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Bus and Motor Coach Library

Partnering for Success – The NTA

Author- Lisa Nelson (2002)

When was the last time you saw a pro football player win the Super Bowl single-handedly?  It
takes a team effort, where each player has a specific job to do. Sure, some players may have a
better game than others from time to time, but in the end, it's the team that works the best
together that ultimately claims the prize.

The same can be said for a travel industry facing a slow economic recovery. More and
more businesses are teaming up these days for survival.  As a result, many of these businesses are discovering something they never expected by partnering – more business volume can be generated, which can lead to greater profitability.

Motorcoach companies are no exception.  Many motorcoach operators stand to gain increased volumes of business by taking a long, hard look at what they do and how they can increase their business by fostering partnerships with tour companies.  Even the "do-it-yourselfers" - the companies that provide both a tour and motorcoach service - can provide a better service by working with a tour operator.

The National Tour Association's 2000 Packaged Travel in North America study revealed that travelers spent more than $128 billion on packaged travel trips in North America.  That figure should make motorcoach operators sit up and take notice, as tremendous opportunities exist with the tour operators who package these trips.

One option is to partner with a National Tour Association tour operator.  NTA currently has more than 600 tour operator members who are always looking for ways to expand their business.  NTA tour operators also are required to meet strict membership requirements, such as carrying errors and omissions insurance of at least $1 million and being in the tour business for a minimum of three years.

"Motorcoach operators can get a lot more business by working with tour operators," said Mike Neustadt, president of Coach Tours, The Grand Tour Company, in Brookfield, Conn. "The key is to have a working relationship with one or more tour companies and refer business back and forth."
Although some large tour operators own their own coaches, many tour companies don't have the time, patience or capital needed to buy and maintain a motorcoach.

"The coach business is a much higher risk than the tour business," said Dan Dipert of Dan Dipert Tours in Arlington, Texas.  "You can slow a tour operation down easier in a bad economy because all you have is a desk, a chair and a person.  But if you have a $400,000 coach in the yard and you need to make a monthly $3,000 payment, you may be in trouble!"

Understandably, most tour companies prefer to charter coaches.  In fact, a recent NTA member survey found that 95 percent of NTA tour operators do business with motorcoach operators.

Benefits
Partnering with tour operators offers several benefits for motorcoach companies, the most obvious being increased revenue.

"There is nothing better for a motorcoach operator than a tour operator generating business for them in the off-season," said Mitch Sussman, CTP, NTA treasurer and owner of Starr Tours in Trenton, N.J. "Many tour operators' seasons run from May to October, which offers months of business for motorcoach operators." 

Many tour operators plan trips year-round, as well.

However, the benefits for motorcoach operators go far beyond the immediate financial gain.  "The key benefit, in my opinion, is that the tour operators themselves go out and market the product on behalf of the motorcoach operators," said Paul Emmons, president of Atlantic Tours Gray Line in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  His company has always chartered motorcoaches from outside companies and often promotes motorcoach companies in brochures sent to customers, which means free advertising for the motorcoach operator.

"A tour operator just makes an overall great customer for a motorcoach company," said Sussman.  "The tour operators usually provide drivers with good accommodations and attractive gratuities after the trip, and the tour operator has a client base that is usually very considerate of taking care of the coach."

Jeff Polzin, owner of Red Carpet Charters in Oklahoma City, agrees.  "We find tour companies tend to be excellent customers," he said.  "They understand what we can and can't do.  Tour operators also tend to put together better trips that last longer than your standard single-day trips."

Another benefit of working with tour operators is peace of mind.  Many motorcoach companies venture into unfamiliar territory by trying to plan their own tours.  Partnerships between tour and motorcoach operators, however, allow each party to specialize and focus on what they do best.

"The motorcoach business and the tour business are like night and day," said Dipert.  "One is grease and oil.  The other is a high-degree of personal service."  Dipert's company owns 26 motorcoaches, but he keeps the motorcoach side completely separate from the tour operations side.

"We started in the tour business and got into buses," said Dipert.  "Most others started in buses and got into tours, and there are probably some bus companies that wish they never got into tours."

