Whether it is transporting rock ‘n’ roll royalty in a luxurious star bus or moving a young garage band to the next underwhelming venue, service remains key to success in a sector that faces many more challenges than simply arriving on time.
Managing artiste’s expectations, ever-evolving European Union (EU) emission controls and the demands of circuitous festival and tour routings, are just some of the hurdles tour bus operators must overcome on the road to success.
Veteran operator Four Seasons Travel has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry since it was founded in 1982, with its first music client being Lindisfarne.
Among the many artistes it has worked with since are Ed Sheeran, Liam Gallagher, Sam Smith, Rag’n’Bone Man, Richard Ashcroft, Sparks and Hans Zimmer.
Four Seasons founder and owner Malcolm Farrey says the quality of its service and buses, coupled with the friendliness of the drivers, are key to it securing repeat business.
“We have worked with Ed Sheeran for the last five years and see a lot of customer loyalty,” he says. “They respect the fact we have top-end vehicles and drivers, and whatever they want we will provide.”
Based in the Scottish Borders, the family-run business has a fleet of six Mercedes Setra double-deckers, with a new bus expected to arrive from Germany shortly.
On receipt of a new vehicle, the company typically spends three-and-a-half months transforming it into a fully-equipped, luxury tour bus.
“The buses are around 14 metres long and can sleep up to 16,” says Farrey. “Upstairs there is a lounge which can be configured into a private bedroom with a king-size bed. We use wood, chrome and leather finishes and state-of-the-art entertainment systems to make sure our clients have a comfortable and attractive environment.”
One of Europe’s biggest operators is Beat The Street (BTS), which is headquartered in Austria and has been in operation since 1992.
With two offices in the UK, BTS clients include U2, Madonna, One Direction and Foo Fighters. It boasts a fleet of more than 50 buses including single, super-high and double-decker sleeper coaches exclusive to the entertainment industry.
“Our purpose-built star buses are particularly popular, we have even managed to persuade a few artistes out of their limos and charter jets,” says BTS’s Tim Fortnam-King, who oversees the UK operation.
He says that meeting the high expectations of touring talent is nowhere near as challenging as negotiating a path through the bureaucratic legislation covering issues such as emissions and employment regulations throughout Europe.
“Despite the talk of European-wide freedom of movement, there are certain countries that impose their own rules nationally or at least demand paperwork for each driver,” explains Fortnam-King. “That does make it very difficult and time consuming when working on pan-European tours.”
With Wi-Fi increasingly in demand, BTS is fitting its fleet with a system that will work throughout Europe.
“This is by no means a small feat considering each country across Europe has its own separate providers and signal strength issues,” says Fortnam-King.
Other investment includes the purchase of new “top of the range” buses this year, but aside from offering the latest comforts and technology on board, a key factor that drives customer loyalty, as well as the bus, is a friendly and professional driver.
“We have a solid core of drivers who get requested by artistes and production time and time again,” he says. “Being able to seamlessly slot into an already established touring team requires certain personal skills, along with their driving abilities.”
A division of BTS for several years, Phoenix Bussing has been transporting artistes in style since 1988, with clients including Alice Cooper, Take That, Arctic Monkeys, Fleet Foxes, Paloma Faith and The Killers.
When Phoenix started operating it had four single-decker buses that had been built by the founding members in a tiny garage in the middle of the New Forest. The vehicles offered the latest technology, at the time, including 12-inch TVs, cassette players and VHS machines.
Not surprisngly, the company has come a long way since 1988 and recently began trialing a new film and music streaming system, that enables passengers to stream movies to their iOS and Android mobile devices anywhere in the vehicle. It also allows users to wirelessly push music from their devices to the sound systems in the lounge areas.
Phoenix was acquired by BTS in 2011 but it is run as a separate entity, with a fleet of 31 14-metre-long double-deckers.
Between Phoenix and BTS, the companies have ordered 20 new Setra series 5 buses that they expect to have fitted-out and added to the fleets by 2019.
“Setra buses are very reliable and the company provides an excellent back-up service to our 90 vehicles, across the two fleets,” says Phoenix operations manager Paul Hattin. “The kind of business we are in, if something happens on the road it has to be dealt with very quickly, so that kind of support is vital.”
As well as offering the latest on-the-road comfort and design, the buses will all meet the new Euro 6 emissions standards. Hattin says an increasing number of cities throughout Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, penalise operators of vehicles that are not Euro 6 compliant.
