Cultivating professionalism behind the wheel
Most operators know that a good driver can make even an average itinerary memorable. But what, beyond technical proficiency, constitutes a good driver? FYI asked several respected operators what they look for in a driver, and what they do to help make sure every trip is a winner.
Knowing the routeFew things can shake passenger confidence quite like a driver who's fumbling with a map, or who doesn't seem to know where to park or pick up. Sandy Allen, president of Royal Coach Tours, San Jose, California, says that her company works with tour customers to make sure there's a detailed itinerary well in advance of the trip. And they spend time making sure it's right, so there aren't any issues with drivers not knowing whether they should pick up in front or or behind an attraction, or at what time. Or if they're going someplace with a low-clearance parking lot.
"We're very selective about where we send our 45-foot coaches," says Allen. "We also use Direct Connect [push-to-talk] technology. Our drivers can easily connect with the base if there's a snowstorm, or if a bridge is down. It's an expense, but it's a good feature."
Routing is a problem that Josh Howes, president of Premier Alaska Tours, Anchorage, doesn't have. "There are only nine major highways in Alaska, and they're far apart," says Howes. "It's tough to get lost."
Experience"Perhaps another reason that Howes' drivers don't get lost is because he only hires those with experience. "We require them to have at least two years of driving a coach in Alaska," says Howes. "They've already had training and have learned the highway system, though we do do two weeks of training so they can learn our procedures."
Royal gains an extra measure of expertise because all of its full-time drivers are SPAB-certified. The California-mandated School Pupil Activity Bus training includes 15 hours of classroom and 20 hours of behind-the-wheel, one-on-one driver training. "So much of our business is school charters, we could have buses sitting if our drivers weren't SPAB-certified," says Allen.
Standing by good customer serviceMost top-end operators make sure that drivers stand outside of the coach to assist passengers boarding and leaving the vehicle. "We insist that drivers be outside while loading and unloading," says Allen. "They extend a hand or an arm to help people aboard. It's a safety thing."
Harvey Clark, who owns Saskatchewan-based Prince Albert Northern Bus Lines along with his partner, Stacey Petreman and the Montreal Lake Cree Nation, says that in addition to helping people on and off the bus, their drivers are instructed to help further guide passengers. "Passengers can wander, especially if they're talking to their friends," says Clark. "We don't want them to walk out into the road."
Premier Alaska has a few unique requirements of its drivers. Says Howes, "We require that they be fluent in their destination, with knowledge of flora and fauna, facts and statistics. Most of our tours go out with a tour director as well, but we want the drivers to be able to do narration if need be."
PresentabilityRoyal uses uniforms. PA Northern drivers either wear a uniform or don't, depending on what makes the tour or charter group comfortable. Premier Alaska simply asks its drivers to aim for "Eddie Bauer casual," which generally consists of khaki pants and a button-down shirt. Either way, drivers who look professional are generally perceived as professional.
Premier Alaska makes a few exceptions — like when tours are going to certain destinations in the Yukon. For such trips, drivers are encouraged to dress up like gold miners or can-can girls — anything to get into the spirit.
Congeniality countsClark says that he urges his drivers to be extra-friendly to the school-age kids who ride his charters. "In sporting groups, you'll see the drivers right there in the arena, cheering the students on," says Clark, once a driver himself. "It's good to have a good relationship between the teams and our company — and it keeps the buses cleaner. If you can have fun with the kids and get their respect, they'll help you, as opposed to being a grumpy driver."
Premier likes its drivers to have fun as well. "We don't hire bus drivers. We hire tour drivers. For many passengers, this is the trip of a lifetime. Our goal is to have people who do this job because they love it — not just because it's a paycheck."
The Double-CheckSo how do operators know their drivers are adhering to company policy and doing a good job? Allen likes to occasionally go out on her own tours, in part to mingle with her customers, but also to do a little quality control. "Sometimes I'll go out with the seniors," says Allen. "I check out the buses and the interiors, and I see how everything is going."
Allen's brother and vice president, Dan Smith, and general manager, Earl Reed, sometimes pitch in as drivers as well. "We all go out on big moves. The employees see us working alongside them. They know that they work hard, and we work hard too. It lets them know they're not out there alone."