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.