Coach Operator Recounts Experiences with Bus Brokers

Coach Operator Recounts Experiences with Bus Brokers

By Dean Golden, Operations Manager at West Valley Charter Lines in Campbell, Calif.

First, I would like to commend Bus & Motorcoach News for tackling the issue of bus brokers in your last few issues. After reading the various articles, I thought I would respond as an operator who has dealt with many different bus brokers over the years.

A bus broker is simply someone trying to make a buck off bus companies. A broker often will charge their customers from 5 to 100 percent — or more — over the price we quote them. We see this all the time. I have been told some brokers have a minimum $200 markup on any trip, meaning a $120 school bus rental would be priced at a minimum of $320.

A bus broker has nothing to do with the operation of a bus company; why should an operator be giving them money? A bus broker does not make the playing field level or fair. If you are not an approved vendor, or a “liked” vendor of a bus broker, they will not call you for a quote. So, they truly aren’t even a broker in my opinion.

I am amazed that Edward Telmany (president) of US Coachways Inc. has taken the time to respond to the articles. (See Nov. 15 and Feb. 15 issues of Bus & Motorcoach News.) I have personally left 10-plus voice-mail messages for him during the past three years that never were responded to. We had booked trips for US Coachways but we invariably had to try to chase down payment information and trip details from the company.

It is nearly impossible to get through his phone tree when you call his company and try to speak to a live person. And, if you do reach a live person, you are sent from person to person because the person you are speaking to isn’t able to help you.

 

About Bus Bank

The Bus Bank is another example of what I would consider a bad broker to deal with. The Bus Bank is endorsed by Lancer Insurance. We met with one of their people about a year and a half ago in our office. The presentation was very well done and I bought into what they had to offer. I asked the following three questions:

1. Will The Bus Bank adhere to our cancellation policy? (They said “yes” in our meeting.)

2. Will The Bus Bank guarantee if the trip is in the San Francisco market, it will only contact coach companies in the San Francisco market, not go to companies out of the area? (They claimed this was the case.)

3. Can The Bus Bank provide a breakdown of how many bookings they have had in the San Francisco market? (The Bus Bank representative said they would supply the figures; we never saw them.)

When I received the packet to sign up for The Bus Bank, they had all these terms and conditions we had to agree to or they would not use us. Basically, they tell you how to run your company when they book with you, and all your policies and procedures mean nothing. So, we have decided not to be part of them.

 

Metropolitan Shuttle

As for Metropolitan Shuttle, they have called us on three different occasions, and we have chosen not to do business with them. We asked for payment up front, before the trips went, and they told us they only pay net-30 days. We couldn’t agree to that.

Why do brokers try to bully a company into their terms or they will not use them? Is that how the broker is supposed to work?

Then there is Transportation Management Services, known as TMS.

We have been doing work for them for about four years. Their convention shuttle work is always paid in full and before the event. They have been a great company to deal with.

We also did work for them following Hurricane Katrina, and like many other companies it was a struggle to get final payment from them. Even though that was really frustrating, I believe TMS is a fair company to work with.

We have had dealings with:

— MyBestRide.com
— CoachQuote.com
— USABusCharter.com
— CharterBusAmerica.com, which used to be CopperTopTours.com, and others.

There are so many brokers for a person to choose from.

 

Others’ experience

In recent weeks, I have been in contact with many different bus companies across the U.S., and I have been amazed by the number of independent operators that have chosen to use brokers. And, how many have been burned by brokers.

MyBestRide.com seems to be the worst of the worst from what I am hearing. I have been in contact with a dozen different operators who claim they are owed in excess of $20,000 by this broker, with some of the bills well over 120 days past due.

Four companies say Metropolitan Shuttle owes them in excess of $10,000.

The Bus Bank has five companies who claim they’re owed in excess of $8,000.

And two companies are claiming USABusCharter.com owes them in excess of $5,000.

To me, it doesn’t matter if these claims are accurate or not. It just reinforces my belief that any operator who chooses to work with a bus broker should be paid up front, and have a copy of a signed contract.

 

BusRates.com

I also want to talk about BusRates.com. Glenn P. Orloff of Metropolitan Shuttle had many negative things to say about them (see Feb. 15 Bus & Motorcoach News).

I find BusRates.com to be the best online place I work with. We joined their site in March 2005, and since then we have had about 290 inquires for quotes from their site, and have booked 86 trips/tours, which is 30 percent.

