With more acts touring, doing multiple festival appearances across Europe and needing their production crews to get into venues early, renting high-quality tour buses isn’t a luxury anymore, it’s essential to keeping the show on the road. Claire Bicknell reports
As the touring business has grown and matured across the UK and Europe, with more shows in a wider range of countries, keeping both artistes and crews comfortable and rested between performances has become essential.
Whether it’s a large, luxurious bus or a splitter, clients are looking for comfort, reliability and cost-efficiency, and when a driver is required, ‘the same one we had last time’ is often the request.
Beat The Street (BTS) has been supplying tour buses to the live music industry for 32 years, working with clients including Lady Gaga, Adele, Coldplay, Madonna, Clean Bandit, Bruno Mars, Neil Diamond and Iron Maiden.
“We’ve had a number of big tours out this year – Cher recently with 10 buses, and P!nk during the summer with 13 buses of various capacities,” says transport manager Garry Lewis. “We do carry clients from all spectrums of the music world – from Hans Zimmer to Tory Lanez.”
With 70 vehicles in its fleet, the main offer is double-deck Setras, but BTS also hold single and Superhigh deck Van Hools, with various sleeping capacities from six-berth star busses to 16-berth crew buses.
“Our UK/European fleet is continuously being upgraded, with new Euro 6 buses coming online every few weeks and new buses ordered throughout the next year,” says Lewis.
“We’ve also expanded into the US and have a new office and coach yard in Nashville. We’re building 20, 16 and 14-berth double-deck Van Hools and four single-deck Prevosts – all brand new, with the first ones rolling out on tour in January,” he says.
BTS’s UK-based Tim Fortnam King, along with two technicians from its Austrian headquarters, moved to Nashville last August to “put the BTS stamp on the build, design and quality”, states Lewis.
The company is busy all year around, with a huge demand for buses at all times.
“Historically the touring industry used to go through peaks and troughs throughout the year, but now it’s busy all year long, June and July are particularly pressured with more touring bands than buses, so it becomes very difficult,” adds Lewis.
“We’ve had situations in the past couple of summers where bussing has not made sense for bands doing festivals in all corners of Europe, and we’ve chartered planes for them. It’s been interesting to do and its part of our learning curve, but I don’t think we’ll be going into the charter business any time soon.”
Working with high profile clients who need total reliability, an ordinary coach driver won’t do.
“All drivers have to be very flexible and adapt to changing circumstances, and they must have a full understanding of the map of Europe without relying on the sat nav, as you never know when it might stop working,” says Lewis.
“They also need to be able to work in a pressured situation, for instance, when the artiste is looking over your shoulder asking if we’re there yet, or looking at Google Maps and telling you you’re going the wrong way.
“The best drivers will be able to answer questions in a calm and knowledgeable way, then the artiste becomes comfortable with the driver and requests him or her for the next tour. I probably get requests for certain drivers every week.”
Changes on the road
Phoenix Bussing has been supplying sleeper buses for the music industry since 1988, growing from its original four converted buses – built by its founding members in a garage in the middle of the New Forest – to a fleet of 36 purpose-built Setra double-deckers. Clients include Muse, Kylie Minogue, Michael Bublé and The Killers.
“Our superb, modern fleet of double-deckers are all 45ft [14m] in length and the interiors are built and maintained by our own team of highly skilled carpenters, electricians, mechanics, upholsterers and body shop staff,” says office manager Andy Gray.
“We operate artiste buses, 14 and 16-berths, with bedrooms and en-suite shower/toilet. Some bunks can be dropped in height to make condo bunks with extra headroom.”
Reacting with speed to last-minute changes or challenging circumstances is an essential skill.
“Schedule changes happen for various reasons – illness, weather etc – and we have to react quickly as it could have a knock-on effect to drivers’ hours, and whether they can do the next journey single driven, or if it needs a second driver,” explains Gray.
“Sometimes we need to find a driver at very short notice and fly them to the location of the bus to keep the tour rolling. Luckily we have a big pool of drivers throughout Europe that we can call on at times like this.”
Phoenix Bussing drivers have many years of on-the-road experience and are “well versed in the requirements of the touring industry,” says Gray.
“Comfort, safety and privacy are the big things that clients want from their tour bus arrangements. Also, a good smooth driver who is sociable and able to fit in with the touring party, with a clean bus and nice comfy beds.
