Even as motorcoach and bus businesses struggled to keep their doors open in 2020 and were overlooked for federal aid, they proved essential in evacuating thousands of Americans from harm’s way during hurricane season.
After the evacuations for deadly hurricanes Laura and Marco, there was an ongoing recovery effort resulting in coaches being deployed for months to provide support for displaced residents and crews restoring services.
“There’s no doubt that our involvement — which really was the involvement of the motorcoach industry — saved lives and got people out of harmful circumstances in a big way,” said Kevin O’Connor, President of Transportation Management Services (TMS).
TMS, based in Maryland, coordinates transportation nationally and internationally for events such as conventions and trade shows, sporting events, special events, and music festivals. It currently has a team in Qatar preparing for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. TMS recently coordinated the movement of National Guard troops to Washington D.C. for the inauguration.
Along with event-based transportation, TMS has a contract for emergency evacuation planning with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and states such as Texas, Louisiana and South Carolina, which tend to have more hurricanes.
The 2020 hurricane season was certainly a bigger year in terms of the number of bus days, buses and companies deployed.
“We were so proud to be part of this industry because the response was awesome. Everyone rallied and did what was necessary. It was really quite a glorious thing to be a part of,” O’Connor said.
Many of those evacuated didn’t have their own vehicles and would have been stranded if it wasn’t for the motorcoaches. The recovery effort also included getting residents back to the region to rebuild their lives.
UMA member Ryan Sanders, with Louisiana Motor Coach Inc., praised TMS for running a smooth operation during a chaotic time.
“They’re good at what they do with hurricanes and mass evacuations, working quickly to do what needs to get done,” said Sanders, who sent a dozen buses to assist with Hurricane Laura evacuations. “This was a little different year because the relief effort was so long. Normally it’s a week or two. Our buses went out in August and finished up in November so it was a prolonged deployment. The work kept us afloat.”
Dozens of bus companies
During hurricane season, TMS worked with 62 bus companies that came from 10 states: Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Iowa, Georgia, Illinois, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
In total, 485 buses provided 8,667 bus days — which is up over previous years.
For those bus operators, $1,000-a-day per bus premium above normal rates was “a huge, huge shot in the arm” for companies decimated financially during the pandemic,” O’Connor said. More than $20 million was injected into the bus industry during hurricane season.
Initially, TMS worried there wouldn’t be enough buses because many owners had parked their fleets to reduce insurance costs. Fortunately, insurance companies worked with bus companies to get their vehicles quickly insured and on the road.
“We thought potentially that there would be a dearth of available buses and drivers, and we wouldn’t be able to respond. We had really a tremendous response,” O’Connor said.
With its own coffers impacted by the financial crisis, TMS had the foresight to secure short-term financing to compensate bus companies quickly while waiting for states to pay for its transportation services.
“We had literally tens of millions of dollars in bills coming in from bus companies we had to pay. We were thankfully able to line up the financing to deal with it,” O’Connor said. “The bus companies stepped up, our financial institutions stepped up, our teams in the field stepped up, state people stepped up and everybody rallied together to deliver what is necessary.”
The COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of expense. TMS deployed a team to decontaminate vehicles, which increased the company’s costs.
‘Movers of America’
Before hurricane season, TMS has used its longtime relationship with the government to highlight the plight of the motorcoach industry, decimated by the pandemic’s closures of events and large gatherings. TMS provided transportation for four of the past five Republican National Conventions.
In May, TMS CEO Frank Sherman participated in a roundtable discussion in Orlando with then-Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about transportation. Sherman used the opportunity to speak to both leaders on behalf of the motorcoach industry. He outlined the importance of the “movers of America” and why it was in the government’s best interest to ensure these businesses survive the pandemic.
“As this pandemic continues, we’re gonna see some definite impacts on budgets, and that will trickle down to the bus vendors,” O’Connor said.
Extra pandemic expenses
He noted that the extra expense of fogging buses, driver training and other COVID-related precautions will need to continue.
Mike Moulton, TMS Executive Vice President of Business Development, added that bus companies will need to look at how to build these expenses into their costs. Along those same lines, they are going to have to adapt as they move forward.
“As we shift toward recovery, not only are we going to have to be more flexible with our clients, but really take into account that these relationships matter and show some fluidity regarding changes, and really focus on longevity,” Moulton said.
“We all have to work together to get out of this. The bus companies that are typically pretty black and white as far as a reservation is made on this date, the deposit is due on this date — take it or leave it — there’s going to need to be a paradigm shift. These clients aren’t willing to throw a ton of money down without really knowing how this pandemic is going to impact them over the next couple of months or years. That shift is going to be important.”
He added that TMS returned millions in deposits in 2020 for canceled shows. For the second year in a row, the industry is seeing a dramatic reduction in events and gatherings during the spring, which is traditionally a busy time.
What hasn’t been impacted has been hurricanes, which have been on the rise since 2017. With the availability of hotels because of the pandemic’s disruption of tourism, many evacuees were temporarily housed closer to where they lived. This new strategy fueled additional transportation needs.
“Part of our work was running shuttles to help evacuees get to medical appointments, such as dialysis, and picking up prescriptions,” Moulton said.
Hundreds of sleeper coaches — usually unavailable because they are moving musicians and their bands on the concert circuit — were deployed to serve electrical crews restoring power. TMS also rented some sleeper buses for their cleaning staff, which was constantly on the move.
“The owners of those sleeper buses were happy to get those things out and on the road again,” Moulton said.