Understanding Your First Bus Tour - article from Billy Reed, Tour Manager 

I saw this article that Billy Reed, Tour Manager wrote on a blog. Billy has worked with some of the best artists in the world and shared the preperation and realities of the road in the music world. I bet you did not know how it all works, just to get the artists, band and crew to the show. Billy Reed has a blog on his site www.needforreed.com  

Being in the role of tour manager on your first bus tour can be a bit nerve-wracking. You've been rumbling around in some type of 15 passenger long form torture device for what feels like an eternity, dreaming about what it might be like to travel via bus, when suddenly the day finally presents itself and it sinks in that "I have no idea what I'm doing." Fear not my blissful practitioner of ignorance, we have all been there.

Adding some navigation here for easy access to what is being covered:

Long before the tour ever begins, dates are discussed with the booking agent, artist, and management. You want your team to give you a long enough lead time that you are able to source coaches for your needs. It is not uncommon to source a bus for a summer tour the winter prior. Coaches, along with drivers, are in high demand and increasingly difficult to come by.

Coaches come in all different shapes and sizes and based on the needs of the group you will have to decide what's going to be the best fit for your traveling party. Generally speaking, coaches have a front lounge, a toilet (no solids), small kitchen area, 12 bunks, and a back lounge. Some will have front slides and rear slides that expand the available real estate, but as with most things, increasing the bells and whistles will increase the cost of the bus lease.

What Bus Company Should I Work With?

Deciding who to work with can be challenging if you haven't worked with a company before. Does the company communicate well? Is their communication timely? Is the company based on the east coast or west coast? Is the price right? How many coaches do they have in their fleet? What have others experience been? How will they be able to help you when a breakdown occurs? Do they assign drivers with enough lead time? These are all things to keep in mind. I can assure you it is no fun when you are on the side of the road and the owner of the company isn't returning your calls.

Understanding Elements of a Bus Quote

Below I've outlined some of the key terms you are likely to come across when reviewing a bus quote. If something isn't clear, or you aren't sure why you are being charged for something, ask about it. You are the steward of the band's road finances and it's your job to know where the cash is going and why.

  • Coach Rate – this is the daily rate of the bus, multiplied by the number of days the bus will be in your possession. This is typically a flat day fee that is going to vary depending on year, make, and model of the bus.
  • Trailer Rate – this is the daily rate of the trailer, multiplied by the number of days the trailer will be in your possession. Towing a trailer will increase the driver's wage. Some companies will charge you a towing fee for hitching a third party trailer.
  • Driver Rate – I think you're getting the hang of this! This is the daily rate of the driver, multiplied by the number of days on the road. Some companies have moved to an all-in rate, that includes overdrives and double overdrives. If a driver is pulling a trailer, they typically make $25 – $35 more depending on the company.
  • Payroll Fees – if the driver is not on the band's payroll, they are on the coach vendor's payroll and a surcharge is applied. This fee covers workman's comp, taxes, and a processing fee.
  • Co-Driver Rate – if the tour will require a co-driver at any point, it will be notated here, along with their daily rate. If you're on a multi-bus tour, you may be able to organize a shared driver between multiple buses. Clarify who is going to be booking flights for any required co-drivers.
  • End of Tour Service/Cleaning – the deepest of cleans done in the yard.
  • Internet/Satellite Service – this is the fee you pay to have internet and satellite on the bus. Typically this does not work in Canada. Make sure the internet is disconnected prior to going into Canada to avoid any egregious surcharges.
  • DOT Fee / IFTA / ELD – Department of Transportation Fees, International Fuel Tax Agreement (this is how fuel tax gets appropriated to the different states – deals with lower 48 and provinces of Canada), Electronic Logging Device (this tracks the on duty and off duty hours of the driver).
  • Engine Service – This is calculated by taking the total number of miles the tour will travel, and multiplying it by X amount, normally around 10 to 15 cents a mile.
  • Overdrives – if you have drives exceeding 450 miles, they should be notated here and at what rate the driver is entitled to receive. This may be covered as an all-in rate. Check with your vendor. Further down I explain what an overdrive is.
  • Hotel Buyouts – this is when the driver will take a cash buyout in lieu of the tour booking them a hotel room. This is often present when deadheading and the driver will stay on the bus, but is still entitled to a room.
  • Cleaning – this is the weekly cleaning fee for the interior of the bus. Linens, etc.
  • Bus Wash – this is the weekly cleaning fee for the exterior of the bus.
  • Trailer Wash – this is the weekly cleaning fee for the exterior of the trailer.
  • Generator Service – this is a weekly fee for servicing the generator. You want this serviced regularly to avoid running into any issues on days or locations where you can't tie into shore power.
  • Fuel – the largest variable expense on any tour. The tour will pay for this as you go along. Avoid having it put on the bus companies credit card because you will be surcharged roughly 10% of the fuel cost.

