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Luxury tours... with an escort Charles Seaton

From the day the first motorbus rolled into service, coach operators have had one overriding goal in mind- maximize profitability by putting as many people on board the vehicles as possible. Ed Lonsbary, president of Texas-based Private Motor Coach, Inc. has turned that idea on its head. He is offering full-service, cross-country, luxury charters for individuals and groups up to ten.

From the outside, Lonsbary's MC-9 looks like any other bus running the interstate, but the inside is something entirely different. Named "Patty's Charm," it's a fully-outfitted converted coach with warmth, style and all the comforts of home. The coach features a living room, kitchen, bathroom and a queen-sized bedroom. Also, it has one more very important amenity: Lonsbary himself. A friendly, 54 year-old retired marketing executive, he believes he can create a thriving business out of making people's travel dreams come true.

"Personal escorted travel is a trend that's growing, especially among baby boomers," says Lonsbary, who acknowledges that the recent downturn in the economy had slowed some segments of the travel market. "People are still investing in high-end travel, though. The type of travel where someone else does the driving and worries about the vehicle."

Profit from changing choices
While it may be too early to tell whether Lonsbary really has tapped a major vein in the potential gold mine of personal leisure travel, people's choices have indeed changed in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Over the past year and a half, a large percentage of travelers have shown a marked inclination to choose the highway over the runway. A lingering fear of more terrorist attacks mixed with the inconvenience of airport lines, security checks, random searches and other hassles have made road travel a lot more attractive than ever.

The market that Lonsbary is working to serve consists of families and small groups whose members want the convenience of ground transportation without facing the inconvenience of driving themselves in a cramped auto or a rented van with none of the comforts of home.

Aside from pleasure trips, Private Motor Coach also caters to business groups headed for conferences, meetings or trade shows. Private Motor Coach, in business since 1999, has also provided transportation for music groups, including the Fabulous Gunslingers, a country/rock band, and the Preservation Jazz Band. In fact, several local businesses around Private Motor Coach's original home base of Pittsburgh, PA, have already taken advantage of this unique transportation alternative.

Admittedly, Lonsbary started out with a pretty thin business plan, but he did invest six months researching the viability of the business. His research began to focus on the baby boomers, who now comprise fully two-thirds of the travel market.

"I dug out everything I could, studying the market and examining the feasibility of what I wanted to do," Lonsbary explains. "I was able to determine that there is a niche market for personal escorted motorcoach tours out there. Now, I'm working to make certain that the market is aware of me and what I have to offer, too."

Catching customers in the Web
Lonsbary has used the Internet to reach out to prospective customers, employing the promotional talents of his wife Patty, to develop an interesting, informative and entertaining Web site ( "We work very hard on our Web site and a full 80 percent of Private Motor Coach's customers have reached us through the Internet. It is a phenomenal tool," Lonsbary says.

Wiley Pearson, one of a group of four friends who decided to take a road trip vacation recently, says they discovered Private Motor Coach through the Web site and ended up taking the vacation of a lifetime. "Ed's Web site was absolutely great," he says. "It was discovered by one of our group and we all looked at it and decided that that was the way we wanted to go."

The trip, which they named the Elvis Presley Heritage Tour, took them throughout the south where they visited Civil War battlefields, took in minor league baseball games ate BBQ and, of course, visited Memphis and Graceland. "Traveling like this enabled us to visit with each other, make plans, sightsee and just enjoy the company of old friends," Pearson adds.

Another customer, Mimi Cocks, of Nassau County, NY, took a trip out west last year and has already booked a second trip to Alaska. While she found Private Motor Coach the old fashioned way - through a print ad - her enthusiasm for the concept is as strong as Pearson's. "This is a great way to travel. I had looked at RVs, but decided that I couldn't do that myself. A friend showed me an ad for Private Motor Coach and after meeting with Ed, I decided that this was the way I wanted to travel," says Cocks.

With returning customers now making up a segment of his business, Lonsbary is starting to feel that his hard work is beginning to pay off. Lonsbary says a lot of work went into the creation of Private Motor Coach. After all, it takes more than desire to turn a good idea into a growing business. According to Lonsbary, it takes a reputation for safety, blended with professionalism and smart marketing.

