Like grandfather, like granddaughter
Clark Travel bridges the generation gap
By Glenn Swain
Victoria Clark first encountered a motorcoach at age 8 when a prankster mechanic positioned her behind the wheel as he knelt in the stairwell. He was trying to put a scare into young Victoria’s grandfather, Morris Clark, who founded Austin, TX-based Clark Travel in 1981.
“I was so short I had to stand up,” says Clark, now 22, and in her second year as vice president of the company. “The mechanic wanted my grandfather to see me steering a huge motorcoach. He was telling me what to do and guiding me, ready with his hand to hit the brake in an emergency.”
Today, Victoria and her 69-year-old grandfather are partners in the operation of their successful bus charter company. Her father, Mike, drove buses and served as maintenance foreman until his death in 2008. Growing up in the business, Victoria Clark would tag along on tours from Austin to destinations such as Branson, MO.
“That was my first insight into tours, I loved it,” she says. “I loved meeting new people and going to new places. The grown-ups would call it networking.”
Victoria was attending Texas Woman’s University in Denton when her father passed away. Shortly after, she changed her major from psychology to general studies and joined grandfather at Clark Travel in early 2009. She graduated in 2010 while continuing to help run the family business.
The company has locations in Austin, San Antonio and Temple. Clark Travel provides transport for the University of Texas and Baylor University, and a number of collegiate athletic teams, as well as nationwide motorcoach charters.
Positive generation gap
The term generation gap usually has negative connotations, but Clark Travel benefits from the age difference between the partners.
“My whole life I’ve seen how Clark Travel has been run,” says Victoria. “To this day I love networking and drumming up business the same way. My grandfather is not as outgoing. Being young, I have novel ideas.”
Although Clark Travel relies on top-of-the-line computers, Morris remains old school. He keeps a handwritten daily record of the destinations and locations of company’s 28 buses. He refers to the book as the company bible.
“It’s just in case something might happen to the computer,” Morris says.
“He takes the book to his desk every day, goes through it, counts how many buses are out and who is assigned to what trip,” Victoria adds. “His gift is his extreme analytical skills. He can look at our dispatch and within five minutes he’ll have the whole week done.”
“I’m trying to overcome her young stuff,” Morris says jokingly. “I’ve had to reexamine the way I do things. I do it the old way and she tries to do it the new way.”
The difference in ages provides lighter moments, too. Once when the subject of marketing came up, the age gap showed up as wide as the Texas plains.
“My grandfather still wants to put an ad in the yellow pages, and I’m telling him we need to go online,” says Victoria. “We need to have a nice website. That is where we need to market.”
Morris concedes: “Well, I guess people are starting to use that Internet stuff.”
Clark Travel kicks it up a notch
The word refurbish is not in Clark Travel’s vocabulary. Years ago the company decided to trade in three-year-old models for brand new coaches, in the belief that it’s cheaper in the long run to stave off expensive maintenance costs.
“A bus now is a half million dollars,” Victoria says. “Are you really ever 100 percent going to own that motorcoach? Probably not because you’re going to have so many maintenance costs and up-front expenses on top of your $6,000 a month you’re paying on this bus. We’d rather keep the buses under warranty, keep the maintenance cost low, and have a high quality product out there.”
Clark Travel has purchased 56-passenger MCI J4500s since 2003, trading in used coaches for new ones every three to four years.
“This year we thought about looking into refurbishing, but we have decided not to go that route,” she says. “The UMA show helped us to develop a new business plan. We are looking at trading in our 14 2006s and coming in with all new luxury coaches with WiFi and all the extras.”
Victoria says the new luxury line will carry a higher price point than the standard line, and will serve universities, corporate clients and bigger companies requesting the extra amenities that also include satellite television laptop and cell phone outlets.
“I see the need, especially my generation,” she says. “It allows student riders to do school work on the road.”
“It’s a good concept to modernize the Clark Travel fleet,” Morris adds. “She came up with something good.”
Later this year the company plans to open new state-of-the-art headquarters that will feature an automatic wash bay.
As Morris prepares for retirement, he’s easing into the reality of leaving the business for Victoria to run.
“It’s still going to be tough on me,” he says. “I’ll probably keep my finger in the business a little.”
When he does finally relinquish daily management, will he still carry his assignment bible around?
“I hope I don’t,” he says. BR