This is a better return of my time, verses anything a bus broker can give me. After reading (Mr. Orloff’s) article, it has made me decide to help out BusRates.com, and give them more tools their online customers can use to help determine if a bus company is good or not.

There are many Web sites that potential bus customers can use to see if an operator has a current registration, has a good safety rating, and has insurance coverage.

In California, where we’re located, there are very strict state rules when it comes to hauling students. Bus brokers are violating these rules by telling customers the rules don’t apply because they are booking through a broker. Again, this just shows the broker does not have any interest in the law, or the companies they deal with. They go out and get the business and give it to the coach company that provides the lowest quote, with no respect to how long the company has been in business, what type of coaches they have, or their safety rating. The lowest price wins.

 

Bottom line

I believe the bottom line is pretty simple: Bus companies shouldn’t use brokers to get their business. If all bus companies would stop using brokers we would not loose customers. The customers would end up calling coach companies directly and eliminate the brokers.

If a coach company decides to work with a broker, it should not do the work without payment up front. They collect their money up front from their customers; why shouldn’t you as a bus operator be paid up front as well?

Bus companies also do not need to offer a lower net rate to bus brokers, or allow brokers to negotiate the price down. There is plenty of mark-up tacked on by brokers.

Finally, when talking directly to customers or potential customers, bus companies should add some type of explanation or warning in their sales pitch or e-mailed quotes about dealing with bus brokers and broker price gouging.

Article: School Transportation News January 2007

Information Sought on School Bus Private Charter Services in Effort to Curb Price Gouging

SPRING LAKE, Mich. (Jan. 18, 2007) — BusRates.com, a consumer advocate directory and guide with more than 450 member companies nationwide, reports that 10.7 percent of its approximately 57,000 Web site visitors each month are searching specifically for school bus providers, but there is a shortage of school bus companies willing to post fleet information for the general public.

It also determined that national broker firms are charging $60 to $70 per hour for school bus charters that go for $45 per hour.

BusRates.com seeks fleet information from school bus companies that offer private group charters within the United States and Canada to step forward. The site’s purpose since going live in November of 2004 has been to create awareness among Internet customers of the going rates for chartering a school bus among several high-priced broker options, but there is a shortage of school bus operator members willing to post fleet information and or even voluntary price information. Most of the site’s members are motorcoach service providers. The site fails to delineate between types of school buses or even motorcoaches but instead serves to put interested parties in contact with potential providers.

“We feel that brokers are exploiting the fact that customers do not know what the going rate for chartering a school bus is, and that it is difficult for customers to find companies that offer private charters,” said Mark Greer, the site’s chairman. “Our goal is to help make customers aware of going rates as well as make willing providers easy to find. Most school bus companies only handle school district work or have contracted all of their buses and have no availability to take on more work which makes it very difficult for customers to find companies for hire.”

For more information, call 312-235-6378 or e-mail mark.greer@busrates.com with general fleet info.

Operators Seek Ways to Cope with Brokers

It was a simple request: “Tell us about your experience with bus brokers.”
The appeal ran at the end of an article about brokers in the June 15 issue of Bus & Motorcoach News.
The story clearly touched a raw nerve.
While executives at some coach companies say they’ve had good experiences with selected brokers, many others complain of a wide range of problems.
At the same time, operators say they are finding different ways of getting business without going through traditional brokers, including using a fledgling Internet outlet that puts carriers in direct contact with potential customers.
Operators continue to complain, though, they are being swamped daily with calls from a seemingly growing number of brokers asking for price quotes that seldom produce work.
And when an operator thinks he has landed a broker-initiated job, the broker continues to pepper other carriers for quotes and will cancel a contract the minute it gets a lower price.
“My company receives several quote requests weekly from bus brokers, but transportation is very rarely booked,” reports Ariane Kelly of Mountain View Tours in Tucson, Ariz.
She said callers from brokers are sometimes disrespectful and demanding, especially those from one outfit – Metropolitan Shuttle of Wheaton, Md. – that she said makes her employees “shudder” whenever its name appears on the company caller ID.
“They call for quotes almost every day but we have never actually worked for them,” she explained. “Their employees are rude and bullying and do not respect my company’s policies.”

Pestered to death

A number of other carriers say they have experienced similar problems with brokers being rude, arrogant and condescending over the telephone, and seldom returning calls when additional information is sought from a broker.

