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Shuttle Route Planning 101

Last year we asked planners what they wanted to know about planning event and meeting transportation. We’ll be tackling a few of those questions in a series of blog posts throughout the year so we hope you’ll join us as we demystify transportation! 

Like most aspects of planning for large events, there will always be certain variables that are impossible to prepare for. It’s the nature of the industry, and it probably has something to do with why event planning is consistently rated as one of the top 10 most stressful jobs. That being said, when it comes to planning bus routes, there are certainly a few basic steps you can take to prepare. 

KNOW THE ADDRESS 

It may seem obvious, but our Logistics Manager, Bethany Arthur, says it is often overlooked. Most major hotel chains have multiple locations in Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities. It’s (extremely) important to know exactly which Holiday Inn Express is part of the room block and which one is not. Once all hotels and event locations are correctly plotted on a map, potential routes begin to emerge. 

THE 5 STOP RULE

There are many things you want your attendees to experience at your event, but the never-ending bus ride is not one of them. General rule of thumb – do not put more than five stops on a route, and four is preferable. 

THE ROOM BLOCK  

Have we mentioned that route planning is a complex equation that can vary drastically based on about 30,000 different factors? Allow us to drive that point home with this nugget – while it may appear geographically logical to put 3 hotels on a certain route, the combined room block size may end up being so large that it would be extremely difficult to run an efficient shuttle. The bus would fill up at the first stop and have no room for attendees at the second or third stops. Hell hath no fury like attendees watching a full bus bypass them at their stop, causing them to miss the free breakfast at the convention center. *Bethany’s suggestion – 1,200 rooms/route 

ATTENDEE PROFILE

If you don’t know your attendee demographics as well as you know the barista at your local Starbucks (you’re an event planner, the chemical make-up of your blood is 50% caffeine), you might as well give up now. For instance, the attendees at a fitness tradeshow are different from those at a corporate convention. The fitness folks may be more inclined to walk, while the majority of the corporate attendees would likely use transportation. You need to know the age, habits and any relevant cultural characteristics (i.e. Europeans are more likely to use public transportation). 

THE UNKNOWN KNOWN: TIMING IS A FICKLE THING

Bethany has a few tips to determine approximately how long it will take a bus to run a route: 

  • Familiarize yourself with the city’s traffic pattern and any ongoing construction.
  • Add 2-3 minutes per stop for unloading and loading.
  • A route that takes a car 15 minutes, will take a full size motor coach about 20 minutes

DEVILISH DETAILS

A few other factors to consider when planning routes: 

  • Most full-sized motor coaches can hold 56 people 
  • The bus door opens on the right side of the vehicle 
  • Is the pick-up/drop-off located on a one way street? 
  • Avoid asking attendees to cross the street to load the bus (they don’t always use the crosswalk…) 
  • Does the city have any bizarre regulations? (i.e. Austin, TX requires special permits for buses larger than a mini bus to operate within the city and many cities have “no bus” zones) 
  • Historic cities (Charleston, New Orleans, Boston) often have narrow streets that are difficult for many full size motor coaches to maneuver 

So, as you can see, route planning can easily cause one to feel anxious, overwhelmed, confused and possibly a little insane. Don’t worry, we get it. It’s not easy, but it can be done. And of course, practice makes perfect, and we’ve had 27 years of practice!

Special thanks to our Logistics Manager, Bethany Arthur, for sharing her extensive knowledge! Do you have a question about event transportation? Let us know on Twitter! Use the hashtag #stewarttransportation and we’ll do our best to answer you! 

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Planning Transportation Like a Pro

by Eddie Stewart, CEO

[written for Small Market Meetings, July 2016]

We often say that event and meeting transportation is the outcast of meeting planning. It’s not glamorous and it’s not immediately associated with the overall attendee experience. Of course, if it’s not done right, you better believe it will be the number one complaint on your post-event survey. To sum it up, meeting transportation is a big deal.

We understand that not everyone has the budget to hire a transportation management company like ours, and that’s okay! However, we care about transportation too much to let any attendee suffer through a poorly executed shuttle program. We’ve compiled a few of our best planning tips to ensure that transportation doesn’t show up on your post-event survey.

