Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 29, 2013

Party bus drivers are ambassadors behind wheel

BY NATHAN PAYNE npayne@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — John O’Brien is the life if the party, especially when the party is on one of his buses.

The 57-year-old owner of Celtic Transport and Logistics was in his element the moment riders began to board his party bus after filing out of a downtown bar destined for a recent Friday libation tour. He swept snow and debris from the floor near the door of his 31-passenger tour rig and rattled off jokes in the Irish-accented character he mastered years ago.

But O’Brien isn’t just a happy minstrel, he’s one of a few savvy business owners who have worked hard to create a niche industry in the region that cashes in on several facets of a thriving tourism industry.

Now it’s the slow season for the party bus industry, but there still are a plenty of people who call the company to book special tours. They aren’t the constant flow of patrons looking for a professional designated driver to move groups from winery to winery, or the wedding parties looking for safe rides home for everybody.

Rather, winter bookings for tour companies in northwest lower Michigan are to take people home from company holiday parties and for the occasional round of bar hopping in style for a large group of friends, O’Brien said.

Still O’Brien drivers are ambassadors for the region every time they take a seat behind the wheel.

His company was one of only three serving the area when he started with one used bus and one driver in 2005. Today there are more than a dozen companies that operate in the region with buses and large vans decked out with TVs and lounge seating.

It’s an industry that likely would thrive in a tourist-rich destination like the Grand Traverse region, but has grown precipitously while wine country tourism has expanded.

“I started running the bars downtown,” O’Brien said of his company’s origins. “The party continued, and from there it grew into more of what you see in the industry now. It grew into the weddings, the wine tours. Traverse City is extremely unique. I’ve been to almost every state in the U.S., and I can’t think of a place that has fostered the growth in the industry like Traverse City has.”

What began with one bus shuttling partiers safely home from downtown bars has now grown into a fleet of tour buses and about a dozen drivers during the peak season, O’Brien said.

Between May and the end of November, there won’t be a Saturday when his buses aren’t booked with tours or wedding business.

Chris Lopez, tasting room manager for Black Star Farms’ Suttons Bay location, has interacted with the bus companies both as a passenger and as someone working with them on a daily basis.

“Boy you can barely throw a rock some days without hitting a shuttle,” he said, of the busiest October days when the winery will be visited by more than a dozen bus loads of wine tourists. “I think the shuttle companies, a lot of them, wouldn’t be doing this if the wineries weren’t around. There are definitely days when most of the people in here are from the shuttle companies.”

But it wasn’t always that way.

O’Brien, a one-time director of transportation for a West Coast chemical company, got the idea to start a shuttle company during a 1995 trip to Ireland. But it didn’t come to fruition until he moved home to Traverse City years later.

Ireland’s strict drunken driving laws make party buses and shuttles a popular option.

“At that point we had the highest DUI rate of any county in Michigan,” O’Brien said. “People used to say ‘Come to Traverse City on vacation and leave on probation.’ My generation, we didn’t really think twice about having four beers and driving home. This new generation is not taking the chances my generation took.”

Somewhere along the way attitudes about drunken driving began to change, and opened a door for a business opportunity.

“All of that combines into a much more responsible outlook to drinking and driving,” he added. “A lot of what we do up here is associated with having a good time.”

While the number of wineries in the region grew, so too did the party bus industry.

“When we started there were 17 wineries, now we’re tapping on the 40th door,” he said.

The boom has helped O’Brien grow his fleet to several mid-sized tour buses, a large tour bus, a trolley and a few smaller vehicles. But with growth came growing pains.

Both O’Brien and Lopez have noticed tour operators crop up who operate in the margins, ones who don’t necessarily have all of the licenses or insurance required to run party buses and wine tours.

Because of the size of his vehicles and to be allowed to let riders consume alcohol on board, O’Brien must have drivers with commercial licenses and his vehicles must past department of transportation inspections. He also must pay about $22,000 in insurance, he said.

“I think a lot of times, you have guys trying to cash in,” Lopez said. “I think in the next couple of years, we might see a shakeout with some of the marginal players.”

Wineries have begun to recognize which companies deliver guests who are as interested in learning about wine as they are in drinking it. The best ones try to usher their passengers through the whole experience, Lopez said.

“If each of us aren’t an ambassador to the area, people aren’t going to come back,” O’Brien said.