Michael A. Kraft of Krafttours Corp. in Tulsa, Okla., said he gets pestered regularly by brokers, but gets very little business when he provides them with quotes. “We’ve had countless quote requests from brokers and the business we’ve been able to win has been calculable on one hand,” he said.

And even when he does get a job from a broker, the troubles are far from over.

“Brokers frequently confirm with us, but don’t pay until the last minute if they can’t find a cheaper carrier,” he said. “They seem to take the attitude they have us on the hook and then can cancel after they find a better price.”

Other operators complain that some brokers are very slow paying for the charter work they book, while others have been known to dispute the payments they’ve made with credit cards, which can tie up a settlement for months.

Thomas Bazow of Excursions Trailways in Fort Wayne, Ind., said he signed up with Bus Bank, a Chicago-based bus broker on the promise he would be paid in advance for two charters. “Both trips were paid approximately 30 days after the trips,” he said. “Phone calls to Bus Bank went unanswered.”

US Coachways again

Antoine Legrant of Silhouette Tours & Travel in Brooklyn, N.Y., is headed to court to try to collect $1,400 he said is owed by US Coachways of Staten Island, N.Y., a broker whose name pops up regularly among complaining operators. A hearing on his filing in small claims court is scheduled July 18.

Legrant said Coachways hired his company in May to transport two bus loads of students from a camp to their school. However, when he arrived for the job, the students had already left on other buses.

“They said they did not know if they had overbooked or what was going on, but they promised to pay me the next day anyway because we made the run,” he said. “But we still haven’t gotten any money from them and they keep giving me the run around over the telephone.”

Legrant said he’s hopeful he will win the suit because he not only has a contract from the broker, but also five letters from other operators who contend they have had similar problems with US Coachways. “I think I have a pretty good case,” he said.

US Coachways was invited to respond – in this issue — to complaints about its practices but no letter or e-mail was received.

Bazow complained, too, about brokers – Bus Bank among them – bypassing local companies in favor of carriers that are several states away from where the work is to be done. “These companies then deadhead hundreds of miles to do the Bus Bank work,” he said.

 

Fighting back

Despite the headaches bad brokers can give operators, the carriers also have developed ways to fight back short of going to court.

Tops among them is demanding payment in advance, a practice that few brokers like to do because it prevents them from contracting with another carrier if they find one offering a lower price.

“As soon as we request payment in advance, they’re off looking for another carrier,” noted Kraft.

A Florida operator, who accepted two last-minute jobs from brokers in which payment could not be collected in advance and for which he was paid late, suggests the industry develop an on-line payment system similar to that used by Internet auction services.

George Childers of Magic Carpet Ride in Vero Beach said he was promised payment immediately after working the two jobs, but in both cases the money did not arrive for 30 days. “Perhaps the American Bus Association and United Motorcoach Association can come up with a strategy to create an on-line payment system similar to those used by sites such as eBay,” he offered. “With such a system there could be no excuses for an operator not getting paid before the coach is moved.”

More than one operator expressed the opinion that bus brokers use the “last-minute trip” as a ruse for not paying in advance.

Be bold, have no fear

Like other operators, Kelly said Mountain View has had difficulty in the past getting payment from brokers and as a result recently initiated a policy of collecting in advance to avoid further problems.

She said the company also insists that the particulars of a trip be presented in writing – either by fax or e-mail – because brokers have revised their jobs after receiving a quote and then try to hold the company to the original price. “We get it all in writing now,” she said.

Kraft suggested that operators be bold and discuss pricing with passengers who have gone through a broker to book their charter. “Ask the travelers what they paid for their transportation and simply be honest with them and tell them what was charged for the transportation,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to tell the passengers they could have saved hundreds or thousands by dealing directly with the coach operator.”

At least one operator became so concerned about the business practices of brokers that he decided to begin a brokerage business of his own. “Instead of having others feed me business, I figure I could do it myself,” said Efraim Fixler of Gold Coach Tours of Miami who formed Bus Reserve late last year.

Bus Reserve, which offers an extensive Web site for bookings, serves Florida and metropolitan New York City, and sometime early next year plans to expand to Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Boston.

Fixler said he uses his broker Web site to book the coaches he has in Florida and New York, but he also uses a network of about two dozen other motorcoach companies he funnels business to when his own buses are booked.

“The only way you can be a good broker is if you own your own fleet and you know the business inside and out,” he said.

