News Column

Greyhound Remakes Itself for Millenials

July 14, 2014

By Charisse Jones, @charissejones, USA TODAY

This year marks Greyhound's 100th anniversary, but instead of solely looking back, the bus line is in the midst of a makeover it hopes will appeal to the most modern of Millennial travelers.

"This isn't your grandma's Greyhound," says David Leach, who rose from working as a baggage handler to become Greyhound's president and CEO. "It's the remaking of an iconic brand."

The Dallas-based company offers free Wi-Fi on much of its upgraded fleet, has sped up the ride with more non-stop routes and is rolling out mobile apps for more convenient booking. A new ad campaign that debuted in some movie theaters July 4 trumpets the company's glossy upgrade: A mythical rock band expounds on the extra legroom as fellow riders tap into the coach's complimentary Internet.

Still, the new Greyhound may continue to be a hard sell to some older travelers for whom the bus line conjures images of seedy depots, a slow crawl from one small town to the next, and passengers who are onboard only because they can't afford a more comfortable mode of travel.

"Greyhound's reputation took a turn for the worse, but it's climbing its way back," says Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

Greyhound, which ferries roughly 18 million passengers a year, says its ridership is more affluent and educated than some may think. Almost 32% of Greyhound passengers earn more than $35,000 annually, the company says. Roughly 15% of Greyhound's riders travel for business, up from 9% in 2012.

"In today's economy, customers of all income levels are simply looking for ways to get more bang for their buck, and bus travel is one of the safest, most convenient and affordable modes of transportation," Leach says.

Among travelers 35 and younger, Greyhound is a popular way to ride, making travel easy.

"I think one of the big advantages Greyhound has is frequency of service (and) for Millennials, it's about convenience," says Polina Raygorodskaya, CEO of Wanderu, a booking site for bus and train travel that launched last summer. "Greyhound has been really successful in our searches. ... I think the fact they have Wi-Fi and power outlets and all those frequencies has created this really positive perception of Greyhound among the Millennials."

Greyhound's makeover started nine years ago when the company decided to revamp its sprawling network, paring down the number of stops on particular routes. In December 2010, it launched Greyhound Express which offers direct trips, or limited stops, between major cities, and now connects 930 city pairs.

The company has spent the past few years upgrading its fleet. It plans for more than 90% of its coaches to be either brand new or refurbished by the end of this summer, including leather seats, power outlets and free Wi-Fi.

It has seen major changes, starting as Mesaba Transportation in Hibbing, Minn., on May 9, 1914, carrying miners. Greyhound went on to dominate long-distance bus travel, playing a small role in history as it ferried soldiers during World War II and transported Freedom Riders headed south in the battle for civil rights.

Greyhound buses remained a vital, popular transportation choice through the mid-'60s, Schwieterman says. Women, traveling alone, were a significant segment of those on board.

A confluence of factors began to marginalize intercity bus travel. "The downtowns of cities and the intercity bus system declined in tandem," Schwieterman says. "The bus stations were often in what became dicey neighborhoods. The clientele shifted, and low-cost air travel became abundant amid airline deregulation. So suddenly, there weren't that many reasons to ride."

Now, some travelers find air travel tedious, Schwieterman says, so Greyhound has begun to seize a new opportunity. In addition to fast service, Greyhound terminals have plasma TVs to make the wait more pleasant.

The company has built eco-friendly facilities, and Greyhound's next area of focus is boosting its technology offerings, Leach says, such as a mobile app and a new entertainment system.

Leach is confident: "Run a bus on time, with what people want in it. Go when they want to go and exceed the expectations, and you should ... win all day long."

Source: Copyright 2014 USA TODAY

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