It’s time for recovery

What is marketing? While there are a lot of answers to that question, the foundational answer is making someone believe they need what you are selling. You can slice and dice that a lot of ways but ultimately it boils down to creating demand for what you have to sell. 

Right now, and for the past month, there has been only a sliver of the demand that has historically existed for our group transportation product. We have, as a world, collectively held our breath, sheltering in our homes, waiting for someone to blow the all-clear signal. As we have, the need to move groups to and from events, venues and office buildings has simply stopped the world over. 

There is however a glimmer of hope. The past few days have had a decided shift in the tone of the conversations permeating the social sphere and many news outlets. What was pandemic-pandemic-pandemic is now decidedly more about recovery. And so it begins, the inevitable restart. 

While much is not clear, what is crystal clear is that the “restart” will not be as precipitous as the stop. Consumers are skittish, they have been indoctrinated with worry and believe that safety is only really achievable in the confines of their own homes, that large groups are bad, and that being in public is dangerous. We have now seen the beginnings of a media and marketing engine that will, over the coming weeks, begin to try to roll that back, but it will take time. 

So how do we go from yards full of parked equipment to filled dispatch sheets? How do we move from where we are towards a much more palatable version of normal? 

We must begin to manage perception and create demand for our product. Or in other words, we must market. 

What do we market? 

Right now there is a remarkable amount of pent up demand for normal. People desperately want to go to a football game, attend their kid’s graduation, send their children back to school, and feel normal. They want to get on a bus and head to a casino, amusement park, or just to go to church on Sunday. 

We all know that the buses are sitting not because people don’t want them, but because the government-mandated “shut down” made the decisions for them. Everything stopped. But now as we start to think about and plan for the reopening of our local and national economies, that mandated stop will be replaced by a fear-based decision on the part of even our most loyal customers.

At this very moment, there are customers who really want to have an event in June. They are calculating how to make that happen and they are talking about transportation. 

The truth is on the surface there are lots of industries that don’t fit the restart narrative. Businesses that don’t fit the profile of safety that has been drilled into our heads over the past weeks. Bus businesses, along with others, that have lots of people, enclosed spaces, high turnover of customers, and frequently touched environments, find themselves wearing the modern equivalent of the scarlet letter. While this poses some challenges we are already seeing the efforts of some of these industries as they embrace the need to market their way out of the situation. 

This week Disney began talking about their upcoming restart and planting the seeds of how people will be kept safe while visiting the “happiest place on earth”. While their motto has always been about happiest, their recent efforts and communications would lead you to believe that they are working towards being the healthiest place on earth instead. Airlines are also dealing with this issue head-on. They are defining how they are using the holy trinity of safety buzzwords to keep employees and passengers safe. That trinity is Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Social Distancing, and cleaning procedures.

With Disney projecting a restart at 50% capacity leading them down a path towards fully opened parks worldwide they have also added vague statements about upcoming changes to the cleaning of rides and commonly touched areas, as well as employee requirements to wear PPE, specifically masks and gloves. 

As motorcoach operators, we must embrace this same notion and begin to use the tools at our disposal to begin to market our way back on the roads. Here is what you should be thinking about. 

We can’t wait until we have all the answers.

Over the last few weeks, I have listened to a lot of operators who have reported that they are not talking to their customer base in any meaningful way during this pandemic. They say that they don’t really have much to say and many make the assumption that their customers really don’t want to hear from them right now. 

This line of thinking is not true and has plagued this industry for as long as I have been involved. There is a fear for all of us about the future. There is a hope that at some point we will wake up to what we have all known as “normal” and just “ get back to work” doing what we have always done. 

The truth is that the late 2019 version of normal is likely a long way off. I wish that was not the case but it just is. We are likely to see a lot of bumps and bruises between now and a full return to that normal. 

But the one universal truth is that we can’t afford to wait for “normal” to start to get out in front of the situation and communicate with our customers. We must start to participate in their decisions, helping them see what we do, how we do it, and why we are part of the immediate go-forward plan. We must make sure that customers aren’t left to make assumptions about our services, and our industry as a whole, in a vacuum. We must take control of and shape our looming future. 

There may never have ever been a moment in our industry’s history that we need to abandon our collective resistance to marketing more than right now. We need to be active participants in our future, drivers of our own destiny. 

Marketing does not need to be expensive. 

One of the most critical things we did at the beginning of this crisis in an effort to shelter the economic impacts of this situation was to cut costs. This wholesale approach to “stop the bleeding” and conserve cash was both prudent and necessary. But it has had some unintended side effects. We have become quickly accustomed to saying no. So when I say marketing you think of some expense and likely dismiss it. Right now that is a mistake. I am not suggesting spending money, but rather giving consideration to ways to do this within the current economic realities of your business. 

