Elite Coach has had pretty smooth ride
When it comes to business philosophy, you could say Elite Coach is in it for the long haul.
"There are two reasons. Number one is that we're really focused on service and providing really excellent equipment," says Brian Kurtz of the success of the Ephrata-based business. "Number two is that we operate fairly conservatively. We've grown steadily, but we've grown always within a reasonable margin of risk. We've never gone out and bought 20 buses in one shot."
The company did, however, just go out and purchase four buses at a shot, augmenting its fleet for the first time since 2010 and bringing its vehicle count to 28 — its highest ever.
"We're very, very comfortable doing that," Kurtz says, noting that revenue and utilization have both been on the rise for a while. "We've had some good years, not crazy stellar, but, as everybody says, the new normal."
Elite was started in 1991 by three partners who are no longer involved, Kurtz says. His father, Paul Kurtz, came to the company in 1997, when it had six buses, and in short order bought out the partners. Today, Brian Kurtz, his father, and his brother-in-law, Dave Dickson, co-own the company.
"Pretty much anywhere there's a group of people that wants to travel together, that's what we do," Kurtz says. Elite doesn't organize tours itself, but it does work with tour companies. Being in Lancaster County matters less to Elite than being in proximity to New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, he says, except in one way: Access to what he calls a "great employee base."
"I just had a big tour company tell us this the other day, that they always appreciate the type of drivers that we have," he says. "That's due in large part to the place that we are."
Tracy McElroy, administrative assistant in the athletic department at Alvernia University, works with Elite a lot. For the past two years, Elite has been providing all the transportation for Alvernia's athletic teams. Using a charter company makes sense, because the university can have six to eight athletic teams going at a time, she says. Apart from the investment it would take to get enough buses of its own, finding qualified drivers during the busy season would be a daunting task for the university.
"They're awesome," McElroy says of Elite.
Punctuated by plateaus in 2008 and 2009, the company has grown every year since 1997, Kurtz says. But that history and optimism don't mean the company hasn't encountered or anticipated some rough patches.
About two years ago, Elite implemented a surcharge that kicks in when fuel rises above a certain level. Kurtz says there really wasn't a choice, because the costs were simply too volatile for the company to keep eating. The surcharge is currently in effect, but he thinks and hopes the cost of diesel might come back down eventually.
Elaine Farrell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Bus Association, says fuel costs are an enduring issue across the industry.
"I think most people understand, because they see it in their own vehicles, but it's still not fun," Farrell says of fuel surcharges. However, she notes, that didn't keep the PBA from supporting the state transportation funding measure that passed late last year: Its members recognized the need for the changes that the bill is bringing.
As for whether natural gas could be a viable alternative fuel for the industry, Kurtz says he doesn't see that happening any time soon for businesses like his that primarily do long trips.
"You can't get as much distance, and the fueling stations just simply don't exist now," he says.
The road ahead
Driving a bus is a great job for the right person, Kurtz says, and he has dozens of them. Many are retirees who relish the opportunity to travel, meet people and enjoy activities while the bus is parked at its destination. But figuring out where those drivers fall in regard to Obamacare's employer mandate and what that means for his company has been a nightmare. Even with lawyers and insurance professionals involved, he still hasn't gotten an answer to how they should be classified.
"I'm just thankful that it didn't happen this year," he says, referencing the employer mandate delay. "We're trying to do what we're supposed to do, but they can't even tell us what we're supposed to do."
Another evolving situation Elite is keeping a close eye on is shifts in the market. Overall, group sizes tend to be shrinking a bit, he says, so Elite has been buying some smaller buses to accommodate them. And in one specific segment — senior tours — patterns have been changing, but the industry isn't sure yet where they will end up.
"The baby boomer generation has different habits than the prior generation," he says. "It's less about taking a bus trip and it's more about going with a group of people somewhere and the bus just happens to be how they're all going to get there at the same time. It sounds like a subtle thing, but it's a very, very different marketing technique."