The Coach Industry: Supply & Revamp

Courtesy Hemphill Brothers
– Prevost
Prevost supplies the vast majority of the coach industry’s shells and powertrains.

The bus,  or “coach” as they’re referred to, business was hit as hard or harder than any other during the COVID lockdown, with usually empty lots now full of unused luxury coaches, parked with nowhere to go and no one to take to another next gig for an extended period. 

And, like many other touring sectors, the coach industry has had its share of challenges getting back online and going from 0 to 100 after the complete shutdown of concert tours.
“For us it was almost like a mirage when we started getting the calls from tours wanting to go out again. Honestly, the majority of our buses were still sitting in early July,” says Joel “Joey” Hemphill of Nashville-based Hemphill Brothers, which has a fleet of 110 coaches and services music tours regularly, logging up to 7 million miles in a normal calendar year.

Although Hemphill and brother/partner Trent Hemphill had coaches out for personal trips and private clients during COVID, the fleet largely sat in wait with touring next to impossible.
“We were saying ‘is this real, is this really going to happen?’” Joey says. “To go ahead and ramp up and re-hire some individuals we had to lay off, get our coaches ready to go and drivers ready to go – and hope it was real – it’s a big responsibility to employ a lot of people. To employ those people and not know if you had the business was a challenge.”
The Hemphills say their fleet is completely sold out right now, which is a good thing, but that creates its own challenges. Artist managers and tour promoters are scrambling to find not only coaches but drivers for last-minute tours squeezed into a condensed touring season that had July feeling like spring and September feeling like mid-summer. 
Staffing shortages or bumpy roads while carrying actual touring personnel – and superstar artists – means that a hiccup or false start can have much bigger ramifications than long lines at the bar or a COVID vaccine card check-in.
“The bus business is the craziest I’ve ever seen it, and there’s a shortage of drivers who are wanting to get vaccinated,” says Jeremy Maul, CEO and founder of the recently launched Dreamliner Luxury Coaches, a somewhat smaller, more boutique entrant to the already high-end and competitive market. “All the big tours are requesting that all drivers and staff are vaccinated. I know some of the bigger companies are having issues getting all the drivers vaccinated in a timely manner.  We had a struggle getting everybody vaccinated and we lost a lot of drivers who didn’t want to be tested or vaccinated, so it’s put a lot of companies in a bind. Needless to say, it has not been easy for anyone.”
While company policies differ, tours are largely requiring traveling personnel to be vaccinated, effectively creating the policy for the coach companies.

Hemphill Brothers
Courtesy Hemphill Brothers
– Hemphill Brothers
Trent and Joey Hemphill, of the Nashville-based Hemphill Brothers. Courtesy Hemphill Brothers
“As a company, we’ve had people with us for 10 or 20 years and longer, so we’ve not made it mandatory to say at Hemphill Brothers you have to be vaccinated, but our clients and tours are requiring it, and requesting it,” says Trent, adding that he and his family are vaccinated and believe it’s “the right way to go.” 
“We’re getting closer and closer to our driver pool being fully vaccinated, and we’re able to service all the tours that are requesting vaccinated drivers, co-drivers and everything. We track that number every week and we’re watching that really closely.”
 But even after getting vaccinated in time comes the challenge of dealing with COVID on the road, with regular testing and potential disruptions looming. 
“The tours are going strong, there’s been a few COVID cases pop up with a crew member getting it or somebody in the group, but what we’ve seen happen for the most part is they send them home and try to keep the tour going,” says Doug Oliver, general manager at Nashville-based Pioneer Coach. “Most people are vaccinated which helps keep people out of the hospital and reduce symptoms. But it’s tough, it kind of keeps people on edge.” Oliver says on the driver side, the challenge has been staffing co-drivers, which are required for long distances, with primary drivers not allowed to drive more than 10 hours at a time.
“There are a lot of COVID tests, some tours require it once a week and some even more than that,” Joey says. He’s quick to note that while current conditions are challenging and no one’s idea of a good time, most are eager to do what it takes to get back to work.
Courtesy Dreamliner Coach
– Dreamliner
The ever-increasingly high-tech coach industry, with Dreamliner Coach’s Jeremy Maul saying the company is in the process of installing high-tech bipolar ionization filtration systems in all units.

“We’re very thankful for our staff here, we got the best people working for us and they’ve gone way beyond the call of duty,” he says, adding that he’s grateful the company was able to utilize PPP funds to keep people employed during COVID. “We’ve got people working nights and weekends, day and night without any kind of complaint. We’re very proud of our people.”

It seems no production or crew-related industry story would be complete without rising costs, and COVID has seen a supply chain squeeze on everything from air conditioning units to lumber. 
“We do a lot of things here, we do paint, we do interiors, we have to buy the electronics and parts of all kinds,” Joey explains. “One of the challenges has been the supply chain has been disrupted, not necessarily for bus parts. Some of the things we took for granted – roof air conditioning units, this, that and the other thing, has been a challenge. We had to actually buy more than we would normally try to stock, just so we don’t run out of something. Building materials – birch, plywood, a lot of that has tripled in price, and just being able to get it has been a challenge. These are things people dont really know or see ongoing, but it’s just been an extra challenge, I’d say.” 
However, a bright spot has been Prevost, the company that provides the “shell” and powertrain engine guts for nearly every coach in operation. Like many parts of the related but separate production industry, coaches too are always in production, with better amenities, older models going out of style or operation and general growth of the overall touring business requiring more and more. 
In 2020, “We continued to build at a slower pace and stock up on inventory,’ says Steven Zeigler, bus shell sales division director at Prevost. “It’s a unique industry and we knew once tours started back up again our customers would start the production back up again and there would be a heavy need. We took the financial hit and risk and built inventory at a slower pace than normal but we’ve almost completed our inventory, getting shells back into the market and allowing operators to start their production back up and get their coaches out.”
Zeigler says the supply and demand between coaches and clients is apparent in real time. 
“Some tours are going with fewer coaches or still trying to find coaches to meet their needs,” he says. “It’s interesting to watch someone like Garth Brooks or Florida Georgia Line. When their tours canceled, those coaches got sucked back up immediately.”
 However, for all its challenges and headaches, this touring season sure beats last year, and companies are plowing ahead and figuring it out. 

Pioneer Coach
– Pioneer Coach
general manager Doug Oliver
“So far it’s going pretty well,” Pioneer’s Oliver says. “I’d say demand is up – it’s typically strong over the summer and fall, and we’re seeing demand for next year is really strong, with a lot of sold-out periods. It’s wild, it feels like we’ve been touring for a long time this year but our first normal month was August.”
Maul adds that for ‘22, he’s already “booked pretty solid” into September, while now in the process of installing high-tech filtration systems in all units, utilizing bipolar ionization technology. 
The Hemphills are optimistic for the immediate future as well, and have a tell-tale indicator. 
“Twenty-two looks like truly a breakout year,” says Trent. “To know, this early, how many tours you got going and how big the demand is – it’s very strong. There’s a lot of big tours. Tours are also sending deposits well in advance, which I highly recommend.”