The pandemic: Operators share paths forward, lessons learned

After more than 18 months of the pandemic, operators are taking stock of what they’ve learned as they move forward. For the most part, they are happy to be busy and cautiously optimistic.

“Compared to pre-COVID, I am going to say that we are up to at least 70% of our business,” said Alan Thrasher, of Thrasher Brothers Trailways. “I’m very sorry to say that with the Delta form of the virus, we’ve had some cancellations,” he said, but that is just a strong reminder of the need to continue to focus on safety and cleaning procedures.

Operators Roxanne and Joe Gillis, Alan Thrasher and Cary Martin share the lessons they learned from the pandemic.

Thrasher was part of a panel of operators who spoke about their experiences during the Sept. 2 United Motorcoach Association Town Hall. They talked about where they stand today, where they believe the industry is going in the coming months, and what they wish they had done differently at the start of the pandemic.

Thrasher, a UMA board member, said he plans to get the UMA AssurCLEAN Program renewed as soon as it’s due.

“We are still pushing the safety message,” he said. 

Regarding lessons learned, Thrasher said, “I would have done as much as I possibly could to make things better for the drivers through it. By the second PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), I was much wiser.”

Operators happy to be busy

Concerning drivers, Cary Martin, of Little Rock Coaches in Arkansas, said, “I consider us very fortunate to have been able to keep most of our drivers and most of our staff.”

“I’m happy to be busy, and I will take where we are now, going into the fall season, any day over what we saw in 2020,” Martin said.

“We were at about 55% of 2019’s revenues up through July,” he said, “If our work continues in Louisiana (generated due to Hurricane Ida), we’ll end up equal to if not a little higher than what we did in 2019. There are opportunities out there. I got another email just this morning, asking for more motorcoaches. The hard part is getting the drivers.”

Martin said there is work out there, and he encouraged operators to do what it takes to get drivers on the job. “Pay that sign-on bonus and get someone behind the wheel and make some money.”

Fear of COVID and lack of drivers

Joe Gillis, of Northwest Navigator in Washington, said his business is “at about 70%, due to the fear of COVID and lack of drivers. We are having to turn down business because we can’t get a driver.”

“We might be able to get a bit higher than 70% if we can get some drivers.” 

He said he is looking for ways to get people with good customer service skills trained to become drivers.

“If I could get another 10 more drivers in here now … I might even want to buy a few more coaches.”

His wife and business partner, Roxanne Gillis, expressed appreciation for all the support UMA provided to operators over the length of the pandemic. 

“Thanks to UMA for putting together the resources and the tools we need to be able to reach out to our congresspeople on CERTS (Act) info and get funding.” In addition, she said, “The consistency of the Town Hall has been great, and it’s brought us through a terrible pandemic, and it’s great to be on the other side.”

Martin added he believes “the worst is behind us and good times are ahead.”

Watch the UMA Town Hall session to see the panel discussion.

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