Best practices grow from downturn

By David Hubbard

Last year this column rang like a warning from Chicken Little, sounding the alarm for the inescapable recession coming down the pike and offering the good advice gleaned from industry leaders on how to brace for the year ahead.

The sky had fallen, or so it seemed, and everyone was trying to get focused on how to hang on and push back. The general tenor ranged from cautious optimism to abject terror as plans for bailouts and stimulus packages were set in motion and we all hunkered down.

One year later the word is the recession is over.

We are not completely out of the woods, but trusting this is the case, I checked in at random with a few coach operators to see how they fared; hoping to hear of a few bright moments amid the gloom. The end of the recession does not mean an automatic end to difficult times, but judging from the people I spoke with, the overall tone seems decidedly resilient.

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Doug Lumsden, owner of Monterey Film Tours, Monterey, CA, believes in many respects much good came from the economic downturn. He says the state of the economy actually prompted him to think about ways to be more efficient.

“When times are good, we do not give as much thought to how we might work a little leaner in our standard operations,” says Lumsden. “We started to work closer with our allies. We circled the wagons so to speak, and encouraged one another to better understand our individual products and services.”

Innovative group travel packages

As an example, Lumsden says he and other tour operators in his area started working closely with hotels and people in the hospitality industry to devise new and more innovative group travel packages, and to exchange and share advertising and co-op marketing opportunities.

“I think we just tend to think fat when times are good,” says Lumsden. “During the good times, we really need to function just as we would when times are lean.”
He says it is a matter of streamlining the business model and strengthening partnerships.

“This industry can get rather staid and slow to change,” he says. “In that respect this poor economic climate has put a match under our feet.”

Richard Lockard, owner of Lake Shore Motor Coach Lines, Provo, UT, says while he knew 2009 would be a rough year, he reported that considering business overall was in a downturn, the company weathered through better than expected.

“If the truth be known, we were still feeling the residual sticker shock from the fuel price crisis the year before,” says Lockard. “When fuel prices soared above five dollars a gallon in 2008, it woke everyone up.”

He says the previous year hurt much worse. When 2009 rolled around Lake Shore Motor Coach had been thinking for sometime how to be more creative. The fuel crisis had already changed the company mindset on how to make the necessary sacrifices to keep afloat and keep the buses running.

More proactive

H & L Charter Company, Rancho Cucamonga, CA, earned honors from the California Coach Association as its 2009 Operator of the Year. How the company responded to the recession provides a clue to why it received the award. Owner Elaine Fickett and Jodi Merritt, vice president, say their company also found ways to be more proactive under the pressure of a recession.

“We started attending regional trade shows we had not considered before, such as the Go West Summit, a western regional association of tour operators,” says Merritt. “When we started making a more concerted effort to find new clients, we started enjoying a few more bright spots in the otherwise dark economy.”

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Merritt says they developed an aggressive quote callback program and vowed to get better at follow-up. She says the callback program was something they had never done before and that they had become complacent in other areas when times were not as bad.

Fickett echoes industry sentiment when she says her company is definitely going to continue what they have learned even when the recession is a distant memory.