With the shifts and fragmentation in every area of the transportation industry, it is often necessary to diversify into new markets to remain viable and profitable.
Combining luxury transportation and private and public schools is a win-win for the students and the operators.
“It’s more than just a school bus experience,” observes Joe Gillis, CEO of Portland, Ore.-based Northwest Navigator Luxury Coaches. “We provide luxury, convenience, and safety.”
Northwest Navigator Luxury Coaches currently operates four 27 to 35 passenger Mini Coaches and a Thomas Built Bus for its school contracts, which consist primarily of elite private institutions in the Portland area.
The company’s vehicles offer a nice interior, comfort (including air conditioning), seat belts, and device plug-ins so students can charge their devices or tap into the movies offered on board.
Meeting the Luxury Challenge
While there is little doubt that there is a market for luxury pupil transportation, operators need to keep in mind that its more than just purchasing a nice vehicle, and advertising that you have an air-conditioned vehicle.
Gillis notes that, because you’re transporting children, a safe and well-maintained vehicle is only a small part of the equation. Perhaps more important is having a driver with a clean record who is properly trained.
“It’s not just about transportation, it’s about safety and quality,” he says.
Gillis notes that while operating in the private sector means that he’s not required to perform some of the same background checks as a public school bus operator, he has raised the bar on his own hiring practices — which will disqualify a driver with any sort of criminal record.
Operators also need to make sure that they are following their local and state ordinances or requirements related to their vehicles and personnel. Not doing so could cause legal and business headaches that could go right to the bottom line.
In addition, operators need to make sure that their drivers are properly licenses, their vehicles all have U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) numbers, and the operation remains in compliance with hours of service (HOS) and other regulations.
The operator also needs to make sure that it emphasizes customer service, Gillis noting that “When we fail, we try to make it right. It’ll get around quickly if poor the service was poor.”
Because of the greater expectations of luxury transportation — particularly from parents — operators must emphasize service, reliability, and safety in their day-to-day operations.
Private Luxury + Pupil Safety = Profitability
At Cardiff Limousine & Transportation in Palm Desert, Calif., owner Gary Cardiff has taken the luxury transportation model and have made it work for both private and public schools. He runs buses for private and public school pupil groups, especially for school events and field trips.
At private schools, teachers often have budgets for enrichment and educational outings where students travel on Cardiff’s luxury motorcoaches to destinations such as Sea World in San Diego or to arts and cultural museums in the Los Angeles region.
Graduation nights throughout May and June are also big business now since they involve day trips instead of just an evening out, Cardiff says.
“Rarely do private schools have their own buses for their sporting events and enrichment trips,” he says. “They have to call a [state] certified company with over-the-road motorcoaches.”
As a California bus operation, the company must be certified under state rules, known as SPAB (school pupil activity bus). Any vehicle, whether a van, minibus, or motorcoach that carriers nine or more passengers, must also be SPAB certified.
“When private or public schools don’t want to ride on (regular) school buses, they use SPAB certified buses,” Cardiff says.
SPAB rules require every driver to complete 15 hours of classroom instruction and 20 hours of behind-the-wheel training, pass a written California High Patrol (CHP) test and a CHP driving test, and pass fingerprint and background checks. Every year, each SPAB driver must complete another 10 hours of continuing education.
On the vehicle side, every vehicle used for pupil transportation must undergo a rigorous annual CHP inspection, and Cardiff sets up a certified mechanic inspection every 3,000 miles or 45 days, whichever comes first, per SPAB rules. Inspectors thoroughly evaluate the safety and mechanical equipment of the bus.
That means Cardiff buys only the highest quality buses. Private and public schools mostly request 56 to 57 passenger motorcoaches, which at Cardiff Transportation include Van Hool and Prevost models. The large coaches handle about 90% of the company’s school-related business, with the remaining 10% using 27-passenger Grech Motors minibuses or Sprinter vans.
During some weeks of the year, all of the SPAB-certified motorcoaches in Cardiff’s 74-vehicle fleet are sold out for school-related trips.
“All of our buses are all newer models with the same general body style,” Cardiff says.
Worth the Effort
While private bus transportation for pupils invokes many rules and recordkeeping requirements, this evergreen client niche tied to seasonal and school year cycles produces steady, reliable, and profitable work for operators that can be planned out well in advance.
Northwest Navigator’s Gillis sees adding a luxury pupil transportation to the mix as worth the effort.
“People just love it, they see the difference when you pull up,” he says. “It’s a new market and if you do well, other schools will find out. It’ll open up the market for you.”
LCT editor Martin Romjue contributed to this article.