Currently, we are in a weird paradox around the demand for our product. The only situation I can think to compare it to was the Samsung Note debacle of 2016. You may recall that the device hit the market with a roar. It was a long-anticipated technology and a likely contender for top spot even above the soon to be released iPhone 7. But a few months after its launch they started spontaneously combusting. Almost overnight consumption fell to nearly 0 but the demand from people still wanting a working version of the technology still remained.

Just like our current situation, people want what we have but are concerned with safety when using our product. Fortunately, we don’t suffer from a foundational flaw in our business model, or thankfully spontaneous combustion, but rather just a perception that we are not safe under current conditions. If people believed tomorrow that the world was safe, that events could restart, and schools were back in session, we would not see a reduced demand, in fact, we would see that there is pent up demand from 2 months of a paused economy. 

Our efforts to get the word out of how we are going to be a part of the solution can not fall to the national or regional associations. It is the job or each individual business to define and share their solutions with their customers. With or without spending any money on paid advertisements or other marketing avenues. 

One of the best marketing tools is the phone.

For those that know me you know my stance on this. The phone is your friend but right now can feel like your biggest advisory. During times of crisis in my own life and business, I can attest to the knot in my stomach every time the phone would ring. Someone wanting a refund, a bill collector looking for payment, or an employee asking a question I didn’t have an answer too. The knee jerk reaction is to distance yourself from the phone, look for fewer calls, not more. But in this case, that same phone may be your most direct, and least expensive, way forward. 

Call your customers. I wish that could be the title, body, and byline of an article. 

As simple as that sounds it is critical to the success of your business now more than it ever has been. Call them not to ask for business. Call to ask them about their business. Talk about what they are thinking, what they are working on, what you can do to support them. Ask them how they feel about using buses, what their customers feel about using buses, talk about what you are doing now, and what you have always done to keep passengers safe onboard. 

When you hang up, send them an email thanking them for their time and telling them you are grateful for their loyalty and will be there when they need you. Then make a note in your calendar based on what you learned to schedule another call to discuss what they were working on. 

This is something totally new for the vast majority of our industry, I understand that. However, this is because we, the motorcoach industry, are primarily order takers who respond to demand NOT salespeople who foster long term relationships and who work to embrace our roll in the business development cycle. 

I promise you if you do this, you will roll coaches before you will if you don’t. If you have salespeople on PPP make this part of their day. Let the government pay for 8 weeks of actual recovery not just busywork designed to bridge an imaginary gap between now and a hope for normal. 

Now IS better than later.

For the past 17 years, I have been involved on some level in bus companies. From driving to dispatch, marketing to consulting, I have seen every side of the business and in that time there is only one universal truth. We find a way to be busy. 

During busy operational times, we feel justified in our inability to focus on things like marketing. Then our season slows and we have a laundry list of things that need our attention both in the business and at home. Now we feel justified in skipping things because we have earned the time we need to spend elsewhere. Then we get busy… and around and around we go. 

I have watched companies who have had the same objectives for over a decade, who have year after year watched this cycle play out and have pushed things back and back until it is the running company joke that they will “get to it next year”. 

The motorcoach industry is not unique in this situation. It is, in fact, a human condition. If you don’t believe me just think back to January. If you are like most people, you wanted to get in shape, spend more time with the family, get outside more, and slow down a bit. Well… Welcome to quarantine… on 3 raise your hand if you are now more in shape, have enjoyed every minute of getting to be with the family, and really appreciate the slowdown?1…2…3… My hand isn’t up either… if yours is, we all hate you. 

During this time I have talked to hundreds of operators. Almost without fail what I hear is that they are “busier than they ever have been” as they address the issues at hand. And once again this conversation of marketing gets pushed back into the abyss of later. 

The recovery is coming, actually, it has already started in many places. Our ability to drive our participation in the economic side of this cautious restart is solely and completely in our hands but it will not happen… we must drive it. 

Goals without actions are just dreams.

I am sure that you have goals. They may be a very specific financial target list associated with individual profit centers and business types or they may be simply a hope to a return to “normal”. Goals are good, I love them, teach them, and use them, but goals in and of themselves are worth nothing more than the paper they are written on or the space they take up in our brain without the necessary actions to achieve them. 

Action is required to make goals a reality. Right now I hope that you have big goals for your company. Not only to get back to normal but to emerge from this as a better, more equipped, and profitable company than you ever have been before. I hope that you have targets and objectives and that you are sharing those with your vendor and lender partners and collectively building a team of resources who are helping you reach your aspirations. But more than that, I hope that you can take the important steps forward that are required to achieve what you are set out to do. 

We have a lot of work ahead of us and a big part of that work will be to market our way out of this situation and into a new normal that is more profitable, more sustainable, and more focused on shaping our new destiny. From political influence to profitability, regulatory reform to public perception, the lessons we take from this moment will help us reshape our industry for generations. That will be exciting to be a part of. I look forward to seeing all of you on the other side. 

God Speed.

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