"Offering tours is very service-oriented and it can be difficult," added Gail Bremner of Aquila Tours Inc. in St. John, New Brunswick, which frequently charters motorcoaches for their tours.  "If diving into tour planning is something a coach company wants to do, that's fine, but they have to build relationships with suppliers.  If a tour operator has already done that, why reinvent the wheel?"

The Issue of Trust

Perhaps the biggest obstacle standing in the way of profitable partnerships is the fear that motorcoach operators and tour operators will take customers from one another.  "You have to build that level of trust, since you are basically handing them your client and vice-versa," said Bremner.  "It's an honor system, a trust that each service will be provided."

Emmons agrees.  "Honesty and fairness are very important.  There is always a chance that customers may be sold on the other company, or that an itinerary that took a lot of planning may be copied.  If we feel there is an issue of trust, we will identify it right away and discuss it with them.  If the trust is broken again, we move on to another company."  Emmons also added that this rarely happens.
Red Carpet Charters is a perfect example of just how well motorcoach operators can work with tour operators. 

"I chose to stay out of tours and use that as a way to enhance my relationship with tour companies," said Polzin.  "Since they don't see me as a competitor, we get more accomplished.  Sometimes we will approach tour operators with ideas on emerging trends and markets that we are seeing, then we work together to develop those projects.  It works out nicely; we get additional charter work, and they get additional tours."
"There are a lot of good bus companies and a lot of good tour operators that can work together and help each other," said Dipert.

Tour Operator Needs

Tour operators, like their motorcoach colleagues, work very hard at pleasing their clients.  When they put their customers on your coach, they want to know that they are in good hands at all times.

"Selecting a motorcoach company goes beyond price," said Sussman.  "Safety is extremely important."  He said that when selecting a motorcoach company, he prefers to look at the company's safety record, the driver's training, insurance records, on-board communication tools (such as a phone or CB radio) maintenance records, and how the company handles emergencies on the road.

"Without a doubt, safety always comes first", Neustadt concurred.  The driver is also a key component in selecting a motorcoach company.  Tour operators agree that the driver should be neat, professional, cooperative, and have a clean track record.

"What we don't want are drivers who want to run the program that we have planned," said Emmons.  "We need cooperative drivers who work well with the guides on the buses.  In most cases, we want the driver to take the 'back seat' and not try to flaunt their experience."

Flexibility also ranks high on the list of tour operator needs.  Most tour operators will do their best to accommodate motorcoach operators, but they prefer motorcoach companies who understand the nature of their business, as well.  "We aren't prepared to pay money up front before we even sell a tour, and we want to be able to cancel in a reasonable amount of time," Emmons added.  "With the company we use, we have such a great relationship that we can get them to reduce their rate if we have a smaller than expected tour, so everyone still makes something.  We don't have to do it very often, but it's nice to have that option."

Finally, most tour operators prefer amenities, such as bathrooms, televisions and VCRs, and most tour operators prefer clean, newer coaches for their tours.

Resources

There are several resources for motorcoach operators looking to form partnerships with tour operators.  The National Tour Association web site, www.ntaonline.com, offers a convenient search feature that allows you to search for an NTA tour operator by company name, destination or company location.  The information provides a company description and contact information for each tour operator.  The feature makes it easy to look up a tour operator in your area.  All that's left to do is make the call.

NTA also provides another valuable research tool in the form of its 2002 Forward Together Survey, which was designed to foster better business relationships within the packaged travel industry. 

The study reveals the business practices needs and preferences of all NTA member categories and contains an entire section devoted to the motorcoach operator/tour operator relationship. The NTA 2002 Forward Together Study reveals such data as booking timelines, deposit and refund information and tiered pricing data. The information is useful for discovering what NTA tour operators look for when dealing with motorcoach companies.  It also offers a peek at how your fellow motorcoach companies are operating, as well.

Even companies who are inclined to be more "independent-minded" would agree that there is nothing wrong with using every business tool at your disposal. 

NTA tour operators can be your most valuable teammates when it comes to boosting your motorcoach business, and they already have the tools necessary to put together quality travel packages. 
By utilizing these experts, you are sure to create a team where everyone wins.

For more information on the National Tour Association, call 800-682-8886 or visit their website www.ntaonline.com.