“There is talk that London will be completely Euro 6 by 2019 and if your vehicle is not Euro 6, you will have to pay £200 for every day you are there,” he says. “So, if for example, you don’t load out and get away from Hammersmith until 1am, you are going to be hit with another £200 charge.”
Launched in May 2016 by Horizon Entertainment Cargo, CSUK comprises four industry veterans from across the spectrum of touring and entertainment services – Jonnie Lewis, Douglas Hamnett, Phil McDonnell and Clemens Behle.
McDonnell, who has been driving buses in the music industry for nearly 45 years, oversees operations at CSUK.
The company’s fleet of 10 double-decker Setra 431DT buses come in a number of different interior formats and sleeping capacities, up to 16 beds, with lounges and suites created on the upper deck. All have Euro 6 engines.
“For us, there are no problems,” says Hamnett. “Other companies, operating older vehicles, will have to deal with local city emission standards, resulting in daily penalty charges. The real headache is for the people standing next to an old bus, and breathing in the emissions.”
While the EU emissions legislation and rules covering issues such as the frequency of driver breaks have caused frustration in some quarters, the impact of Brexit can only be speculated.
Hamnett hopes common-sense will prevail. “Already the diminishing value of the pound has led to a significant rise in fuel costs, road tolls and taxes,” he says. “It’s difficult to believe that touring in Europe won’t become more difficult for all service industries.
“We have a generation of people who only know it as it is. But for those of us who came into this a long time ago, we know full well all the inconveniences of yester-year.”
Vans for Bands (VFB) has been operating since 2006 and has a fleet of 50 vehicles that includes Mercedes-Benz Sprinter splitters and eight sleeper coaches, with the fleet divided between its London Heathrow office and Oxford premises.
The company operates around 100 separate tours per month and recent clients include Elbow, Blossoms and Frank Turner.
VFB director Tarrant Anderson says his main concern about Brexit is whether, as a result, it becomes less attractive to start and/or end tours in the UK – which at present a lot of American and Canadian artistes choose to do.
When it comes to attracting repeat business, Anderson says that it is not simply the quality of the vehicles that help drive it, but also the drivers.
“We have artistes who come back again and again just to have the same person drive them,” he says. “We look for people who are highly skilled, safe public service vehicle drivers, who have good people skills and who are bus proud.
“But driving is only part of the job. Maintaining the bus in good order and keeping the artistes happy is also a huge part of it.”
While it can be a challenge to explain EU regulations, governing driver break periods to American artistes who are new to the continent, all leading UK bus operators are well practiced at ensuring they are met.
However, issues can arise if sudden changes are made to a tour itinerary.
“Occasionally it can be a headache when an itinerary changes at the last minute and you need to find a driver at 6pm on a Friday afternoon to fly out to the continent at no notice. But in general, as long as you plan properly in advance, they are not an issue,” says Anderson.
When it comes to the facilities inside the vehicles, Anderson says top of the list for touring acts are good quality air-conditioning, plenty of space, cleanliness and a high-quality aesthetic. He has found clients consider comfort to be far more important than gadgets.
For fledgling acts hitting the road for the first time, a bus equipped with a double-bed and ensuite bathroom is clearly out of reach. The key concern for new acts is the cost involved.
Glasgow-based Bandrunner Tour Services, in partnership with Stagehire, provides buses for acts including Olly Murs, Big Country, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Ghostface Killah.
The company primarily offers splitter vans, with a fleet of 35, ranging from budget to luxury, and can also provide large tour buses.
Bandrunner’s standard splitter vans seat eight passengers with rear storage for the usual backline equipment.
The company is run by director Scott Fury, who says that due to the relatively small size of the splitter vans, artistes are in close proximity to the drivers, who therefore need a resilient and upbeat attitude.
“Bands definitely want a familiar face and someone who they know is reliable to drive them, and it’s surprising how many people are not good at time-keeping,” says Fury. “As a driver you can’t afford to have too fragile an ego – quite often you are driving a bunch of really smart drunks who focus their pent up energy on the driver.”
Fury has been in the business for 20 years and worked extensively as a driver and an issue that he feels particularly passionate about is the knock-on effect of the increasingly stringent EU emissions regulations on fledgling acts.
“Emissions laws in some cities mean vans have to be brand new or fitted with a very expensive filter,” he says. “That is an issue for some of the smaller bands, as brand new splitter vans are financially out of their reach. It means that those young acts are effectively excluded from certain cities or countries.”
However, ambitious rock ‘n’ roll artistes will always find a way to get to the next show … it’s that or give up.