Wichita Bus Tour Company Welcomes The Return Of Summer Travelers
Summer vacation is back.
After the pandemic canceled most plans last year, AAA says the rising COVID-19 vaccination rate and relaxed health guidelines are fueling a surge in travel bookings.
The organization's latest annual summer travel forecast projects more than 37 million people nationwide are expected to travel 50 miles or more from home starting May 27 through May 31, an increase of 60% from last year, when only 23 million traveled.
The West North Central region, which includes Kansas, will see about three million people taking Memorial Day week trips, a 56% percent increase over travelers in 2020, but still less than the region’s Memorial Day travelers in 2019.
“They’ve spent a year dreaming about travel, getting inspiration to travel so they are now fully engaged and wanting to book travel,” says Micki Dudas, AAA director of leisure travel sales.
Village Travel in Wichita is already seeing signs of a rebound.
The company resumed bus tours in April on a limited basis. One excursion took about 40 people on a three-night visit to the casinos in Council Bluff, Iowa. This was only the second bus tour from Village Travel to go out this year.
“We didn’t run very many tours last year,” said Jeff Arensdorf, Village Travel’s owner. “But when we did, we capped capacity at 65%. This summer, we’re going to go back to full capacity.”
Arensdorf said the company held off releasing a tour catalog until April because it wanted to make sure there was momentum for travel. When the trips went public, some sold out quickly, so more dates for those tours were added. Only a few trips are offered for May and June, with more options available in late summer and fall.
“The tour lineup that we put out was kind of a 'bucket list,' a lot of national parks and tours that have been solid for us over the years. So we didn’t offer as big of variety,” Arensdorf said.
Village Travel has its corporate offices in northwest Wichita and departs group tours from the home office, as well as from Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
Charter trips depart from across the nation. Village Travel has mechanic shops in Salina, Springfield, Missouri; Fort Smith, Arkansas; and Springdale, Arkansas.
A typical tour or charter bus has 56 seats. Village Travel normally plans about 220 group tours each year and operates more than 140 motorcoaches.
The company has grown over the years to include entertainer coach leasings, scheduled line routes and traditional travel agency services.
The pandemic devastated the 40-year-old travel company: Group tours were cancelled or postponed. Venues closed, so musicians cancelled tours and no longer needed to lease an entertainer coach. The need for charter services declined.
“It hit us like nothing has ever hit us before,” Arensdorf said. “I’ve always thought we had a pretty diverse company, and we are with regards to transportations, but it’s pretty reliant on groups.
"And when the groups all shut down, then our business was shutting down too."
Village Travel’s charter bus service brings in the most revenue. Buses transport sports teams, military groups, church groups and corporations across the country. That business resumed in earnest earlier this year, before group bus tours.
Arensdorf is hopeful the anticipated demand for summer travel will resurrect the tours.
“We’re going to have a summer travel season that’s maybe 50% or 60% of what a normal summer travel season is, but then I think the fall is going to ramp to where we will be bouncing on 90% of what normal is for our business,” Arensdorf says.
Village Travel employed about 115 people before the pandemic. It has about 80 employees now. Driver Jesse Stephens is happy to get back on the road, even with new pandemic protocols.
“I don’t get close to people near as much as I used to. Stay away when I drive," he said. "I stay up front and they stay behind me and back. It hasn’t been a huge problem but it has changed some."
Arensdorf made a strategic pivot during the early months of the pandemic that helped keep bus drivers working. A staffing agency contacted Village Travel with a request for buses to transport traveling nurses in New York City. The company sent eight buses in March to take nurses from hotels to hospitals. By the end of the assignment in June, Village Travel had dispatched 32 buses.
Village Travel continued to work with the staffing agency for a similar assignment in Texas. Arensdorf says the company had more than 90 buses in 28 communities, helping nurses get to their hospital shifts.
“We had a bad year last year, but that really helped us weather this much better than a lot of other people in the industry,” Arensdorf says. “We were very fortunate to have that.”
The pandemic also brought a new trucking division that helped fill the void in the transportation industry when Amazon deliveries skyrocketed.
Arensdorf says it was another way to keep his drivers working. He expects the division to grow in the future, as trucks are used with entertainer coaches to haul band/stage equipment.
For now, Arensdorf is counting on the return of travelers and groups needing transportation to get his business back to 2019 levels.