When five independently-owned motorcoach companies became the founders of the National Trailways Bus System in Chicago on February 5, 1936, they were looking ahead at a changing transportation industry in which they could thrive through teamwork rather than struggling individually during a Great Depression.
With that same attitude of teamwork, fierce independence and focus on the future, today’s Trailways Transportation System, Inc., has selected the theme “This Is Moving Forward” for its 85th Annual Meeting and Conference on February 17.
Instead of gathering in Palm Springs, California, as originally planned, representtives
of member companies will meet virtually, eager to put behind them the Great Pandemic that has hit especially hard the travel and transportation industries that Trailways serves. The pandemic-driven reduction in travel for sightseeing, vacations, entertainment and other pleasure trips has slashed ridership for some members as much as 90 percent.
As in earlier times of national crisis, Trailways operators have moved to meet the challenge. They have been transporting essential workers, military personnel and those schoolchildren still learning in classrooms. They have brought relief and reinforcements to the sites of natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires. They have made charter trips for sports teams still playing with pandemic precautions.
“This is one of the most critical times in Trailways history; and Trailways has taken a bold step to innovate, to prepare for the rebound and to support our members during this difficult time,” said Patrick Dean, Trailways chairman of the board and vice president of Dean Trailways in Lansing, Michigan. “Our vision is that with a challenge like this, there is an opportunity. We’ve used this time to provide better service for our customers and to be there when they’re ready to come back to travel. We’ll greet them with a smile and great service and tell them how much we appreciate their loyalty to Trailways.”
“We’ve invested a lot of resources during this current pandemic to meet our customers where they’re at now, which is online,” Dean explained. On June 27, 2019, Trailways established a wholly owned subsidiary, Trailways Ticketing & Marketing, LLC, which is doing business as Trailways.com. This Web platform lets customers purchase tickets online, request quotes for charter trips and bus rentals, and purchase trip packages to featured destinations. It has additional consumer-oriented features, including a “Driven Rewards” loyalty program for frequent Trailways travelers. During the coronavirus pandemic, Trailways began offering touch free boarding nationwide with its new mobile boarding “ticket delivery option.”
Spearheading formation of the new subsidiary are these member companies that offer both scheduled-route and charter-and-tour transportation: Adirondack, Pine Hill and New York Trailways of Hurley, New York; Burlington Trailways of West Burlington, Iowa; Fullington Trailways of Clearfield, Pennsylvania and Martz Trailways of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and Richmond, Virginia.
“The rejuvenated Web site and all the functionality are really an industry-leading sales platform that’s second to none that will be for the benefit of all Trailways members,” said Scott Martz Henry, a board member of the Trailways system, president of Martz Trailways and great-great-grandson of Frank Martz Sr., one of Trailways’ founders. “It does a better job of getting the Trailways name out there.”
Dean elaborated, “Through Trailways Ticketing & Marketing, we’re doing more digital marketing and e-mail communications and social media campaigns and search engine marketing to put the Trailways brand in front of customers more often.”
The Trailways brand has become legendary over its 85-year history. It was Trailways that introduced “thru-service” by changing drivers rather than coaches when passing from one Trailways member territory to another on long-distance routes so that passengers could enjoy the “easiest travel on earth.” The National Trailways Travel Bureau, launched in 1942, secured one of the first tour broker permits issued by the Interstate Commerce Commission.
After Trailways invited passengers to “see America at scenery level” in the 1950s, Continental Trailways in the next two decades offered innovative, “five-star luxury services” with uniformed hostesses serving food and beverages from galleys in observation lounges aboard the famous Golden Eagle motorcoaches, specially designed for long-distance travel comfort.
Trailways later became one of the earliest adopters of global positioning system (GPS) devices as a safety feature on its member company vehicles.