Once Lonsbary had sold himself on the idea that Private Motor Coach would indeed work, he set out to find the perfect unit. While he could have chosen a high-end motorhome, his professionalism and belief in his project dictated that he choose a bus-based vehicle. He ended up buying a 1982 MC-9 with a converted luxury interior, created from a new shell by Angola Coach.

The coach had traveled only a little more than 100,000 miles since new. The powertrain was standard MC-9 fare -a Detroit Diesel 6V92 mated to an Allison 754 automatic transmission.

Instead of just jumping behind the wheel, he prepared for his CDL by taking a full course at a truck driving school. In order to further sharpen his driving skills and become familiar with the handling idiosyncrasies of a 40-foot bus, he hired a retired Greyhound driver. "I wanted to start off with a foundation of professionalism and build on that," says Lonsbary, who added that Patty's Charm is maintained professionally with no expense spared.

Hard work wins honors
Lonsbary's uncompromising pursuit of professionalism was rewarded in 2001 when he and Patty accepted the Motor Coach Industry Vision award from the United Motorcoach Association. The prestigious award acknowledges a strong commitment to safety, excellence in operation and service, marketing innovation, product development and social responsibility.

The slogan of Private Motor Coach is "Anytime, Anywhere," and Lonsbary has lived up to it transporting a wide spectrum of leisure and business travelers anywhere they want to go from Alaska to Florida, and even on into Central and South America.

Private Motor Coach can count among its customers several passengers, either elderly or infirm, for whom it would have been difficult if not impossible to travel by automobile or commercial carrier.

"Adult children tied to careers and the demands of their own youngsters can't simply pick up and go get Mom or Dad in some far off city," Lonsbary points out. "We frequently respond to the growing need of families looking for safe, accompanied travel for aging and ailing parents."

Another customer, Dr. Cedric King, a retired country doctor who now writes Westerns, noted that Patty's Charm was a big house on wheels that was both comfortable and private. He used Private Motor Coach for a trip from Philadelphia to Wisconsin with his son, who had to travel in the company of a nurse.

"Mr. Lonsbary took very good care of us. He was like a member of the family. We had everything we needed right on board the bus, which was a home away from home for us. This is the only way to travel," says Dr. King.

In 2001, Lonsbary moved his firm's base of operation west to Whitehouse, TX. He says he selected the town, which is about 95 miles east of Dallas, because of its, "strategic geographic location, to better serve travelers seeking to explore the United States, Mexico and Central America." He predicts Private Motor Coach will soon branch out into South America.

The Texas location puts him no more than two deadhead days away from any point in the country. While he charges from $600 to $800 a day for trips, he charges a fraction of that rate for deadhead miles.

Trip of a lifetime
Ron Arslanian, one of the members of Pearson's group, says they had considered renting a motorhome and dividing the driving chores, but balked when they considered the high rental fee for a vehicle and the added stress of driving it themselves.

"The cost of renting an RV and then having to drive it kind of defeated the idea of being on vacation," says Arslanian, who adds that the trip with Lonsbary was so pleasant the group was considering another vacation with Private Motor Coach. "We traveled more than 2,200 miles and the time went by quickly. We purposely chose not to sleep on the bus, just use it for travel. But we had every amenity we could possibly want."

Arslanian, who admittedly is not crazy about flying, believes that Lonsbary may have hit upon the right idea at the right time. "Traveling this way is much nicer than flying and let's face it, after 9/11 a lot of people have concerns about mass transportation," says Arslanian. "I believe that the time might be right for a business like Private Motor Coach. It's a great way for a small group to travel."

In the future, Lonsbary would like to add another coach and bring on another driver/escort. Having given his customers such personal attention, one might think that while finding good buses is relatively easy, cloning Lonsbary might not be.

Charles Seaton is a free-lance writer who splits his time between New Rochelle, NY, and Pikeville, NC. Private Motor Coach can be reached at (800) 936-5265.

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