Likely beyond the scope of your first bus tour, but long-term leases do exist. Do the math and talk to your business manager and coach vendor to see if it's worth exploring.

Proper Advancing of a Bus Tour

By getting ahead of the curve and doing a proper advance, you will have the majority of the information you need to make good decisions about bus movements. Below I've included a sample of questions to ask or be thinking about as you advance. You're going to want to know information about the day before and the day after to make informed decisions about when and where to move the bus day of show.

  • What is the situation for bus parking? We are traveling in (insert number of buses with trailers here). Please provide a map with specific parking instructions. IE: Do we need to back in? nose in?
  • What is the earliest the bus can arrive at the venue?
  • What is the latest the bus can stay at the venue? Does it need to move immediately after our loadout to accommodate house audio/lighting loadout?
  • Is there shore power/water available? (You want to use shore whenever possible as it saves on the cost of fuel)
  • Other questions to include and things to think about – Are there any overhanging trees? Are there any street closures to be aware of? Can the slide be used where the bus is parked? Can you park the wrong way on the street to utilize the slide? Is the bus in a secure area? How are you going to get the artist to/from the bus? Are there any gates to be locked/unlocked? Any restrictions on bus generator use? If this is a festival are you parking on a concrete pad or on terrra firma? Is a cross-load necessary? Is the parking area level?

Setting bus calls well in advance is a benefit to the folks you are traveling with as well so that they are able to make plans for their day. Make sure to use confirmed information so you aren't guessing. I also like to include an estimated time of arrival for those early risers. Remember that no two situations are the same, and the only dumb question is the one you don't ask.

Driver Communication

Communication with the driver is very important. You are going to be passing along the information you've collected in your advance to the driver on a daily basis. Make sure to get this to your driver 48 hours in advance of the date to avoid any potential snafus. This allows the driver time to review the information, highlight any potential issues on the route, and avoid stress created by last-minute decisions. Help them help you!

After speaking with the venue's production manager, I compile the information that the driver will need. I include a map of the property, and highlight the location where the bus will park, along with how the bus will enter the property (nosing in versus backing in), and any particular roads to take or avoid. Include a point of contact for the venue or else the driver is going to wake you up if they run into issues. Include information about water and shore power if applicable to the day.

A driver can really make or break your existence on a tour. They are in control of your sleep schedule. Treat them with respect, and you'll get respect back. Don't forget to include them in the daily buyout (if applicable), or get them an aftershow/start of shift meal. Little things go a long way, and that applies to everyone in your touring party. I've been fortunate to meet some real characters out there. Thankful for all of the conversations I've shared with drivers post-show over the years.

Driver Credit Card, Bus Float, and Payroll

Prior to the start of the tour you're going to want to confirm your drivers legal name and get business management to issue them a credit card. This makes fuel stops more convenient, is easier to reconcile at the end of the tour, and helps with hotel check-ins in the event that there are any issues.

In addition to the credit card, you're going to want to give your driver a cash float to help cover expenses that come up that a credit card may not always work for. Some examples of these expenses might be bus supplies purchased in the middle of nowhere, tolls (if an EZ Pass isn't present), and fuel stops where the card may not work for whatever reason. Make sure your driver has sufficient float to cover a fuel stop (around $500) if the card should ever be declined in the middle of the night. Do you enjoy sleeping? I enjoy sleeping.

You can think of the cash you're giving the driver as a subfloat of your main float. Make sure to sign it out and have documentation of the driver receiving the float. They will return it at the end of the tour, less expenses (with receipts documenting expenses). A good driver will keep track of all receipts, number, and label them. Talk about this on the first day to make sure expectations are clear to avoid any issues down the line. Last thing you want to do is muck through a pile of month old fuel receipts that aren't in order.

Decide with business management if you're going to put the driver on the band's payroll or if the bus company will handle payroll. If the bus company handles payroll you will be charged to cover worker's compensation, taxes, and payroll processing. As the tour manager, you will be verifying driver pay sheets on a weekly basis. Double check mileage for accuracy along with any bus services. Do not underpay, do not overpay. If a driver requests to be paid in cash out of the touring float, politely decline.

Understanding Driver Hours

Driver hours are important to understand so you can properly connect the dots of your tour. Having a grasp of how things fit together will help you to avoid foreseeable logistical pitfalls. It will also help you to take care of your driver and make sure they are getting proper rest. A driver's job is one of the most difficult and important jobs on the entire tour.