Burlington Transportation Company and the Frank Martz Coach Company were two of the original members that founded the Trailways system in 1936. The others were Missouri Pacific Stages, Santa Fe Trails Transportation Company and Safeway Lines, Inc. Three of the founders – Burlington, Missouri Pacific Stages and Santa Fe Trails – were affiliated with railroads and served routes in Western states. The other two, Martz and Safeway, had Eastern routes. All five were independent, scheduled-route motorcoach operators who banded together primarily to compete with industry consolidators, especially Greyhound.
The competition between Trailways and Greyhound is not quite so fierce today as they share some terminals and routes. “We’ve had a schedule and pooling agreement with Greyhound for more than 50 years. A certain number of our drivers and buses participate in Greyhound scheduled runs,” said Suzanne S. Thornburg, president and chief executive officer of Capital Trailways and Colonial Trailways. Capital Trailways, with locations in Montgomery and Madison (Huntsville), Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia, and Colonial Trailways, based in Mobile, Alabama, joined Trailways soon after the five original founders and are in their fifth generation of family ownership.
A major benefit of Trailways membership, Thornburg said, “is just having a great understanding of the power of networking. In our industry it is so important to build camaraderie, and Trailways allows us a way to do that. Everything is about technology now. I think Trailways has done a good job as far as improving software systems and referral platforms, just the sense of community and providing a network for us all to come together and learn from one another. There’s a good online referral system, and we do receive leads from that system.”
Another advantage, Thornburg added, is being able to rely on fellow Trailways members in times of need. “A few other members have assisted us along the way with maintenance when we’re on the other side of the country,” she said. “We’ve reciprocated with them when they’re in the Alabama market and need a tire changed or an electrical problem dealt with. That’s a part of being in the network, for sure.”
Since Trailways opened its membership in 1997 to independently-owned charter-and-tour companies without scheduled routes, the majority of Trailways transportation members now offer charters and tours exclusively across the continental U.S., plus Canada and parts of Europe. They are required to meet the same high standards as the scheduled-route members.
What are those standards? “The main thing that keeps it all going is safe, reliable, courteous service,” said Ronald R. Moore, a past chairman of the Trailways system, current board member at-large and president of Burlington Trailways. “We’re all one. We work together.”
Today’s Trailways welcomes members in all modes of transportation: air, rail, ground and sea. It also has associate members, called affiliated partners, that offer products, programs and services to transportation members. It has affiliate members that work to preserve, aid and advance the transportation industry as well as industry members that have a vested interest in travel and transportation. Among these membership categories are firms such as coach manufacturers, parts and technology suppliers, travel brokers, insurance and personnel agencies, cruise lines, hotels and resorts, and destination venues.
“The COVID-19 impacts them just as much as it does the member companies that are operators,” said Dean. “Trailways continues to support the efforts of the American Bus Association and the United Motorcoach Association, who are the leaders in advocacy for the industry. We’ve advocated for the federal government to recognize what a critical infrastructure service we provide.”
During the pandemic, Henry of Martz Trailways explained, “We’ve doubled down on our commitment to customers and are doing everything we can to make sure that we abide by industry-leading safety standards, with cleaning and disinfecting procedures for onboarding and off boarding and overall maintenance. Bus travel remains one of the safest forms of transportation. Particularly during COVID-19, with disinfecting procedures and air flow throughout the coach, it’s very safe.”
Trailways has adapted to the industry and broader economy to support member companies. “We’ve made a reduction in dues but not a reduction in the storied Trailways brand,” Dean said. “We’ve been proactive, not reactive. When demand comes, we’ll be ready when the pandemic subsides.”
At 85 years young, Trailways continues to survive by being not only in the transportation business but also in the transformation business. It keeps embracing change to address emerging customer needs and wants. “Trailways carriers have always been committed to their customers and employees and making sure we’re connecting people to their destinations, wherever they may be going,” Dean said. “A lot of times, people are going on exciting trips or travel, and we get to be a small part of that. We’re making sure that we honor quality and safety and service.” Those were the goals of the Trailways founders in 1936. That is what has not changed in 85 years.