Despite Bumpy Economy BusRates’ Growth Soars

October 15, 2010

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – More and more people are discovering the best way to find the right motorcoach company to handle their charter is conduct the search themselves.

And that doesn’t mean spending hours combing through website after website on their computers, or thumbing through page after page of assorted telephone directories.

Instead, they are turning to BusRates.com, the self-help website that puts travel planners in touch with nearly 1,000 reliable carriers from across North America.

Founded just five years ago, the website now draws about 110,000 hits a month from people looking to book charters for their organizations, businesses, schools, churches and other groups. That’s up a whopping 20,000 from just a year ago.

Of those visiting the website, more than 3,000 follow through each month and ask for a price quote from as many as 20 carriers.

Several thousand more use the information available on the site to contact individual carriers directly, either by telephone or email to discuss pricing and availability.

And all of the thousands who search for carriers through the website aren’t just from the United States. Last fiscal year, more than 160,000 of them — that’s more than 13,000 a month — were from foreign countries, including Canada, Japan and most of the European nations.

“We’re getting contacts from all over now,” says Eric Elliott, who manages the website from a small, two-person office housed in the headquarters of its owner, the United Motorcoach Association.

UMA purchased controlling interest in the business in January 2009, from founder Mark Greer, to bolster the services it offers its members and to help them grow their charter business.

What’s behind the growing interest in the charter search website?

“A lot more people are buying off the internet now and that’s certainly part of it,” explains Elliott.

But, he notes that one of the keys has been the game plan the company developed to get its name and services in front of potential computer-savvy customers.

The goal of the plan was to make certain that when someone searched for operators that provide charters, BusRates.com would always be among the first few businesses to pop up.

“We have it now where of the 100-most-common search terms for bus charters, BusRates.com comes up in the top three on all of them,” Elliott said. “We hit all of the search words on the head and that’s why we are ranked so high.”

Elliott said the company goes a step further to assure that its name also gets a high profile spot from the few search words or phrases where BusRates.com is not among the top responses. The company buys small ads for those words so that its name and website link still show up on the first page.

To maintain the top spots, BusRates.com continually monitors the search words and terms to make sure that its name stays as far out front as possible.

While getting potential customers to visit a website may be the first order, getting them to work the site and eventually use it to make a buy is paramount to success. And, according to Elliott, that’s where BusRates.com excels.

Unlike a bus broker that handles the actual booking for its customers, BusRates.com is something of a phantom middleman that doesn’t actually get between the customer and the motorcoach company. Instead, it hooks them up and then gets out of the way.

Travel planners simply go to the website, check the type of vehicle they are looking for — motorcoach, minibus, trolley, limo or whatever — and add the city and state where the charter would begin. Instantly, companies that meet the request appear.

But that’s not all. A few more mouse clicks and up pops comprehensive and valuable information about each of the companies, including their U.S. Department of Transportation data and safety history.

There also are reviews of individual companies written by happy and unhappy customers, and company responses to any criticism that a customer might have mentioned in a review.

A few more clicks and detailed requests for quotes go out to as many as 20 carriers at one time. Plans are in the works to trim that back to possibly 10 carriers because some operators aren’t pleased with getting in the mix with so many companies.

Elliott said the services — all of it free to both the customers and the carriers — is a step or two above bus brokers because brokers generally mark up their prices by at least 25 percent.

“By going through BusRates.com, our customers get to deal directly with the carrier and save money, too.” he adds.

Plus, carriers get to bid more realistic prices than when they are dealing with brokers.

“Since we are not a broker, we help to provide bus companies the ability to charge their cost for each charter,” he notes. “And since most brokers go with the lowest bidding bus company, we allow bus companies to sell their services at their pricing levels.”

Elliott said all of the carriers in the BusRates.com database asked to be there. The only criteria to be included is that they own their own buses, are properly licensed and certified by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and carry the required limits of insurance necessary to remain approved by federal and state transportation regulators.

Because all of the services provided by BusRates.com are free, the company earns money by selling advertisements on its website to motorcoach operators and other transportation-related businesses.

“We have bus companies pay for ads on the website so we can keep it free to all of our customers,” he said.