The Trouble with the Double-decker Busses

July 4, 2015

 

For the last five years, I have worked as a tour guide for the major sightseeing company in New York City.  While I find that there is a certain role that the double-decker busses play in facilitating the touring of New York City sights and neighborhoods, by all means, it is not the only way of touring.  I will argue that the best way to gain a fulfilling understanding of America's largest city ought to be to patronize somewhere else than the double-decker companies.   

 

First of all, there are some things that the double-decker companies do right.  They employ many New Yorkers who otherwise might not have a job.  They drive a route that would give a half decent tour guide the ability to provide a good overview of the city.  Of course, the customer would need to be lucky to be on said tour guide's bus in the first place.  

Further, the ticket price is rather reasonable given the purported services rendered: Fifty-nine dollars for a forty-eight hour period of travelling on the double-decker bus' five routes and sightseeing cruises.  Those are some the positives.  Now here are the negatives: 

 

These days it is emblematic of the standards of the service industry in America--it's putting the customer further away from the center of attention in services being rendered.  Whether it's the quality of the busses, the lack of organization, the overworked employees who provide lackluster customer service or the user-unfriendly maps inside of the brochures, paying customers to the double-decker companies have their work cut out for them on what is supposed to be a pleasant leisure time spent on their vacations.  

 

Take for instance the busses.  The division of busses I work on are rigged busses what are called "hybrids".   They were never intended to be used as double-decker busses but instead were likely city busses in some municipality in the U.S. when they were new.  They were bought on the cheap, had their roofs cut open and the open top filled with seats installed.  

 

Some are double-deckers but actually most of the rigged busses are "open tops" with no "downstairs" for customers to sit down if the weather is inclement.  There's rarely working air conditioning in the summer, rarely any heat in the winter months.  The seats often are dirty along with the floor and the guardrails.  Simply, this is a nice ride spoiled.   

 

There's the condition of the busses.  They are being neglected.   The majority of busses have no working air conditioners--even in the driver's cabins!  The audio system that the city mandated often are fraught with probems due to the overheating of the busses or loose wiring.  Essentially the companies got what they paid for by hiring cheap labor to wire the busses.  The audio often malfunctions during the tour and need to be serviced in order to function properly.    

 

Hot days will see an increase in the number of busses that are pulled over at the side of the road with their hazzard lights on.  They often overheat, their engines lacking water, and require the roving mechanic to analyze the problem.   I have even been on two busses that tip over to the side the way a boat my tip to one side when on water.  

 

From the problems inside the bus, we move to the problem on top of the bus, the tour guides.  The tour guides themselves are often not skilled enough to present informative tours in a clear and cogent manner and provide courteous customer service.  Because the companies' cut corners including the tour guides wages, they often hire people who lack professional skills.  In this case, while they have a tour guide license issued by the city, the guides have a hard time presenting information in a clear and comprehensive manner to a paying audience.  

I often hear from the other customers that many busses they rode on that the tour guides weren't intelligible.  "They couldn't be understood." That their "accents were too thick and we didn't understand a word."  Some were put off by the tour guides "schtick" meaning they were just entertaining on board and not providing accurate or historical narration.  Many of the tour guides are rude, discourteous and offer little to no help to the tourists when asked.  To be fair, sometimes the tour guides are overwhelmed by the amount of questions the tourists invariably ask and it's understandable that tour guides can be curt, yet they should be able to answer questions in a politeful tone most times one would think.  

 

And then there's the brochures or the "maps" as the tourists call them.  There's so much information (and disinformation), it overwhelms most of the tourists.  There is a lot of fine print including the schedules that aren't being read thus there is very often confusion as to what bus leaves when and so on.  Moreover, there is information that the tourist has no way of knowing because it is not indicated on the brochure.  For instance, one of my bus routes gets to a certain point (Battery Park) and instead of going up the east side as the brochure indicates, it goes up the west side, express back to Times Square.  Those foreign tourists who aren't listening to the live narration in English would have no knowledge of this and due to their ignorance would be stuck on the bus going to a place they had no interest in going.  Further, since there are multiple origin points on the downtown tour loop, busses don't stop at every stop so a customer wishing to get off at their particular starting point, much to their surprise, won't be able to.     

 

This all leads to mass confusion and many questions that arise sometimes in the middle of the tour.  The customers will rudely and selfishly interrupt the tour guide during their narration just to ask a question.  

 

So there are many problems fraught with the double decker services but probably no bigger problem exists than the leadership, the management and the corporate ownership.   For it's the near-sighted decisions at the top that cause so many problems at the bottom--on the street. In this day and age of declining wages and benefits and of weakening unions, corporate greed can excaberate many of the above problems outlined.  The corporate mentality of increasing profit margin has weakened this industry.  The lack of spending on human resources--the training of the guides and drivers, the complacency for less and intentionally placing substandard equipment on the marketplace collectively fleeces consumers looking for a nice return on their investment.  You can conclude from the behavior of the owners of the double-decker companies that there is a serious lack of ethics at hand.  

 

Presumably, the owners know a dirty little secret that the customers would never take into account. That is that there are no "repeat customers" in the tourism market.   Think about it for a moment. Most of the tourists who arrive have flown in from somewhere in the world, checked into their hotel rooms, stay for five days as tourists, and then fly back to their native areas and never return again. This fact makes it a disincentive to really follow up with an aggrievement such as poor services rendered, faulty equipment, misinformation, rude service and so on.  Yet another reason not to invest in your product and service if you are the owners.  

 

Fortunately for the New York tourist market there are alternatives.  There are many licensed professional tour guides who offer dynamic tours.  They are ethical practioners of their trade that give upfront information about their costs and what services they offer.  These tours are conducted in a number of modalities including walking, busses, bicycle, boat, helicopter and subway.  Some are event-oriented such as pub crawls, food tours, scavenger hunts or business retreats or getaways.  

 

These are small businesses who in most cases only have a few employees if any at all.  The overhead is low.  They are personable, are more consumer-focused and in many cases are looking to burst on the scene as major players in the burgeoning tourism industry.  They innovate, create and offer services that are novel and exciting to the visitor and/or tourist.  

 

A time honored tradition in America is competition within the marketplace. Monopolies are decidedly un-American.  The double-decker industry, until recently, was a de facto monopoly.  This creates a climate of declining quality of services, a severe lack of innovation and novelty and drives down wages of employees causing lackluster service.  It's a losing proposition.

 

What the tourism industry in New York City needs is a competitive vibrant marketplace that let's startups and small business compete with the larger companies.  The startups are creative, fill market niche and put the consumer at the center of the business relationship.  The double-decker companies rarely if ever do that. 

 

 

 

 

 

  

  

 

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