An open letter to the group transportation industry

Dear Bus Family, 

First, I hope that this finds you safe and well. I pray that you have been able to stave off the virus and that you and your families are staying strong. For those who have been affected by the loss of a loved one, my heart hurts for you. 

This is a challenging time for everyone. The trickle-down economics of this pandemic has reached deep into the pockets of not only bus businesses the world over but every industry we are connected too. While we suffer, we also watch our customers, vendors, friends, and families suffer as well. 

We have spent a lot of time over the last few weeks talking about government bailouts, grants vs. loans, insurance premiums, and bus payments in an effort to put a tourniquet on our spending and try to get a much-needed infusion of capital. 

Like any crisis that we go through, our thoughts have become focused on tomorrow and the next day, the next payroll date, and just making it through the month. 

Most companies have applied for loans and are now waiting to see what happens. We reach in our pockets and check our phones over and over, hoping to see the money we need to keep our heads above water. We now hear grumblings of another government bailout program that is on the heels of the last called COVID4. 

But if anything is clear right now, it is this.

First, while whatever money we get from the government over the coming weeks and months may help us beat back the wolves at the door, it will not provide the answers for real recovery. Second, while we would all love to go back to a time before all of this, head out to have a burger and watch a movie, we can’t hope or plan for the business normal we once knew. We must shoot for better than that.

Complete financial recovery from this shutdown is going to take longer than we hope. The economic restart will not be as precipitous as the shutdown, but there is good news. The bus industry is more integral to the economy than anyone, including those in Washington DC, give us credit. 

Schools will eventually restart and with that field trips, sports teams, bands, clubs, and all of the outings they are accustom to. Colleges will open campuses and restart the programs that cause us to move their students, faculty, and alumni. Business and industry will once again spool back up to working speeds, which will result in conferences and commuters. Sporting events, concerts, and festivals will reschedule and draw crowds that are hungrier now for those experiences than they ever have been before. Families will plan reunions, and weddings will once again be large gatherings. Casinos will open, and buses will roll. 

People will travel… flights will fill up, cruise ships will depart, tourists from around the globe will come to see the majesty and beauty of North America, and we will be there to move them. 

The world will indeed get back to living, and when they do, we will be there to help not only those who want us but those that need us as well. 

When hurricanes threaten cities, we will be there to evacuate those who can’t evacuate themselves. When wildfires threaten homes, we will be there to help families get to safety. When the armed services need to mobilize to provide support to local communities or to train their soldiers, lines of buses will be there to make it happen. When passenger trains are interrupted, you will find buses moving their passengers day or night to wherever they need to go. 

There is beauty in our industry because of this. For almost a century, we have quietly and consistently answered the call, and in this time of crisis, we have done nothing less. When cruise ships have docked with infected passengers, we came to pick them up. When airlines landed with evacuees from around the world, even places where the virus has ravaged the population, buses were there, when doctors and nurses need to get to work who have almost certainly been exposed and infected, many board buses to get where they are so desperately needed. 

The world that we live in needs buses, and that means companies who survive this should have hope for a bright future. But now is the time for us to start to shift our focus from the next few days to the next few months, and even the next few years. 

As Glady Gillis of Starline Luxury Coaches has said, we need to start to “imagineer” our future. 

Government bailouts, loans, and grants may feel like a win in keeping the lights on, but they won’t do anything to fix this problem long term. Our customers are the only path we have to actual recovery, and right now is the time to start working with them to plan for a brighter tomorrow. 

We need to start reaching out to them, not to ask for bookings or rescheduled work, but to understand what they are experiencing and what they are thinking in terms of their future. We need to begin to paint a picture of what the coming months may look like and what size fleet we will need to respond to that demand. 

We also need to talk to our customers because that is how we can generate the loyalty that we are so desperately going to need moving forward. We need customers to choose to work with us, not because we are the cheapest, but because they want us to survive to be able to continue to provide them with the services they want and need. 

The next thing we have to do right now is throw out this concept that we “just want things to go back to normal.” The truth is that we have needed our “normal” to change for a long time. 

We don’t want to go back to a normal where we are burdened with ever-increasing liability and expenses yet forced to survive on profit margins often in the single digits. We don’t want to go back to a normal where regulatory agencies require unfunded mandate after unfunded mandate requiring us to comply with rules that statistically aren’t making the industry safer. Perhaps most importantly, we don’t want to go back to a normal where those who govern the people are willing to remain, as Peter Pantuso said, “tone deaf” to us as an industry. 

We must realize that we have new challenges ahead. The driver shortage that we have all struggled with will be full of new challenges. Many of the drivers who have left during this time have found new jobs in different industries won’t come back. Many of the drivers who were trying to push back their social security have now triggered it, will come back as different drivers then we once knew…part-time, with less drive to be on the road.

We will face issues as we try to scale our fleet to the demands of a slow to recover economy. We will see hurdles as government aid, lender deferrals, and insurance relief dry up as things start to “normalize” but perhaps may not have in our individual companies and markets. 

We have already seen this virus close the doors of bus companies for good, and we will, unfortunately, see more of that. 

But, in times of great struggle, there are always those who thrive and who come out stronger than they were before. We need to realize that we, as an industry, are at that very crossroads. 

Going forward, having a bus and a driver available when your customer needs it will be worth more than it was before. Going forward, customer loyalty will be more valuable than a line of credit. Going forward, coming together and telling the story to regulators and politicians of what we are, what we do, and why they need to pay attention will be critical. Going forward, we must look beyond the now and start to recognize that the future we want and ultimately deserve is something that we must take ownership of today. 

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Right now, in many of your businesses, it may be hard to see, but I promise you it’s there. 

Our industry is indeed “critical infrastructure” to a functioning economy, and while the world’s economy may take some time to get back to “fully functioning,” there will be, as there has been in the past, a spot for the group transportation industry. 

Please, stay strong, keep working the problems that lay at your feet during this unprecedented time, but don’t forget to look up and plan for the inevitable future. Immediate survival is essential but equally as crucial for those who do survive will be building a company that can thrive in the future. Dedicate some of the time that you now have, to talking with customers, both big and small. Ask them about their business not just to get the data you want, but to understand what they are thinking and worried about, where they see hope and opportunity. Tell them that you know we are all in this together and that together is how we will fix this. 

We as an industry will come together, we will survive, we will take our rightful place at the table, and we will see positive changes that will start from this moment. Of that, I am sure. 

Be well, stay safe, and may God be with you, your families, and your business, through this challenging time. 

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