New Entry Looms in Growing, Small Bus/Coach Sector

October 1, 2014

Vehicles that stretch 45 feet long and carry 55 passengers are king of the road as far as most motorcoach operators are concerned.  But, in some cases, bigger isn't always better. 

For several practical and financial reasons, an increasing number of operators have supplemented their fleets in recent years with shorter buses of every sort. 

While quantifying this shift can be tricky, companies that sell such models report stepped-up demand from motorcoach operators, and one major motorcoach manufacturer - Van Hool - is responding with a shortened version of one of its bestsellers.

"People are looking at their bottom line,"  says Carl Restivo, regional sales manager for Don Brown Bus Sales in Johnstown, NY.

" A lot of the larger coach operators, they don't always fill their coaches with 50 people, so it's quite an expense to operate that motorcoach."

His company sells the well-liked Turtle Top cutaways with all the amenities of larger coaches:  lavatory, leather seating, frameless windows, outlets, televisions, front-viewing window, WiFi, ambient lighting, A/V systems, and individual-ducted A/C controls.

However, these vehicles -- often called mini-coaches or known simply as mid-size buses -- are about half the cost or less of a conventional monocoque-constructed motorcoach because they use body-on-chassis assembly.

You might have to get past the stigma, but they certainly ride well," he said. "More and more operators are going toward that.

They're thinking if they can get a cutaway, rather than a Van Hool, it'll be more cost-effective.  

Soon there will be a shorter version of the best-selling Van Hool model:  a 35-foot version of the CX.  It's a significant shift, as well as investment, for one of the major players in the motorcoach industry.

"We are addressing the market with a CX35, due to launch in early 2016," said Dan Leo, director of marketing for ABC Companies, which distributes Van Hools in North America.  "It's in response to market needs here in the United States.  It's still early on in the development state in Europe.  With more than 40 units preordered for a vehicle that is still being developed, the demand certainly appears to exist.  That's according to Roman Cornell, ABC Companies' senior vice president of the eastern region and specialty vehicles.  He said he has seen the trend in sizes change over time and that it only makes sense for his company to start offering a smaller motorcoach.  

"1993 is when the 45-footer came out, so over the last 21 years the trend has moved toward the 45-foot coaches and away from 40(footers)," Cornell said.

"Now we think that of the operators that want a 35-footer, 10 percent to 15 percent of their fleet would be 35-foot (coaches).  There are 4,000 to 6,000 of those (Van Hool C models) running around the Unitied States, so it's a proven product.  People love them but have been saying, 'Give us one that's shorter.'"

Many industry observers see a 35-foot Van Hool as a response to the popularity achieved by Temsa and its TS-35 coach.  Both come from the same part of the world -- Macedonia for the Van Hool CX and Turkey for the Temsas.

So why the demand for smaller motorcoaches?

Cornel said smaller groups of passengers "still want a big-bus look and feel and a quiet, comfortable ride" and operators want to give that to them.  

And for touring groups, it's far easier to navigate the tight streets of cities like New York, Miami and New Orleans in a coach of a more manageable size.  

"Our philosophy is when something works, don't change it," Cornell said.  So, the CX35 will be built very similarly to Van Hool's other 45-foot coaches, with many common, interchangeable parts.  That's good news, he suggests, for everyone -- drivers, customers, dispatch and maintenance.

"The driver's area, windshield, switches, suspension components will be the same," he said.  "You can carry less inventory when you have the same parts, and there's no learning curve for a new product."

Timm Bledsoe, director of sales and marketing for the popular small-to-midsize brand Turtle Top, also confirms the trend among motorcoach operators to opt for smaller vehicles.  

"We've seen the transition with more interest from the industry,"  he said.  "More companies like us attend the different shows for motorcoach operators and there's more competition.  If there are more people flocking to it, it must be a growing industry."

Turtle Top sells to a diverse customer base, but from motorcoach company owners Bledsoe says he hears more interest in vehicles that will offer passengers a great trip but at a cheaper cost to operators.

"Our motor coach industry customers are looking for a more economical choice," he says.

Bus & Motorcoach NEWS Issue, October 1, 2014

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