When buses and recreational vehicles pull into truckstops and travel plazas, odds are that more than one customer will get out. RVs are popular among families and couples, but buses can hold up to 55 people. That is a lot of bang for the buck, and more and more locations are actively pursuing this type of traffic.
When it comes to stopping points, bus drivers and RVers are looking for a lot more than a good price on fuel. Bus operators tend to seek out stops that have clean restrooms, food, gift shops and dump stations. The amenities RVers look for are similar, but they also often need shorepower hookups and fresh water to refill their water tanks. The Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA) said RV drivers also seek out campgrounds and mechanics.
In addition to the fuel a bus operator buys, bus travelers typically spend an extra $83-$103 per person, per day, on overnight trips and $41-$55 per person on day trips, according to the American Bus Association Foundation.
The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association reports that more than 8 million American households own an RV, and the fastest growing group of RV owners is people 18-34. FMCA said their 109,000 members travel about 9,000 miles a year.
Pete Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association (ABA), recommends travel centers reach out to bus operators within 300 to 1,000 miles of their locations. “Knowing that a bus is getting six to eight miles per gallon, you can start laying out concentric circles for 1,000 miles away,” Pantuso said, adding that operators typically stop every two to four hours.
Make your Location a Stopping Point
Mark L. Szyperski, professional bus driver and vice president of Trailways Transportation System, an independently operated motorcoach system comprised of privately-owned and operated bus companies, said decisions on where to stop are made at multiple levels. Operators at the main office, tour guides or bus drivers are among those who make the decisions.
Szyperski said travel plaza owners can phone bus operators and speak to the tour planner or attend industry trade shows, such as those hosted by ABA and Trailways, to talk directly with operators.
Pantuso said, “If you want to work with the bus operators and the bus operators want to work with you, there has to be some information exchange.”
Travel plaza operators could create a one-page info sheet that details the location’s amenities. Szyperski said locations with mechanics who can service buses, especially air conditioning units and tires, should let operators know. “If they have that, they really should attend a motor coach expo,” he said.
Rex Davis, president of Melvin L. Davis Oil Co., which operates locations in Stony Creek and Warfield, Va., has attended several ABA tradeshows. During the events, Davis sets up 37-inch monitor with pictures of his locations. The photos show the store layout, loading and unloading zones, bathrooms, food options and fuel islands. “We do a screen shot of a Google or Yahoo map and we plug our logos onto the map so they can see where we are on the Interstate system,” he said.
Davis has bus dropoff and loading zones that are away from the fuel islands. “That promotes safety and well-being of passengers,” he said. “We have grassy areas so they can go and stretch. They feel very safe and secure.”
For Iowa 80 Truckstop, Walcott, Iowa, word-of-mouth marketing has been key. “Bus drivers talk to each other and they talk about the fact that we can accommodate large groups and we have a portico they can unload their bus under. Plus when buses drive by our location on another trip, they can see we have bus parking and other buses are stopped,” Heather DeBaillie, marketing manager for Iowa 80 Group, said.
Darrin Flitton, the fleet and truckstop manager for the Sinclair Gold Truckstop Network, said the Little America Travel Center in Wyoming attracts bus traffic based on its location and its size. “A lot of buses travel to central Wyoming for scenic tours, and Little America is half way from Salt Lake City,” he said, adding that there is plenty of room for the buses and the restrooms are large.
The location also draws in customers with its 50-cent ice cream cones. “It is a huge draw. They must go through thousands of cones in a day,” Flitton said.
Building a Solid Reputation among Bus Drivers
Getting buses to stop is only part of the equation, Szyperski said. Customer service is paramount. “If a driver runs across a place that has one fuel desk person who is having a bad day, they could lose all of that bus business then,” he said.
Szyperski suggests travel plaza operators talk with their staff about bus traffic.
“I’ve had a fuel desk person tell me I can get fuel but not to let people off. That driver will take that back to the company and tell them not to stop there,” he said.
To help keep drivers happy, Davis offers them a stipend that can be spent in the location. Szyperski said it is not unusual for most restaurants to give drivers a free meal.
Iowa 80 asks drivers to call when they’re 20-30 minutes out. “That helps the restaurant and the fast food get a bunch of stuff going,” DeBaillie said. “They’re always on a schedule, whether it is a school team going to a game or a tour bus. Being able to accommodate them quickly is key.”
Attracting the RVer
While bus operators tend to plan stops in advance, many RV drivers choose where to stop while on the road. RVers often use apps to find truckstops.
Walt Muralt, president of Muralt’s Travel Plaza in Missoula, Mont., said he maintains his location information in RV websites and directories. “Make sure they have your information correct and up-to-date,” he said.
While on the road, RVers “are definitely looking for areas that can accommodate their size, especially if they’re towing a vehicle,” said Karen Redfern, director of marketing communications for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. They also look for large wash bays where they can wash their vehicles. RVers also stock up in stores and look for dump stations where they can empty their holding tanks.
Iowa 80 allows RVers to park overnight and carries items just for them, such as toilet paper that breaks down faster and lights that fit RVs. “Our convenience store has a lot of grocery items in it and they stock up on some of those things,” DeBaillie said.
To better serve RV traffic, Davis offers multi-product dispenser pumps that are separate from the gas pump so RVers don’t have to mix with four-wheel traffic if they don’t want to. “The dump station is located next to that,” he said.
Like bus operators, RVers can have mechanical needs while out on the road. “We can also help out RVers in our repair shop and often aid them in getting their rigs going again,” Muralt said.
A Game of Hide and Seek
Operators looking to attract RVers could turn to geocaching, a treasure- seeking game for GPS, using online GPS coordinates.
“A lot of parents are looking for their vacation to have a learning element, so they’re teaching their kids skills with map reading and following directions,” said Karen Redfern, director of marketing communications for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.“It is a popular activity with RVers.”
Today, over 1.4 million geocaches have been hidden and found by more than 4 million people worldwide. Some of the cities with the highest geocaching activity, based on visits to Geocaching.com, are Seattle, New York, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
Operators wanting to join in on the fun and attract these game-playing customers could place a cache at their location, then list it at www.geocaching.com.
ABA - Find the online ABA members list here. The ABA also provides a membership list with contact information to ABA members. Through NATSO, truckstops and travel plaza operators can join ABA at a 50 percent discount.
The RVer’s Friend, published by The Truckers’ Friend National Truck Stop Directory, helps RVers find truckstops that sell diesel, gasoline or propane. The directory also lets them know which truckstops let RVers park overnight or have dump stations. To update information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call (800) 338-6317 or fax (727) 443-4921.
The Trailer Life RV Parks, Campgrounds, and Services Directory 2011 is another resource for RVers. Operators can learn more about the directory by visiting www.trailerlifedirectory.com.
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