Charlottetown is the capital and largest city in Prince Edward Island (PEI). It has a population of roughly 32,000 and is about 26 1/2 square miles. Located on the south shore of PEI, it is bordered by the Hillsborough River, the North River and the Charlottetown Harbor. With a high number of students and growing tourism industry, the community was facing increased traffic congestion and a shortage of downtown parking.
Though it has had a taxi fleet, a city-subsidized bus service for seniors, and door-to-door service for persons with disabilities, PEI was the only province without a formal public transit system. The city council became focused on the importance of a public transit system and began to look for a cost-effective alternative to private transportation services, providing a system that would service a variety of markets.
In 2003 the city issued a request for proposal to contract for a transit system. Trius Tours Ltd., a private motorcoach company, won the bid and met that challenge.
I spoke with Michael Cassidy, owner of Trius Tours Ltd. and Trius Transit Inc., operating under the name of Charlottetown Transit System, to learn what a motorcoach company brought to the public transportation table.
Getting into Transportation
Trius Tours has been based out of Charlottetown since 1986. Cassidy explains, “We do charter motorcoach work in the province of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island and run trips into the states, down into Florida, and to Ontario and Quebec.”
Cassidy purchased Trius Tours in April 2005. “I was a real estate developer with the inland Great George, a beautiful heritage development in downtown Charlottetown.” The Great George is a cluster of 13 heritage buildings located in the historic district in downtown Charlottetown; a swank property affording guests an experience with rich history and personality. During this time, it was a contract that connected Cassidy with Trius Tours.
In 1997 the Confederation Bridge, the longest bridge over ice-covered waters, was built, connecting New Brunswick and PEI. Cassidy was awarded a contract for Confederation Bridge fabrication yard tours. He went to George Brookins, owner of Trius Tours, because he needed buses to do the tours.
“In February of ’05 I had my son at a hockey rink in the country here in Prince Edward Island. I pulled into this country rink and there was George Brookins backing a bus in,” he recalls. “George Brookins would have been about 66/67 at that time. I went over to him and I said, ‘George, you’re still driving a bus.’
“‘Yes Mike, I think it’s getting close to time that maybe I should be thinking about selling,’” he remembers Brookins saying. “And this was a Friday night. And I said, ‘George, I’d love to talk to you about Trius Tours,’ and Monday morning — three days later — I had, I’ll call it an agreement in principle to purchase.
“And he stayed on. He’s 70 years old and he is still with us, he is our sales,” Cassidy mentions of Brookins. And as he explains, it’s very fitting. “He tried transit on behalf of the city years ago. He was a believer in transportation, he was the first man to bring a bus to Prince Edward Island in 1986 and together we have Trius Tours, in a sense, and we have the transit.”
Bringing public transportation to Prince Edward Island
Cassidy explains to me what the city was looking for. “The city of Charlottetown said, ‘let’s get four buses, four routes and we can afford to subsidize that amount of activity for frequency and coverage within our city.’
“So I set out with them, I put in a private public partnership arrangement in my proposal. We organized. We developed four routes. We ordered four buses.” Regarding the proposal he says, “We came to them with marketing, we came to them with a turnkey operation. I had the motorcaoch, I had all the mechanics; I had the repair shop.”
Assured of the operations, Cassidy proposed the decreasing subsidy telling the city, “I feel so strongly that transit will work, I will guarantee you that each and every year your subsidy will decline and that will force me — the operator — to work very hard at marketing and customer service.” As an example he points to tweaking the routes. “Nobody is right for every route that you start. There is always monitoring, evaluation and tweaking.
“I gave them a one-year declining balance in the subsidy for the city of Charlottetown and at the end of the fifth year we froze the subsidy, and it would increase for the next 25 years in cost of living allowance.” He continues, “He says the city said, ‘Well Trius Tours, it’s a pretty hard proposal to turn down.’” The second or third month they were excited to get 3,000 passenger fares and now they’re nearly 16,000 a month.
Today it has grown to six routes, five of them running 12 hours, Monday through Saturday, and one having extended hours, running for 16 hours. And it continues to grow. “We have a municipality next door to the city of Charlottetown, the community of Stratford. They are joining us September of this year with two routes,” Cassidy says.
Fitting in a Community
Selling the community on a new service took a lot of planning. One primary starting point was the vehicles themselves. “I wanted to make sure our buses were unique and different to the marketplace appreciating the fact that we never had transit before,” Cassidy stresses. “I weighed heavily on a marketing program and my marketing program was born of an image and I went with the trolley style.
