorcoach operator Dennis Justice, a partner in American Transportation Systems in Long Beach, Calif., said he’s a fan of Rally and Akram.
“I am one of the most envious bus drivers/bus persons in the world because I’m at the end of my days as a driver, as a company owner,” Justice said, pointing to gray hair, “and this is something that’s going to be, in the future, just magnificent. The vision is awesome. I just wish I’d be around longer to participate.”
Asked by Akram if Rally was like a broker, Justice got some laughs when he answered, “No, because for one thing, Rally has always paid. It’s definitely not that.”
Ken Presley, vice president of industry relations and chief operating officer at UMA, said the new business Rally brings to the equation is exciting.
“Much of this business is per capita, a segment most charter operators have struggled to capture,” Presley said.
Any reservations he has reside solely on the number of complaints UMA receives regarding brokers not paying charter bus companies, he said, adding that any time an operator is not dealing directly with the customer and someone else controls the money, the operator runs a chance of not being paid.
Rally Bus, however, has gotten high marks, Presley said.
“We have not received any complaints here at UMA regarding Rally Bus and to date have only heard positive comments,” he said.
“When dealing with brokers it is generally prudent to get paid up front,” Presley said. “Choosing to provide service before getting paid is a business decision with obvious perils.”
In an email follow-up on how Rally operators are paid, Akram said, “We pay before the trip. The bus is chartered like most any other. We just require the operators use our technology.”
Justice said that when he gets a request for a trip quote from Rally, he quotes normal tariff prices.
“We have our costs to cover,” he said. “I don’t like to negotiate. This is what it costs, if you’d like to find someone else, take your chances, take the risk of a lower-cost carrier.”
Added McCaughey: “I think Numaan understands that if we’re not profitable, we can’t deliver the kind of service that they want to deliver to the customer, then the whole thing’s not going to work. So if we don’t make any money, it’s no good for anyone, especially us.”
Rally also helps in addressing the shortening booking window, Akram said.
“We live in an on-demand world now, (and) that time is going to shorten more and more,” he said. “Do you want to have buses available for tomorrow? Probably not, so I get the limits of that, but we do have to respond to the fact that people want things instantly.”
Akram sees a lot of value in the motorcoach industry and increasing revenue per charter.
“Think about it: reduced car ownership, the green initiative that we see out there, increased urbanization, zero-tolerance policies (on impaired driving). I mean I’m looking at a bright future here for this industry,” he said.