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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

NC trend: Charter bus operators are reporting a return to the road

Almost as much as any industry, the pandemic slammed North Carolina’s motorcoach business. After all, a central message of the crisis was simple: “Stop getting together in large groups,” says Jonathan Moody, an executive at one of the state’s largest operators. 

Two and a half years later, COVID-19 restrictions have eased, and the industry is mounting a strong rebound. Access to vaccinations and less fear of proximity to others has customers getting back on the bus.

The motorcoach industry is more than a blip on the radar. Before the pandemic, North Carolina bus operators employed about 2,000 people and had a direct economic impact of more than $326 million, according to an industry study. The downstream impact for suppliers and others nearly doubles that total.

Nationally, the industry provided more than 500 million trips annually, before the virus forced a shutdown. 

Traveling by motorcoach is about more than dollar signs, industry officials say. They cite an incalculable effect as a cornerstone of community activity because chartered buses provide transportation for schools, athletes, churches, military, conventions and other groups. The industry also calls itself the greenest form of transportation because it gets so many cars off the road. 

Four motorcoach companies that charter buses for short trips and multiday tours are dominant in North Carolina: Christian Tours of Maiden, Randleman-based Holiday Tours, Young Transportation and Tours of Asheville, and Academy, a Hoboken, New Jersey-based chain that has Charlotte and Durham offices.

Nancy Thompson, the co-founder of Holiday Tours, started in the motorcoach business as an agent for an Asheboro operator. One of the drivers, Dwight Thompson, told her that if she bought a bus for her own service, he’d drive it. That was in 1978. Since then, the couple got married and two later generations of family members have built a business that had more than 300 employees in early 2020. 

Jonathan Moody is a vice president and grandson of Nancy, who is now retired but takes periodic tours. He joined in 2011 after earning a master’s degree in management at Duke University. CEO David Brown is Nancy’s son. 

When the pandemic struck, Holiday canceled its spring and summer seasons in 2020 and furloughed virtually its entire staff. “We always knew or hoped we’d be able to come back. We were just worried about the condition in which we’d be able to come back,” Moody says.

Fast forward to September 2022, and the business is back up to 225 staff members with strong bookings for the rest of this year. Although revenue is not quite back to pre-pandemic figures, demand for motorcoach services continues to rise.

Trips for college and secondary-school athletics and field trips were the first types of clients to return to travel in 2021, says Ken Presley, vice president and chief operating officer of United Motorcoach Association, a trade group. “[This year] continues to see recovery on the charter service side,” he says. “Tour packages are beginning to return, particularly for seniors.”

Unlike in some other states, field trips in North Carolina weren’t permitted until this past spring because of state government public health restrictions.  

Moody credits Holiday’s resilience to a core tenet of the business. “People love traveling with people they know, to see new places.” 

Love for the business and family loyalty have been central to getting Holiday Tours through its biggest challenge to date, but Moody says headwinds remain. Gas prices have shot up and hotels and restaurants are charging 30% to 40% more, on average, than before the pandemic. That has forced Holiday to pass along higher prices to its customers.

Moody concludes the pandemic helped him put the worries and stress of his work in perspective. During the height of the crisis, he often longed to be back at his desk dealing with the routine tasks of running a bus company. “The usual stress of business is mildly enjoyable now, compared to the stress we felt through 2020.”

 

 

 

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