Timi’s Tours began taking people on tours again in June. But they are different from the days before COVID-19.
They are much smaller than the traditional 50-passenger-or-so trips. Initially, they included around 10 riders during June because the company is located in Illinois, which has had some of the strictest rules in the country after it was ranked among states with the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths.
On June 27, the state moved to phase 4, which allowed groups of up to 50 to gather and gave facilities the green light to operate at 25% or 50% capacity, depending on the type of venue.
For now, Timi’s is using full-size motorcoaches to allow for 6 feet of social distancing between passengers, and gives them the option of not wearing a mask other than to board and disembark the coach.
“It’s not all about making a profit with them. It’s keeping my customers engaged and getting them back on the bus,” said Vice President Jack Kaufman.
Not a lot of frills
The tours have been fairly simple — local winery tours or crossing the Missouri border to lunch at Lambert’s Cafe.
Financially, he can make the tours work because the company currently doesn’t have vehicle or insurance payments, which have been deferred or paid in advance. He and the general manager are handling the driving duties to keep costs to a minimum.
“We’re kind of breaking even,” Kaufman said. The $89 day trips are “a bare-bones, stripped-down version of what we would normally do. We’re advertising them that way. There are not a lot of frills.”
Passengers are asked to take a pre-boarding questionnaire online. Those who don’t pass have their ticket refunded. They are asked to bring their own masks, but buses are also equipped with a supply.
Kaufman doesn’t plan to put any barriers on his buses, but the seat behind the driver is blocked off.
“My opinion about the plastic shield is it’s not going to stop that air circulating,” said Kaufman. “At this point, until there’s data that tells me differently, I’m not going to install plastic shields.”
4 coaches and a van
The company owns four full-size late-model motorcoaches. In June, Kaufman bought a used 15-seat Mercedes Sprinter so he could do smaller tours more economically.
“I think that’s where we’re going to be at for some time. We purchased this, and the idea is that it can also run these 10-person tours going forward. We actually have groups calling us, going, ‘Hey, I have a group of friends, and we want to do something. Can you plan it?’”
He got a good deal on the passenger van, and is funding the payments with his Economic Injury Disaster Loan.
Timi’s customers are mostly senior citizens who are more concerned about getting out than they are about the health crisis. Kaufman says he isn’t hearing many questions about the company’s cleaning procedures.
“We’re seeing bookings for future events. It’s not at the normal level, but close,” said Kaufman, adding that 2021 is looking like it will be very busy.
His mom, Timi Kaufman, started the business as a tour company in 2006, and remains the president and owner. The business worked with Cavallo Bus Lines for many years, becoming the operator’s top client and even having a motorcoach assigned for its trips. When Cavallo went bankrupt in 2018 — a few years after being acquired by an equity firm — the Kaufmans decided to buy their own motorcoaches. (In the interim, John Hall’s Alaska Tours in Minnesota lent them two coaches.)
Timi’s Tours purchased its first brand new motorcoach from Motor Coach Industries, then acquired an older version from an auction of Cavallo’s fleet. Two more MCIs were bought, and Kaufman was days from picking up a new 2020 MCI coach when the global pandemic began triggering mass closures in mid-March.
“They were wonderful,” Kaufman says of MCI. “They didn’t hold the deposit. We just signed paperwork and we were done. They’ve been wonderful to deal with throughout the whole process. They’ve assisted us with different payments.”
This difficult period has only strengthened the company’s bond with the manufacturer.
“We’re very much team MCI. I like my service center there, and I’m happy with how responsive they are to me,” Kaufman said.
He praises other vendors, as well. Many have reached out to ask how they can help the operator. Saucon Technologies, for example, called to let the business know they were still paying for ELDs on their parked buses. He was able to cancel the service for the interim.
“Obviously, it’s a time when everyone is hurting, so that’s pretty impressive,” Kaufman said.
The right direction
Timi’s Tours had been growing exponentially since adding a charter division and was on track to have its best year when the industry came to a halt in a week.
The company has 22 employees. The drivers are furloughed, and office staff is working limited hours.
Bringing back the tours, even on a much smaller scale, feels like a step in the right direction.
“I keep telling everybody, ‘I’m making lemonade out of lemons, even if it is not the sweetest lemonade we’ve ever had,’” said Kaufman. “I’m trying to do what I can just to not stare at all these buses sitting on the lot every day.”