Winter Storms Another Blow to Motorcoach Industry

Winter Storms Another Blow to Motorcoach Industry
Cary Martin, president of Little Rock Coaches, sits behind the wheel of one of his buses. (Karen E. Segrave)

If it isn’t one thing it’s another for Cary Martin and those like him in the motorcoach industry.

Martin is the president of Little Rock Coaches, a charter motorcoach company, and also the vice president of the South Central Motorcoach Association’s board of directors. Martin’s 17 motorcoaches have been mostly sidelined since the COVID-19 pandemic rolled into the country in mid-March and severely curtailed travel and events.

That was until this past week, when Martin was preparing for a full schedule of charters, a mix of military transports, college athletic travel and private trips. And, then Mother Nature decided to dump a season’s worth of bad weather on Arkansas in one week.

“It would be our first full week since March of 2020,” Martin said. “It is like a fistful of snow in the eyes, if you will. This was the first normal-looking week since March of 2020, and everything is either canceled or postponed. We are hoping a lot of it is rescheduled, but we don’t know.”

Martin said it is imperative that business pick up — and soon — or there will be permanent damage to many in the industry. The federal government passed the Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services Act in December, but instead of the $10 billion the industry said it needed, CERTS provided $2 billion for the motorcoach, school bus and passenger vessel industries.

“Even the $2 billion is going to be very difficult to get a piece of,” Martin said. “It’s not going to go far. It is something, but it will be four to six weeks before rules are out on how to apply for it.”

Martin said the motorcoach industry’s share of the $2 billion would amount to a pittance, like someone tossing nickels and dimes to a beggar on a street corner. The American Bus Association said the motorcoach industry generated revenue of $2.6 billion in 2020, compared with $15 billion in 2019.

“That is what it is: They threw some change at us,” Martin said. “In no way does it cover the debt that we are in.”

Martin said the saving grace of his industry is the cooperation and understanding shown so far by the banks that hold the loans on many of the motorcoaches. Many motorcoach owners are highly leveraged, buying new vehicles to please customers and then paying off the notes with rental fees; a new motorcoach costs more than $500,000, Martin said.

The banks’ ability to work with him is nearing an end, Martin said. He understands their position because banking isn’t a charity either, but with the grace period set to end soon, the snowstorms were terribly timed.

The ongoing negotiations in Congress on a new COVID-19 release bill do not appear to provide anything more for the motorcoach industry.

“We are eligible for the PPP but, other than that, there has been little to no effort to help this industry, which is amazing [considering] what they have done for the other sectors of the transportation industry,” said Martin, referring to the federal Paycheck Protection Program. “They have done nothing to help motorcoach, and motorcoach is in a free fall right now.”

Martin said there is still room for optimism and he has a business owner’s determination to succeed, anyway.

“We will find a way. We’re going to make it,” he said. “The issue is dealing with all of these bus notes that have accumulated. The banks are at the end of the line. They can’t do any more.”

What the motorcoach industry needs if the federal government doesn’t step in is good weather and a return to normal activities thanks to the coronavirus vaccination program.

“We are seeing bookings come in so that part is encouraging — until this week when everything got knocked off the schedule,” Martin said. “We were starting to see business come back. We were excited to have a return to business to some degree in February and now these two winter storms have just kicked our feet out from underneath us again.”