The Coach Industry: Back But Trying to Keep Up With Demand  (Transportation Special)

LIVE INDUSTRY TRULY IS BACK: While most of the labor shortages and supply chain issues have improved, the coach companies are now dealing with what they call a good problem: high demand. (Courtesy Pioneer Coach)

After nearly two years of being somewhat in stasis as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the live entertainment industry came back with a vengeance in 2022, shattering box office records and establishing a new normal that goes beyond what was seen pre-COVID-19. Not a wave, but a tsunami of shows and festivals inundated the live market last year, and the coach, an industry term for “bus,” companies are trying to keep up with the high demand.

“Our industry is always going to mirror the live industry, and so if the live industry is doing well, then so goes the coach industry,” Doug Rountree, president of Pioneer Coach, tells Pollstar.

With so many artists on the road, coach companies, too, posted record numbers in 2022 and there are no signs of it slowing down anytime soon.

“It’s been a logjam, and I don’t think that’s settling out this year or maybe even the next year,” says Trent Hemphill, president of Hemphill Brothers Coach Company. “It’s the new normal; a new rhythm.”

It’s a good problem to have. The bus industry not only managed to persevere through a period during which live shows were not permitted, but overcame the fallout from the pandemic that affected labor and production.

“We had to pivot and do some different things during COVID, which we were fortunate to pull off and maintain to keep some drivers so that when it did start back up, we had 100-something drivers,” Rountree says.

Hemphill said the loss of drivers as a result of health orders and mandates and suddenly needing them when live music returned was “disruptive for our company,” especially since he had several that either changed careers, retired or died because of the disease. In the past 20 months, his company has hired 60 drivers, which accounts for one-third of the total number.

“We have 180 drivers now; we made it through [labor challenges due to COVID],” Hemphill says. “We hired more drivers over the last [20] months than we ever have.”

Prevost buses remain the standard for all coach companies, which modify the 45-foot-long, 102-inch-wide vehicles at the request of their clients. Though parts are easier to come by these days, Rountree says there is “a shortage in the industry with equipment guys” for many companies and that new buses can be difficult to come by and take longer to build.

Despite the increase in parts and drivers since 2020, it’s still difficult for coach businesses to keep up with the demand. Buses are being claimed before they’re even finished being modified, and companies have even had to turn away artists.

“It’s gotten to the point where we can’t accommodate some of the artists, and it kills me,” Rountree says. “We do everything we can, but what we don’t do is say, ‘We got you,’ and later say, ‘Sorry, we thought we did.’”

Promoters and managers are booking tours much further in advance than in previous years, and while that is not entirely negative for coach companies, it can cause logistical headaches with so many events going on at once.

“I don’t think people are that organized that far in advance yet,” says Jeremy Maul, CEO and founder of Dreamliner Coaches. “They’ve been putting deposits down and getting into contract far in advance but the dates end up moving a lot, and it ends up being more chaos than anything because you try to start and stop a tour as close as you can to the next show. When tours fluctuate three or four days, it could really make or break you in making sure the tour gets done.”

Maul implores those involved in creating tours to include coach companies in the planning process.

“One hand doesn’t really talk to the other,” he says. “I don’t think the promoters really have their finger on the pulse with how many buses there are available. When they are going to do their planning, I feel like they should reach out to the buses and trucks to see what’s out there.”

With artists already booking for 2024, it looks like it will be more of the same for the coach companies next year.

“I guess, there was a pent-up demand for live [entertainment],” Rountree says. “I think it will level itself at some point, but I don’t know what that point is. Live music is hard to replace, and people want to be in the room.”