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.