Attendee Profile: What is the average age of your attendee? Younger attendees are more likely to use public transportation, ride sharing services or walk. Older attendees are usually more reliant on the shuttle service. You might also want to know whether they are familiar with the city. Are they on a tight budget? How many typically stay in a hotel room?

Shuttle Frequency: Do you plan to offer a continuous shuttle service? If so, what is the frequency of service required? Every 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes? The more frequent the service, the more buses you’ll need on a route.

Map it Out: Group hotels into districts and neighborhoods to establish bus routes. It’s important to maintain a reasonable round trip time. We recommend no more than five stops on any one route.

Room Blocks: How many attendees are staying at each hotel? How many booked outside of your room block? This information is crucial when determining how many buses to allocate to each route.

Previous Year: Do you know how many attendees utilized the shuttle service the previous year? How does this year’s schedule compare to the previous year? Even if registration is up this year, understanding how attendees utilized the service the previous year will help give you a more accurate idea of how many buses you need this year.

Weather: What is the weather like this time of year? If it’s hot, cold, or typically rainy, you want to minimize the amount of time your attendees have to wait outside for a bus. This may mean that it makes sense to increase shuttle frequency by adding more buses to a route, or providing a tent to help shelter attendees from the elements.

Peak times: Identify the times where ridership will be highest. These are the times when you will need more buses running on each route to ensure your attendees arrive at their destination in a timely manner.

Drive the Routes: If possible, drive the routes yourself a few weeks before the meeting starts to confirm the total time it takes to make a round trip. You can also use this opportunity to check for any unexpected construction or changes to hotel drop-off and pick-up locations.

Do Your Math: We usually estimate that 70% of attendees will utilize the shuttle service. Most full-size motorcoaches can hold approximately 55 people, but you should account for luggage, bags, presentation materials and any other unforeseen item an attendee may have with them when they board.

Booking Buses: When determining how many buses you need for each route throughout the day, it’s helpful to know that most bus companies have a five hour booking minimum. If you need buses all day, you will need to account for driver breaks or switches, which may take a few buses out of service for a certain amount of time.

Social Media: During your meeting, keep an eye on Twitter. This is usually where attendees go to voice issues or frustration with any aspect of the meeting, including transportation.

Permits, Police & Insurance: Some cities require permits to stage buses in certain areas. Additionally, you may need police to assist with traffic flow. Convention and Visitors Bureaus can be an excellent resource when determining these types of needs.

If this sounds overwhelming, it can be! And sometimes it makes more sense to let a company like ours handle your transportation. The benefit of working with a transportation management company is that we handle everything mentioned above, and then some. But when that’s not an option, we hope these tips will help you create an excellent transportation program for your meeting.

I want to conclude with our biggest tip of all – expect the unexpected. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past 26 years, it’s that something will go wrong. You can’t plan for everything, but having a solid transportation plan will help you react and adapt to changes like a pro!

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Third-Party Transportation Explained

Last week we wrote about the importance of relationships to third-party companies, so this week we thought we’d dive into what it means to be a third-party transportation company.

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The Power of Relationships

By Eddie Stewart, CEO, Stewart Transportation Solutions, Inc.

For third-party companies in the meetings and events industry, a good relationship with a vendor can make all the difference. And we should know!

As meetings and conventions become larger and more complicated, third-party companies have become an integral part of how planners operate. With the ability to streamline the planning process, they take on the task of dealing with vendors or venues, contracts, details, logistics and the minutia associated with planning a meeting.

In order for third-party companies like ours to make it all happen, we must rely heavily on the relationships we have built in cities across the globe. A good relationship can make the impossible, possible. And in the event transportation industry, there are three types of relationships that stand out from the rest – our relationship with the vehicle company, the drivers and our on-site staff.

Some people are surprised to learn that we don’t own buses or vehicles of any kind. This means that we’re not limited by geography or the size of a fleet, which allows us to provide transportation services anywhere the client decides to hold an event or meeting. In order to do this, we depend on the fleets of transportation and bus companies throughout the United States and abroad.

Whether you talk to a CMP or one of our Program Managers, they will tell you that knowing the right person to call makes all the difference. And it’s a very symbiotic relationship. We depend on them to get the job done right and they look to us to bring them good business. We respect our vehicle vendors and understand their needs. Because of this, they will work with us to find solutions to most inventory or availability issues that can come up.