“We often get drivers requested back by either production or tour managers, it’s fantastic they are wanted again, again; it shows they’ve done a great job and fitted in well.”
Summer, from mid-May to July, is its busiest period, with demand exceptionally high.
“We could have another 20 buses and it still wouldn’t be enough, with all of the acts touring over festival season,” says Gray.
The unknowns of Brexit are also on the horizon and it is having an impact and causing worry across the industry.
“It’s all guess work at the moment, as not even the government knows what’s going to happen. There are sectors of the industry pushing and lobbying to try and protect our industry, which is good,” states Gray.
“All we can do is be as prepared as we can be for whatever happens and have things in place and then react accordingly.”
The company has just finished building bus nine out of 10 of the new model Setra S531DT and will be taking an order for another 10 to start in April 2020.
“Each bus comes as an empty shell from the factory, and our team build it in eight weeks ready to go on the road. Then the next one then arrives, and the process starts again,” explains Gray.
In peration since 2006 and starting life as a splitter van hire company, Vans For Bands (VFB) has the largest fleet of splitter vans in Europe, as well as a smaller fleet of 10 to 16-berth premium nightliners.
It transports around 10,000 artistes and music industry professionals across both fleets each year, with clients including Sam Fender, Blossoms, Elbow, Giggs and Frank Turner.
The company has spent around £2 million on fleet replacements and upgrades over the past year alone.
“Starbuses are becoming more and more popular and for this reason most of our coaches can now be configured in multiple formats, with up to two double bedrooms or multiple lounges being common,” says company director Tarrant Anderson.
“Our business has three parts – the vehicles, the drivers and our service offering, and they are all equally important,” he says. “Touring is an activity with a huge number of moving parts and anyone working in the industry needs to be able to deliver a high degree of flexibility in order to meet clients’ needs.
“We have one client who requires his vehicle to be cleaned with only natural, non-chemical products before and during the course of his tours. We remove any chemical products from the vehicle while he is onboard.”
Anderson agrees that Brexit is affecting the sector.
“This has been a really strong year for the touring industry, the only downside has been the continuing spectre of Brexit which has led a significant number of overseas artistes to start using companies based on the continent to mitigate the risk of being caught out by the ramifications of a no-deal scenario.
“We have the reputation to keep our vehicles booked out, but I’m aware some in the industry have found it more difficult. Brexit has put the brakes on the touring industry infrastructure in the UK, and the sooner it is resolved the better,” says Anderson. “The other major issue all transport companies are grappling with are tightening emissions regulations across Europe which are curtailing the usable life of coaches.”
Drivers, as with other companies in the sector, are one of the biggest assets for VFB.
“Artistes often have preferred drivers who they request and who they have been working with for years. Drivers have to be skilled at driving PSV vehicles safely but driving a sleeper coach is also a skill in itself.
“Our drivers need to be friendly and know when to give our clients space and when to be on hand to lend assistance. They also need to have a high degree of self-discipline and bus pride, to keep their vehicle in tip-top condition at all times.”
Bandrunner works with clients including Ms. Lauryn Hill, Snow Patrol, and UB40 featuring Ali Campbell, and has over 30 splitter vans and access to buses as needed.
“Safety is the main priority for clients, followed by discretion – of what is said in the vehicle will not go any further,” says owner Scott Fury. “You need to know when to shut up, and it’s also the old Victorian values of speak when you’re spoken to. Conversation flows as you build rapport with clients and they become comfortable with you.
“We’ve taken on a couple of drivers including Brian McGee, the original drummer of Simple Minds. He’s an excellent professional driver and we’re really happy to have him onboard.”
Fury also highlights low emission zones as a challenging area for the sector.
“We recently had a really quick booking to France and had no time to apply for a permit, which believe it or not, is sent out in the post. So we had no option but to wait outside of the zone in Paris and the artiste travelled in by metro. You can’t just drive in and pay the money – if you get fined, you get fined a lot.
“Fortunately we were able to get in after 8pm to d the pickl-up. Obviously we explained the reasons and the artiste understood, as it was a lasy-minute booking.”
What the vehicles look like is also obviously important too
“The fleet is always being renewed,” states Fury. “It’s a continual process, with hundreds and thousands spent every year in upgrading the vehicles. It has to look nice as you pull up to a venue.”