Business by the busload
William Cooper drove a busload full of travelers through the South Florida countryside last week, wending his way toward Fort Myers. Earlier at 8:15 a.m., as the tightly scheduled itinerary dictated, he had picked up the group of more than 40 members of a 55-and-older community nestled in Wimauma, just south of Tampa.
“Every group is different,” noted Mr. Cooper, a tall congenial bus driver and service industry veteran of more than 40 years. He sat behind the wheel of the huge empty motorcoach whose passengers had just deboarded and were being seated for lunch inside Two Meatballs in the Kitchen, their first stop before departing for Sanibel Island. Before leaving town, they’d take in a play at BIG ARTS, snooze at a Residence Inn, climb aboard a tram tour of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and hopefully enjoy themselves sufficiently to return someday soon.
Naples-based Best Group Tours, which specializes in motorcoach tours, had organized the two-day trip. It hired the services of Miami resident Mr. Cooper, who works for Travel Lynx, another Florida company.
Arlene Donnellon, head of the Valencia Lakes Travel Club in Wimauma, had booked the tour. Among her group at Two Meatballs were Pat and Michelle Sullivan. They moved to Florida in February from their home near Baltimore and were seeing Southwest Florida for the first time.
“I like the nature, the animals, the birds,” Mrs. Sullivan said.
Mr. Sullivan added, “We’ve always heard a lot of good things about it, so hopefully if we like it, we’ll come back again. It’s not too far from where we live so it’s nice to come and spend a few days.”
Barbara and John Calderon were also seeing Southwest Florida afresh.
“I think it’s a good way to get to know your way around,” said Mrs. Calderon.
The motorcoach industry is big business in Southwest Florida, and like many motorcoach tour operators, Best Group owners Karen and Peter Stone cater mostly to baby boomers. Mrs. Stone used to book group tours for a local theater, a casino and then a hotel, so before she and her husband started the business in 2005 she saw firsthand how lucrative it could be.
For her customers, the prices are attractive (one deal Best Group offers includes an overnight stay, dinner and a show for $105), the seats comfortable, and the company friendly. The Travel Lynx bus was equipped inside in a manner similar to an airplane with a cargo hold, Wi-Fi, televisions and a small bathroom. Drivers also usually take the scenic route where time allows.
“If you want to see things, it’s a great way to travel,” Mr. Stone said.
A network of motorcoach companies such as Best Group work hand-in-hand with local attractions to create fun-filled trips and drum up business for each other.
“I don’t think you can drive by our place on any given Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday or Sunday when we’re doing matinees and not see a motorcoach in our parking lot,” said Will Prather, owner of the Broadway Palm Theatre in Fort Myers.
He identified a few distinct types of motorcoach bus tours. There are the day trippers from resort communities, RV parks and elsewhere; the weekend motorcoach tours who stay the night; and longer tours traveling throughout the state who spend a few nights in town. Sometimes six or seven busloads will arrive at the theater nearly simultaneously in a tidal wave of tourism (a typical motorcoach carries 56) — but Mr. Prather has been playing this game for a long time.
“Our family has been catering to these group buses for 25 years, ever since our dinner theater in Lancaster, Pa., has become a destination, so we really have the ability to greet (them,)” he said.
Doing some quick math, Mr. Prather estimates “conservatively” that motorcoach tours alone generate roughly 12.5 percent of his business, or about 21,000 customers per year (who pay the theater’s more affordable group sales rate).
“That’s just over a million dollars worth of business for me on an annual basis that arrives here by motorcoach,” he said. “And then you’ve gotta understand the economic impact of when one of these bus groups stay here.”
They may shop, wine, dine, take in a spring training baseball game, take a nature tour or a sunset cruise, and sometimes shop some more. A 2012 study commissioned by the American Bus Association and prepared by the New York firm John Dunham and Associates Inc., found that the motorcoach tourism industry has a total economic impact of $260.8 million per year in Florida Congressional District 19. The study takes into account direct economic impact on businesses such as hotels, restaurants and theme parks, as well as indirectly on industries such as agriculture, mining, construction and manufacturing.
(The study notes that motorcoach drivers earn on average, including both benefits and wages, $48,672 per year.)
“It’s all part of a large and very significant piece of business that we get,” said Candice Cocco, tourism group sales manager for the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau.
Another Naples-based company, Elite Tours, runs smaller bus groups of 18 or more. The Miccosukee Indian Reservation, where airboat tours are popular, is on one of its pre-planned trips. But owner John Garafola said he often tailors tours to fit his customers’ wishes. For instance, a group of students from France every year enjoy visiting the amusement park Busch Gardens. Others like to head up to North Florida to go tubing.
Asked how business is going, Mr. Garafola admitted, “I’m gonna be honest with you, it’s slower this year than it’s been. We’re doing more things like taking the group out for a dinner run, maybe taking them to Fifth Avenue (South in Naples). They’re really not doing full-day outings any more. The bottom line is, it seems like they’re trying to do things, but their budget isn’t what it used to be.”
At the outdoor shopping and dining destination Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda, motorcoaches also provide a significant chunk of revenue: “Particularly during the holiday season when King Fisher Fleet offers the lighted canal cruises,” says Kathy Burnam, marketing director. “Our uptick in tour buses coming to the property is tremendous during that period of time simply for that opportunity for the tour bus company to book people to go on that lighted canal cruise, in addition to shopping at the Village, in addition to dining at the Village.”
She adds, “It’s a beautiful sight to see them coming in.”
Mostly, they are retirees who live in Florida, some of them snowbirds. They travel to the area from the east coast or places like St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota.
Summer trade off
A motorcoach is sometimes known in the tourism industry as “the patron saint of summer,” the Stones said.
While their business flourishes during the winter months — the typical “season” here in Southwest Florida — it’s really the dollars that she provides for other local venues during the rainy season, when things are slow, that allow her to cut deals with them this time of year.
“We’ve been able to gently persuade the hotels to work with us a little during high season if they want the business during off season,” Mrs. Stone said. “That’s been a foundation of the business.”
“To be honest, that’s why they tolerate us in season,” Mr. Stone added.
Sal Basile, owner of Two Meatballs in the Kitchen, the restaurant where the Best Group tour was dining last week, concurred. While it takes some preparation and planning to accommodate, say, 50 people at once during season, he makes it work by scheduling the group around 11 a.m., just before the lunch rush.
“It has to be the right time,” he said. “We wanna make sure they get good service, you know?”
Best Group runs roughly 120 trips to Southwest Florida between May and September, out of 300 tours per year. “That gives you a reasonable amount of clout when you’re looking for business during high season,” Mrs. Stone said.
The Stones, who are originally from Manchester, England, say retirees in Florida are more active than in the U.K. — perhaps because of all the sunshine.
“I love to watch these groups,” Mr. Stone said, “because they have fun. They live their lives every single solitary day.” ¦