Of course, the power of a good relationship extends beyond knowing the right vehicle vendor.  The men and women who drive those vehicles can have a big impact on whether a transportation program is successful or not. We figured out pretty quickly that a happy driver can make all the difference. That’s why we provide a cash gratuity to all of our drivers (believe it or not, many event transportation companies don’t do this!), take the time to get to know their names and make sure they get their required breaks. They appreciate this and will often go above and beyond to provide our clients with the best possible service. We also have drivers who request to work on our shows just because they enjoy working with us. A happy driver also makes the job a lot easier for our staff.

The relationships we have built with our travel and local staff are essential to what we do. It’s more than just hiring a body to stand on the curb and herd people onto a bus. We depend on our network of 400+ contract staff to keep it all flowing smoothly on-site. At the start of every show, we make sure they are trained on more than just the show schedule. We make sure they know us as a company, our culture and that they are part of our team. They also get a crash course in Servant Leadership – our management philosophy.

Relationships are an important part of any industry, but particularly for companies like ours. We are able to do bigger and better things for our clients year after year because of the vendors and people we depend on. Respecting the relationships that keep the doors open and the clients happy is key to third-party success.

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Is Event Transportation the Red-Headed Stepchild of Event Planning?

by Liz DeJesus, Marketing Manager

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Part of my job as the Marketing Manager is to manage the company’s social media efforts. This means that I spend a great deal of my time reading articles and trying to stay up to date with what is relevant to our target audience – meeting and event planners. Every day I sort through about 30 event and meeting-specific blogs and online publications and I’ve noticed something – there is virtually no discussion about transportation. Now, to be fair, my job consists of a lot more than social media so it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed something, but I can’t help but feel like event transportation is the red-headed stepchild of the event & meeting planning world.

If there is a sexy part of the event planning process, I know it’s not transportation. I know that everything associated with what we do – buses, routes, charter orders, permits, bus signs, traffic flow, staging logistics, not to mention migraine-inducing diesel fumes – doesn’t exactly stack up well next to the menu selection, the VIP gifts, booking the right speaker and securing the absolute coolest venue for the opening reception.

Woe is me, right? No. The way I see it, we’ve got a pretty cool opportunity to influence the conversation and get planners thinking about transportation!

It’s not that I think planners don’t think about transportation at all. Of course they do! They just don’t think about the fact that good (or bad) transportation can make or break an event. They don’t think about how transportation technology can streamline events and influence how the event is planned for years to come. That’s the stuff they don’t think about and that’s the stuff I know about.

The fact is, you can plan every single detail, and have an absolutely flawless event inside the conference center, stadium, hotel, amphitheater, etc., but the moment your attendees walk out those doors, their amazing experience can either continue or it can take a drastic turn for the worst.

If you haven’t given transportation much of a thought, it’s entirely possible that you’ll end up with a long line of folks, waiting for transportation back to their hotels. There are few buzzkills as mighty as the act of waiting in line. What if it’s raining? What if it’s cold? What if it’s 100 degrees? What if you didn’t book enough buses? What if there is confusion about where to catch the bus? The departure times? Trust me, an attendee who feels inconvenienced and frustrated by the transportation service, is an attendee who quickly forgets about the incredibly valuable session they attended only 5 minutes prior. Your post-convention survey responses will look like this, “The opening session was great, but I had to wait for 40 minutes for a bus to go back to my hotel! I missed a luncheon and I never even got to the reception on time. What a waste!”

[I’d like to refrain from being too sales-y here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say – we’re pretty good at making sure your survey responses DON’T look like that.]

Did you even know how valuable transportation data can be when it comes to planning your next event? Imagine if you could check your smart phone and know in real time exactly what time and how many attendees departed from Point A, on their way to where you are at Point B to attend the opening General Session? Would you potentially be able to make more informed decisions about what attendees find valuable, what they don’t? Could you potentially and more accurately determine your F&B needs, your venue size based on how many people attended the reception last year? What if you had the data at your fingertips to determine if there was high (or low) demand for transportation? Was it worth the added expense? Or did it add value for your attendees? What if you lived in a world where you could have that information? [Good news, you do live in that world. You can have that information. We can give it to you.]

So, I’m writing this post in part to illustrate the value in our service (of course), but partly to pose the question, what do planners think about when they think about event transportation? I am genuinely curious and interested in starting a valuable conversation for both you and us.