“We purchased Blue Bird buses and Thomas Dennis buses and I had Dupont Trolley of Quebec city put a false copula on top of the bus.” He describes further, “We put a brand new trolley front, trolley back and I painted them yellow over blue and cream over blue and cream over red and all different colors so I’ve got this trolley look in the city of Charlottetown.
“We just thought it was so unique for our streetscape in Charlottetown. Rather than having 40-foot transit buses, to have our 30-foot bus. Smaller, cuter one could say, and with the trolley look it was a hit.” He adds, “Not only with the residents, but it was a hit in our first summer of operations with the tourists. They all wanted to jump on the trolley.”
It is more than simply the vehicles appearance, of course, it has taken a well-thought-out marketing plan. Cassidy comments, “It is so hard for people to give up their vehicles and in transit, your biggest challenge would be marketing.” He says it requires daily education. “The education that we are a very quick, affordable service for your transportation needs, whether you’re a student, whether you are going shopping or whether you’re a working commuter. Transit can provide a very good, reliable service.” He adds, “Leave your vehicles at home or sell them.”
A Little Friendly Competition
When asked what he attributes the ridership success to, Cassidy starts with, “We have good routes.” But then he goes on to explain several marketing initiatives done at Charlottetown Transit to get people on board. One program targeted a local school’s band class.
“We’ve gone to the junior high’s music program and they are always trying to raise money for their band and their music trips,” he explains. “We had an incentive.” The band class would meet every Monday at seven o’clock and Charlottetown Transit System had a route going to the school, through a residential area where many students lived.
“If you could get 40 students on the bus, I will give you $100 and the next Monday, get 41 or better on; I will give you another hundred. The next Monday, if you get 42 or better, up another hundred up to $500,” he says. “With an incentive going, you know what? We packed the students on.” He adds, “We treated it as a competition and it was just terrific how that can raise your profile and raise your ridership.”
One program they are looking at for the fall is “TTT.”
“Take the Trolleys Tuesdays,” Cassidy says. “You have your casual Friday dress; we stole that from the casual Fridays. We have TTT — Take the Trolleys Tuesdays.
“We’re going to go out to the telephone company and we’re going to say, ‘All right, there is the electric company and the telephone company, we think the telephone company can get more employees on the trolley for Tuesday next week than the electric company could and we are going to have a competition.’” He continues, “We’re going to start to get this competition, to get people to take the trolley and to say if you don’t want to take the trolley five days a week, just do a little.” He adds, “We could have buttons made up, TTT buttons — Take the Trolleys Tuesday — just like casual days.”
Providing for Private and Public
Cassidy attributes the success of running Charlottetown Transit System from the standpoint of a private operator, “The entrepreneurial nature that we are bringing.” He pauses a moment, and relates a story that illustrates this. “I can remember, oh my goodness, that first day we were going to start our route.” He continues, “On September 30, oh my, it might have been six o’clock in the evening, and I looked across. We were coming in this mall area where the route was. My entrepreneurship class at the university was selling hot dogs as a fundraiser and I told the bus driver to stop.
“I had two ladies and two children on board and I asked, ‘Would you like a hot dog?’ And they looked at me, they said, ‘We would love to have a hot dog.’ I asked, ‘What would you like on it?’
“I had the bus driver stop and I got six hot dogs — four for my customers, one for my driver and one for myself.” He asks, “Do you know what? Those ladies never forgot that.” He reiterates, “It’s that down-home style of marketing and entrepreneurism to make sure you drive your ridership.”
Of transit, Cassidy stresses, “The transit system is heavy, heavy in maintenance. Maintenance has to be a top priority.” He says, “Customer service for the drivers is very, very important, but reliable equipment that can go out of our terminal each and every morning at 6:30 is paramount and the only way you can have that is with a good maintenance program.” He adds, “Thank goodness I could rely on my maintenance program of the motorcoaches. I would hate to ever start this business just as transit, brand new.”
He quickly adds, “And understanding transportation, understanding logistics, understanding the customer is No. 1 and how important customer service is, that’s what you can bring from the motorcoach business.” He says, “Motorcoach is reliable, modern equipment with good customer service.”
He maintains that transportation is like any other business venture. “You have to be passionate, you have to believe in your dream and even though there are naysayers no matter what you do, you have to stay positive and you have to make sure your staff is positive.”
“It’s one customer at a time and you have to get so excited if you get one new customer because guess what? We’re going to get a new customer again tomorrow and we’re going to build the business.”
More Related Information:
Archived Article: Manager’s Forum — Community Involvement
Archived Article: Marketing Transit