Several weeks later, MCTS teams up with another radio station that puts on a Christmas Day Family Feast at Milwaukee’s convention center. More than 3,000 needy families get to enjoy a holiday meal with all the trimmings, and MCTS provides free ride coupons to those attending. “The station gives us a lot of promotional mention, which well exceeds the cost of providing the rides,” Janz says.
Providing Safe Rides
Free ride promotions related to certain holidays can be found throughout the country. In the Twin Cities, last St. Patrick’s Day — a Saturday — saw 86,000 free rides made on Metro Transit from 3:00 p.m. to the end of regular service. Spokesman Bob Gibbons explained that number is about 40 percent more riders than the previous Saturday. The program, which is sponsored by the Miller Brewing Co., has been held each of the last 10 years.
“It was a tough sell early on,” says Gibbons, referring to potential security and related problems. “But behavior problems on our vehicles have been minimal and no worse than any other time.” He stated that the program is now endorsed by nearly every prominent law enforcement agency and key elected officials. “Publicity is great every year. It was heavier when the free rides program was new, but has stayed at a high level,” he notes.
One of the longest standing free ride programs is held in Milwaukee on New Year’s Eve. It started as a highway safety program in 1977 and was funded by a state DOT grant. In 1987, the Miller Brewing Co., which is headquartered in Milwaukee, became the exclusive sponsor of the event and picks up the cost of the free rides and about 120 hours of extended schedules on 13 MCTS routes. These routes provide 30-minute service from the time normal schedules end, about 1:00 a.m., until 4:00 a.m. the morning of New Year’s Day. “Anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 free rides are taken on MCTS that night,” says Janz. “That’s easily four or five times more rides than normal.”
The event is now called “Miller Free Rides” and Miller takes the lead publicizing it. There is broad support from local broadcast and print media, and Miller provides a special Web site and toll free telephone information number. According to Janz, “The timing is great because the news media is looking for things to cover during a time when there’s usually not a lot of news being generated.”
With this being its 20th year as sponsor, Miller plans to do special promotions that will include paid TV advertising featuring Wendel, the delivery man seen in the popular Miller High Life commercials. Miller is also sponsoring free New Year’s Eve bus rides in Madison and Waukesha (Wis.).
All these holiday promotions have similar characteristics in that they provide opportunities for transit systems to introduce their services to many non-riders, they are opportunities to create lasting partnerships, they earn lots of positive media coverage, they often help people in some way and they help the transit systems give something back to the communities that support them.
From coast to coast and border to border, it’s evident that transit has found a way to become part of just about every holiday we celebrate, and that in itself is something to celebrate.
Joe Caruso is senior consultant for Brecon Hill Consulting, a strategic marketing consulting firm. He was the marketing director for the Milwaukee County Transit System and has spent nearly 33 years working in the transit industry.