Fixler, who gets a 10 percent commission when he passes work on to other companies, said the carriers he uses are ones he knows well and has worked closely with for many years, which helps assure his customers they will receive excellent service.

 

Considering options

Some operators also are turning to alternatives to bus brokers, including a fledging Internet company that cuts out the middle company and puts travelers directly in touch with motorcoach carriers.

“I wanted to help Internet customers know they did not have to go through a broker who charges high rates and does not do the research of the carriers they usually say they do,” said Mark Greer, a consumer advocate and marketing and sales professional who founded BusRates.com in late 2004.

The BusRates site offers suggestions on how to book a charter based on a variety of critical elements – general rates, company history, age and type of equipment, specialties and amenities – and provides telephone, e-mail and Web site contacts for the companies on its network.

“This just seemed like the logical way to do it, giving customers the opportunity to work directly with the company,” he said.

Greer, who worked for a bus broker for a short time before starting his Michigan-based company, said motorcoach operators pay a $20-a-month fee to be on his Web site. Operators can try out the service for free for the first month.

One operator suggested that perhaps the best way to compete with bus brokers is to outdo them on their own turf – the Internet. Since the net is where their customers find them, the key to battling brokers is to develop an attractive and functional Web site and, most importantly, effective search engine and electronic Yellow Pages’ connections.

While complaints about traditional bus brokers continue to mount, some of the problems may be the fault of the motorcoach operators themselves, suggested Kraft. He said operators often are so busy with their day-to-day operations they allow brokers a foothold in the industry.

“Unfortunately, we have frequently become bogged down in these operational details and simply invited middlemen to stick their toes in between a business relationship that should begin with the passengers and end with the coach company – without meddling intermediaries,” he stressed.

Bus Brokers: Parasites or Expanding Business?

Bus Brokers: Parasites or Expanding Business? Operator Debate Grows

Bus brokers are changing the way people book motorcoach charters, but their practices are causing many operators to re-think the way they do business with them.

Operating over the Internet where their easy-to-find and alluring Web pages are drawing more attention these days, the brokers are often the first to be contacted by groups looking to charter buses.

While operators debate whether the third-party trend has truly provided new opportunities or expanded the market for charter bus services, there’s no question that coach operators are being routinely bombarded with e-mails and faxes from brokers looking for rate quotes. For many, it has left them with a financial dilemma.

The reason? Most brokers try to book charters on 30- or 60-day credit, and some operators worried about losing business are giving it to them. A few of the brokers, however, have been lax about paying their bills.

Bus & Motorcoach News has received complaints about one broker in particular, US Coachways of Staten Island, N.Y. The Better Business Bureau of New York reports it has gotten more than a dozen complaints about US Coachways in the past year and 85 percent of the complaints left the customers dissatisfied.

While complaints about bus brokers to state and national industry trade groups don’t appear to be too numerous yet, concerns among carriers are everywhere evident. A number of operators say they have had a tough time collecting their money, while others say they haven’t been paid at all and at least one is preparing to sue to get his money.

“I’ve just sent the paperwork to my attorney for collection,” reported Bill McCreary of American Charter Coach in Naperville, Ill, who said he is owed $5,000 for two charters he did for US Coachways in February and March. “I’ve tried to contact them numerous times, but I can never reach the right people and they don’t return phone calls.”

Repeated efforts by Bus & Motorcoach News, both by phone and e-mail, to obtain comment from US Coachways also received no response.

Good advice

To ameliorate the problem, many coach companies are beginning to heed the advice of industry veterans who urge operators to turn down credit requests from bus brokers and insist on getting their money before they put their equipment on the road.

“Every legitimate motorcoach company in the country should require payment in advance and then no one would have a problem,” insists Steve Kirchner of the National Motorcoach Network and a long-time industry executive. “If you don’t have your money, then your bus isn’t going to show up.”

Thirty-year industry veteran Mike Waters of Coach America and president of the California Bus Association, agrees, noting that airlines have always operated with up-front payments and the motorcoach industry should too. “I don’t fly unless I pay for the ticket,” he said.

Twice burned McCreary endorses the idea and said he won’t be offering brokers credit any time soon. “I did it twice, but I won’t be doing it again,” he said, adding that he still is receiving requests for rate quotes from brokers, including the one that has not settled with him yet.

Pat Bernal of Colonial Coach Lines in Chicago said she, too, will be asking for payment in advance in the future after losing $3,000 to a broker for a charter her company did in October. “We’re down to a point where if we do any more business with them, they’ll have to pay in advance,” she said.

