Tour operators show resilience

Those still traveling enjoy more motorcoach options

By Bethanie Hestermann

The motorcoach tour business is not recession-proof, but it is resilient in the face of today’s tough economy. Operators say the number of people booking motorcoach tours is down from last year and they attribute more last-minute cancellations and smaller group sizes to the downturn. But as people tighten their belts and purse strings, those who still wish to travel see motorcoaches as the most affordable option.

“With prices rising for nearly everything these days, passengers are cutting back on non-essential items, and travel is at the top of their list,” says Dawn Dornes, tour planner and head of the group tour department for Elite Coach, Ephrata, PA. “But many see traveling by bus in a group as more cost-effective.”

Elite Coach offers dine-around packages that allow guests to eat at every stop.

A rise in costs for attractions, hotels and restaurants accompanied by higher fuel prices, especially over the summer season, has caused the cost of running a tour business to climb, says Dornes. Some see the bright side of high fuel prices, proving no one factor is to blame.

“The price of fuel has caused people to drive less, but they still want to get out,” say Carla Eisentrager and Kim Wray, tour spokespeople for Coach America, Dallas, TX. “As a result they are looking at coach tours.”

Advantage: seniors

Motorcoach tourism has another advantage—seniors. The group tour department at Elite Coach reports 95 percent of groups are 55 and over. Seniors have free time, are comfortable with the motorcoach tour experience and are generally more financially stable.

“The senior market is less affected by this,” says Bob Hoelscher, chairman and CEO, National Tour Association (NTA).

“Seniors typically have their house paid for, money in the bank versus the stock market, and have cashed in their IRAs because they’re retired.”

Even with a hook in the more stable senior market, motorcoach operators must shift their game plan to compensate for the economic dip. For Coach America this includes packaging shorter tours for the price conscious. Elite Coach gives groups the option of cutting out parts of their trip to lower the price tag and networks communities together to fill coaches and keep tours running.

Operators and local CVBs join forces, using co-op marketing to continually draw patrons. Destination hot spots such as Branson, MO and Lancaster County, PA run promotions and form partnerships with motorcoach operators to encourage mutually beneficial traffic.

“We want to help operators promote their tours by promoting the destination,” says Audrey Bialas, director of tourism, Pennsylvania Dutch CVB. “If the demand is there, the coaches run, and it’s a win-win for everyone.”

Branson, MO

Customers are asking for different types of tours and staying closer to home. Eisentrager and Wray say people are choosing destinations they have not visited before, and Coach America is conducting more tours two to four hours out.

Branson, MO is one destination that continues to attract repeat business. Listed as the third most popular motorcoach destination in 2007 by the NTA, Branson hosts 8.4 million visitors annually and boasts 120 shows in 53 theaters, 60 attractions and 200 lodging facilities.

“In tough economic times Branson continues to be an easy sell for motorcoach operators and a great value for customers,” says Lenni Neimeyer, director of leisure group sales with the Branson CVB. “There are so many ways to package Branson. Operators know that planning a retail tour or selling a customized tour to a pre-formed group will be successful.”

Other tried-and-true tour destinations on NTA’s list include: New York City, Washington, D.C., Alaska, Pigeon Forge, New England, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and Canada.

Destination hot spots such as Lancaster County, PA work with operators to encourage tourist traffic.

In the West

In the West, tours built around special events such as the Rose Parade, Veterans’ Day, Fleet Day, Father’s Day and Fourth of July Tall Ships are big draws for Coach America customers, according to Eisentrager and Wray.

“This year the ‘hot spot’ for Elite Coach clients was Annapolis, MD,” says Dornes. “Annapolis tour packages consist of a narrated cruise on the Harbor Queen, lunch at the Phillips Seafood Restaurant, a step-on guided tour of historic Annapolis and a tour of the Naval Academy.”

Culinary-themed tours also draw groups. Eisentrager and Wray report culinary tours as one of the most requested and positively responded-to tours, especially from school groups. Dornes says the “dine around” packages offered at Elite Coach remain wildly popular with patrons 55 and over and allow guests to eat at every stop.

In an economy that requires many to take a hard look at their spending, a motorcoach tour offers travelers more vacation bang for their buck. With flexibility and willingness to work with customers, operators can continue to provide a cost-effective option for those looking for their next escape.