Country Tour Bus Biz Recovering From Pandemic With One Eye On the Long Haul

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The website for Hemphill Brothers Coach in Nashville has an odd feature this fall: a blatant “Now hiring!” advertisement.

The tour bus company — which lists Dolly Parton, Dierks Bentley and Gary Allan among its clients — had almost all of its fleet grounded for the last year and a half. During the downtime, many of its freelance drivers retired, segued into the trucking business or changed careers. And with many workers reluctant to put themselves in social situations amid a raging pandemic, restocking the pool is a challenge.

President/CEO Trent Hemphill is optimistic that the team will return to full strength, but anticipates other challenges even farther down the road. As climate change accelerates, the transportation industry faces greater pressure to switch to cleaner technologies: electricity or fuel cells that convert other fuels, such as hydrogen, to battery power. And with numerous companies testing autonomous vehicles, it’s possible that a bus in the 2030s could rely — in part, at least — on driverless travel.

“I’m not trying to limit the future in my thinking about what could come down the road,” says Hemphill, though he expects any changes will evolve slowly.

Since its start with two buses in 1980, the Hemphills’ Nashville-based business has expanded to 110 buses that, in non-COVID-19 times, rack up as much as 7 million miles a year.

Transport is a major consideration for country artists. They can expect to fork over $17,000-$20,000 a month to lease a bus, according to Fusion Management founder Daniel Miller, who handles Riley Green, Martina McBride and Cassadee Pope. Miller projects $1 per mile in fuel costs for each tour run, as well as additional expenses for drivers, cleaning, engine service and linens. And since artists can easily spend as much time in the bus as in their homes, leasing companies want the pricey experience to be enjoyable.

Thus, buses have grown increasingly sophisticated, with slide-outs that allow the vehicle to expand its living space once it’s parked, taller construction that accommodates more sleeping bunks and quieter generators. As the buses age out, the company typically purchases a new bus shell each month.

“We buy the new model every year of what’s out there,” says Hemphill. “So we see the technology moving, and we’re buying that technology as it’s available.”

Availability of new technologies is a chicken-and-egg proposition throughout the industry. Prevost, one of the most prominent coach manufacturers, is a Volvo subsidiary, and country tour buses are a small fraction of the parent company’s overall business, which includes passenger vehicles, trucks, city buses and construction machinery. Traveling into the future is important to its success — Volvo hopes to be fossil-fuel-free by 2040 — and it broke ground on a new vehicle propulsion lab in Hagerstown, Md., in June that will improve its ability to advance electric and fuel-cell performance. Volvo also announced on Sept. 1 that the Maersk shipping company had ordered 16 electric semi-trucks, purportedly the largest commercial order to date of a no-emission truck.

But the feasibility of no-gas vehicles relies on the ability to recharge the system. The infrastructure bills being debated in Washington, D.C., hold the promise of more electric refueling stations — particularly for local trucks and buses in large cities, according to Prevost executives — and if those outlets come to fruition, they would likely lead to more electric vehicles. That would, in turn, encourage additional recharging stations in smaller cities and interstate corridors, thus increasing pressure to advance the electric bus.

“We see a lot of momentum when it comes to automobiles,” says Prevost director of business operations and shell sales Ryan Piercy. “Obviously, the weight of an automobile versus the weight of a bus and everything that’s on it makes a big, big difference when you want to get that range from the batteries with the technology that exists today.”

But the interest is there. The fuel costs of a tour bus, which gets seven to eight miles per gallon, are a constant reminder to artists and their teams of the amount of diesel they’re burning. Increasing cancellations from extreme weather events likewise bring focus to the growing wave of climate change, and the acts recognize live industry’s contribution to that issue.

“They’re conscientious,” says Prevo bus shell division director Steven Zeigler. “They think about their clients and who’s coming to see them, and so we do have those discussions. We’ve had guys that put solar panels on the top, and so they’re putting batteries in there that’ll charge from the [panels].”

While the shift to new fuel sources seems inevitable, the advent of driverless vehicles raises some eyebrows. CBS’ 60 Minutes recently rebroadcast a segment on Starsky Robotics’ advances with automated eighteen-wheelers. The technology looks impressive, and Miller notes that it holds the potential to make some tours a tad less expensive.

“We can’t let [drivers] drive more than 10 hours” without an eight-hour break, he says, noting government restrictions. “So if and when that technology existed, it would let us travel longer distances without having to bring a second driver out.”

Of course, while freight trucks might be delivering washing machines to a home store, a bus carrying McBride has a more fragile — and more valuable — payload.

“I don’t trust the driverless truck just yet,” says Miller. “But hopefully, if the Jetsons’ premonitions come true, we’ll be there in our lifetime.”

Though if it were to happen, it would mean a drastic change in job descriptions. The bus driver serves, as Piercy says, as a “concierge” for a band and crew.

“There’s so many other things that the driver does other than just drive the bus,” affirms Hemphill. “Think of it almost as an RV or a motor home, which has showers on the bus. There’s water-supply situations that have to be taken care of, dumping toilets and systems like that, all types of service checks and routing changes due to weather.”

Which suggests that coachmen will mostly remain in the driver’s seat, even if gas is eventually removed from the tank. Either way, as the most forward-thinking Americans ponder the conditions that are being created for future generations, the touring business has wheels turning on the very same issue.

From top to bottom, says Volvo director of marketing and communications Michael Power, the business is “actively working on solutions for the long haul.”

This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter, which features the latest airplay, sales and streaming charts along with compelling analysis of market trends and conditions. All for free. Click here to subscribe.

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