Some operators even have trouble getting their money when the broker agrees to pay upfront.

Shoddy practices

Jim Weber of Personalized Coaches north of Milwaukee said he accepted a charter from a broker in May and was told he would receive a check a week in advance of the assignment. When it didn’t arrive, he called the broker, who promised to overnight it to him.

However, when the check came, it was unsigned. A second overnight check was promised, but it never showed. The broker finally offered a credit-card number the day before the scheduled charter, and the payment went through.

“I appreciate the business, but we need the money up front,” he said. “I didn’t know those people and I was afraid I could have a problem if I didn’t ask for the money in advance.”

Other operators have gone further, ignoring the e-mails and faxes from brokers and refusing to do business with them.

“We don’t like dealing with them because they’re a middle man and most of them are just trying to get a price so they can jack up their own prices,” said Dennis Prigge of Discovery Coach Lines north of Milwaukee. “Then we don’t get the job anyway.”

Motorcoach companies that respond to rate requests from brokers often don’t hear back and that’s become another concern among carriers.

Radio silence

“I think our biggest complaint from small companies is that they take the time to provide the quotes and then they don’t hear anything from them,” said Elaine Johnson of Cross Country Tours and president of the Motorcoach Association of South Carolina. “Many of them would like to know why they didn’t get the business.”

Personally, she said she isn’t bothered by the deluge of requests for rate quotes because she knows brokers are just shopping around looking for the lowest prices. “If someone is seriously looking for a quote I believe they’ll call on the telephone,” she said. “Most professionals call.”

Gwen Elmore of Fun Tours Inc. and president of the Virginia Motorcoach Association, said she receives numerous requests for bids from brokers, but never gets booked when she responds with quotes. “They always go with the cheapest operator not knowing what their equipment or reputation is like,” she said.

Most members of her state association said they don’t do much business with brokers, and those that do insist on getting paid first.

Bob O’Brien of Time Lines in Oklahoma City and president of the Oklahoma Motorcoach Association steers away from using brokers because they prevent him from doing something he says is critical to sustaining and building a good business — engaging in conversation with customers.

“We don’t get to tell them about what our coaches are like, the amenities we offer, our drivers, our safety record, anything about our company,” he said. “The broker ends up selling our company and we don’t know if they’re doing a good job or not.”

O’Brien added that brokers contribute very little — if anything — to the business and organizations that use them would get a better deal in most cases if they went directly to individual companies.

“They are the parasites of the industry and I don’t think they belong in our business.”

Attention needed

While collecting payments up front might be the immediate answer to the problem, the industry needs to address the issue of brokers with the idea of reaching a long-term solution, says Victor Parra, president and chief executive of the United Motorcoach Association.

“This is an area of our industry that needs some attention,” he said. “It is an emerging business and we need to find out what type of relationship we can have with them that works for everyone.”

He noted that brokers can pretty much free wheel their deals and work because, unlike carriers, they are not regulated in any manner. “They might not have insurance or follow Department of Transportation rules,” he said. “Maybe we need something like a code of ethics or code of performance.”

In the meantime, he said collecting payment up front appears to be the best way to address the problem today. “Tell them before you will move your equipment, you need to be paid,” he urged.

Kirchner buys that advice.

“I don’t favor government involvement because when you have government intervention, you run some legitimate carriers out of business,” he said. “The best thing is 100 percent payment up front and then there would be no need for government intervention.”

Article: School Transportation News January 2005

Web Site Advertises School Bus Charter Companies
CHICAGO (Jan. 19, 2005) – A new web site provides up-to-date listings to private school bus charter companies and includes tips to customers on choosing carriers.
The directory, BusRates.com, consists of over 4,300 companies throughout the United States and Canada. The directory advises consumers on all aspects of bus renting, allowing for searches by bus type, city, state/province, and zip code, local rates, specifications, amenities and inventory. It lists 10 facts to be considered before chartering a bus and the 10 questions to be asked of prospective companies. The site also offers a search for current tours and events in cities across the U.S. and worldwide.
BusRates.com also links to the FMCSA’s charter company safety rating and insurance site, www.safersys.org.
In a press release, the company boasts over 17,000 charter bus customers since the site launched in November. The site also provides listings for day coaches, deluxe motor coaches, double-decker buses, entertainer coaches, executive coaches, limo buses, minibuses, sleepers, tour buses, and trolleys.