In many ways, multigenerational operators help define the motorcoach industry, becoming part of the communities they serve and offering hands-on, personalized service that brings customers back year after year.
Here are four such operators – and longtime United Motorcoach Association members – who are keeping it all in the family. Most will be attending the 2021 UMA Motorcoach EXPO on April 21-25, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the industry organization with the theme of a Generational Gathering.
Lewis Coaches Inc., New Orleans
“There’s something about buses. It’s an addiction at this point,” says Braden Lewis, who, at 18, is the fourth-generation member of the Lewis family to work for the motorcoach operator.
The company was founded in 1960 by Braden’s great-grandfather, Earl Lewis, and passed along to his son, Harold Lewis Sr., who remains president. Harold Lewis Jr. is general manager, and his son, Braden, is now director of operations.
“I call him the boss,” Harold Lewis Jr. says of his son, the only one of his three children to express interest in the motorcoach industry. “He loves the business. He’s one of the brightest kids I know, and this is about the least smart thing he’s done,” he jokes. “I’m not sure why he decided to go into the business, but I’m glad he did. My son continuing the family tradition makes us a little stronger.”
Braden knows exactly why. It all started on March 1, 2007, when he was 4 years old and his grandfather drove a brand new motorcoach — the first new bus he ever bought — to his house. Braden was so impressed with the bus that he skipped preschool the next day so he could go look at it again.
He would go to the bus company after school and ride on the buses when they were taken to be refueled. “It feels extraordinary,” Braden says.
He currently has his CDL permit and is taking driver training. He plans to go to college next year to study business administration, but will continue working for Lewis Coaches with an eye toward taking on more responsibilities.
“One of my goals is to be more involved in the daily operations,” he says, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught him how difficult it can be to keep a motorcoach company solvent. “But it would be far too hard to lose it because of this. I’ll fight to the end before I’ll lose it. I do it for my dad and grandfather because they’ve done so much to keep it going.”
Braden has been attending EXPO for the past five years and plans to join his father again this year in Orlando.
Vandalia Bus Lines Inc., Caseyville, Illinois
The original Vandalia Bus Lines, named for a south-central Illinois town, was founded nearly 90 years ago. But in its current form, the third-generation motorcoach operator based near St. Louis got its start in the late 1960s, when Leon Streif purchased an old school bus and contracted with a local school district to transport students. He later expanded Streif Bus Service by purchasing a refurbished 20-year-old Greyhound bus.
Then, in 1975, Streif purchased Vandalia Bus Lines. Over the years, he got out of the school bus business and focused on motorcoach tours. At the time, Streif’s son, Dennis, was a teenager helping out in the garage.
“You grew up in the business, so you pretty much got involved in grade school,” says Dennis Streif, who gradually moved from the garage into the office and ran the company’s school bus operations. When the school bus business was sold to Laidlaw School Bus Service in 1992, Dennis went to work for Laidlaw.
He rejoined Vandalia in 2000 and has been running the company ever since. Dennis Streif; his brother and sister, Dale Streif and Melissa Kaemmerer; and his son, Phil Streif, are now co-owners of Vandalia.
Unlike his father, Phil Streif wasn’t involved in the business as a teen. “When I was in middle school and high school, I didn’t expect to be a part of it,” he says. “I saw my father dealing with breakdowns and getting phone calls in the middle of the night, and I didn’t really want to do that.”
Then, in 2010, while he was in college, he started working in the shop occasionally, cleaning buses and doing minor repairs, to earn spending money. Then, in 2012, he transitioned into the office, got his CDL and drove buses for a year full time while still in college.
“It kind of grew on me,” Phil Streif says. “I’m really proud to be part of the business. Basically, I’m operations manager here now,” he says, adding that he expects to someday run the company. “There’s a sense of pride when you are working for your family. Companies that are owned by investors or large corporations have a different type of culture. Here, our sales staff, drivers and other employees are part of the family.”
Streif, who has attended the past five EXPOs, says he probably won’t make it this year. He says he will have to “stay back and manage the ship” because the company has been short-staffed since the pandemic struck. “I enjoy EXPO because a lot of my friends are involved.”
Pacific Coachways, Garden Grove, California
When Tom and Connie Giddens bought Pacific Coachways Charter Service in 1989, they found themselves with “four buses and no place to park them,” Tom recalls. They have more buses now, and plenty of room to park them. And they also have the comfort of knowing the company will be in good hands as their son, Michael, takes the reins.
“Yes, I’m very happy Michael got involved,” Tom Giddens says. “We had a business partner who didn’t want to do it anymore. Actually, that’s the best thing that could have happened because Michael was involved, and we were able to keep all the decisions in the family. Now, he oversees everything.”
The Giddenses also have daughters, who aren’t interested in the business at all. “I tried to get them involved with sales, but they didn’t want to work for me because I’m too mean,” he jokes.
Michael, on the other hand, took to the business early on. “I basically just grew up in it, and I always enjoyed it,” he says. “I started in middle school — the office was across the street from my school. You get to do a lot of interesting things, go to interesting places and events.”
He got his CDL when he was 18 and says he still would probably prefer to be driving than working in the office, “but I would get behind on everything else.”
Both Tom and Michael Giddens say family-owned motorcoach operators are the backbone of the industry. “I think it’s what makes the industry,” Tom says. Adds Michael, “I think it creates a sense of quality and customer service benefits. When you are a small family-owned company, you have the ability to maintain that level of service.”
Both are looking forward to attending EXPO in April. “More vendors who weren’t going to go because of the virus might go now because of the increased vaccinations,” Tom says.
Michael, who has been attending EXPO for several years, says it is fun to see everybody and catch up. “I have a lot of friends in the industry, both operators and vendors. This is a pretty relationship-based industry, and EXPO is about maintaining those relationships.”
Now that Pacific Coachways is a second-generation company, will there be a third generation someday? “Our daughter, who is 6, has been to EXPO several times and she loves buses right now,” Michael says.
John Hall’s Alaska Cruises & Tours, Lake City, Minnesota
Although it is based in Minnesota, John Hall’s concentrates on operating motorcoach tours in Alaska, “taking people to places the big companies didn’t even know existed,” says company founder, President and CEO John Hall Sr. The company has six motorcoaches and a customer base that includes people taking land trips and cruises.
And it is a second-generation family business, with all three of Hall’s children involved: John Hall III is vice president of Alaska marketing, Joe Hall is vice president of fleet operations and Elizabeth Hall is the chief operating officer.
“I grew up in family businesses,” John Hall Sr. says. “It allows you to be free and to make your own decisions. My parents instilled it in me. And it’s so important in the tour industry because you can take the commercial side out of it and put the personal side in. I’m so thankful my kids are in the business.”
Elizabeth Hall started working for her father when he owned a hotel and restaurant, which he sold in 2001. She went to work for the tour side of the company in 2005 and now spends most of the year in Alaska. She’s had her CDL for 10 years.
“You’re born into it in this industry,” she says. “I love working with my family. You don’t get the same connection if you’re not working for your family. We grew up on buses. It’s how we know life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
She adds that, as a multigenerational business, “we take a great amount of pride in what we are doing. We are focused on making sure the product meets our customers’ expectations. We take attention to detail to a different level.”