  • A driver can not drive more than 10 hours or 650 miles in one shift; whichever comes first. At the conclusion of their shift, they are required to be off duty for a consecutive 8 hours.
  • A driver can not be on duty for more than 15 hours. They must come off the clock after being on for 15 hours. For context imagine starting your day at 12:01a and coming off the clock at 3:01p. That's brutal and exhausting, don't do that to your driver.
  • Extenuating circumstances or emergencies allow the driver to be on the clock for more than 10 hours. I'll never forget that one snow storm…
  • A driver cannot accumulate more than 70 hours of being on duty in an 8 day period. To hit this benchmark, you've really got to be making your miles. This is rare, but I've been on a tour where this has happened. Pain in the arse, and we had to have co-drivers come in!
  • If you have a tight drive on one day, and an easier drive the day before, consider fueling up the day before to avoid being under pressure to make a drive in X amount of time.
  • If you are running into a situation where the bus will have to reposition at the loadout, figure out what your options are with the venue. Do you really want to start the driver's clock at 12:01a for a 3-hour drive?
  • Truck Driver hours are structured differently. They get 11 hours of driving time, and can only be on duty for 14 hours. The 70 hours in 8 days of on-duty time still applies.
  • Driver hours and limits are structured much differently in the UK/EU. They are complicated and beyond the scope of this article.

What is an Overdrive?

An overdrive is when a driver exceeds 450 miles in a shift. A double overdrive occurs when a driver exceeds 600 miles in a shift. Please note that the mileage benchmark is going to be specific to the company you're working with. Some companies use 500 miles as their first overdrive marker, but this is rare.

Say for example the driver's base pay is $225. If they drive 451 miles, they will make $450. If they drive 601 miles they will make $675. A driver cannot exceed 650 miles or 10 hours of driving in a given shift.

What is Deadhead?

Deadhead is when there isn't anyone traveling on the bus. An example of this would be the bus leaving the yard and traveling to the first show date without anyone on the bus, except for the driver. Deadhead is billed differently than if there were passengers on the bus. A driver can go 500 miles, instead of 450, and not incur an overdrive. This varies company to company, so it's best to ask, rather than assume.

When is a Co-Driver Required?

A co-driver is going to be required anytime a drive cannot be completed in under 10 hours, or if a drive is going to exceed 650 miles. The first driver would be required to take a DOT break of 8 hours, before being able to drive again.

How Much Time to Estimate for a Drive?

A good rule of thumb is to estimate 2 hours of travel time for every 100 miles. This builds in time for fuel stops, but also allows the driver to drive at a reasonable rate of speed that's not going to knock everyone out of their bunks. A smooth ride is a slow ride. If a driver ever asks if you brought your velcro pajamas on the first day, RUN!

Local Transportation and Hotels

Once the bus has arrived, you're parked up for the day, and all of the driver's daily duties are taken care of, it's time to get them to the hotel. You have to remember, they've been working all night and while you're just getting your workday started, they're just finishing theirs.

Depending on what you've advanced, the runner may already be on, and if that's the case they'll be able to give a ride to the driver. If it's too early, I'll have the driver take a car. On a multibus tour, try to consolidate driver rides if at all possible. On the tail end of the evening, I typically don't like to keep runners on super late, and I'll have the driver take a car back. Again, this is situational.

If budget allows, it is preferable to book a driver room for the day prior, leading into your show day. This allows for the driver to get into their room right away. If it's been a particularly fatiguing routing, consecutive days of 500+ mile days, etc., I'll go ahead and make sure this is taken care of. Not all tours can afford this, however. Some may champion that the bottom line is the end all be all, but remember, this is the person who is in charge of your safe passage on a nightly basis. Do you really want a fatigued driver at the helm?

Another thought is to call the hotel the evening prior and see if the property is sold out. Normally you're doing this pretty late, so I ask for the name of who is helping me. Think of this as your ammunition when you are calling the next morning and they suddenly don't have any rooms available until check-in. You already know the hotel isn't sold out, and suddenly a room becomes available for your driver when you press them a bit.

Parking on Days Off

Something that is often overlooked is where to park the bus on a day off. It seems straightforward enough, but without proper preparation, it can turn into quite the thorn in your side. If you're working with a travel agent worth their salt they know properties that are able to accommodate bus parking.

It's still a good habit to doublecheck the property and make sure a bus can be accommodated. Curbs are oftentimes intentionally installed at certain properties to thwart oversize vehicles from accessing the parking lot. If it looks like it's going to be a tight lot, call and speak to the property to see if anyone has parked a bus there before. Confirm and reconfirm. Make sure there aren't any restrictions on running the generator.

An ideal parking spot is going to have ample bus parking and plenty of food and entertainment options that are walkable from the bus.

Bus Etiquette

The below is a list of things that extends to band/crew/TM/PM whomever.

  • How do I put this politely… don't take a dump in the toilet! If this occurs, you will be banished from the realm of touring for all of eternity and shamed by your peers in a public forum.
  • In that same breath, don't piss all over the bathroom floor while the bus is in motion. Looking at you, gentlemen. The last thing anyone desires is to go for a slip and slide urine ride in the middle of the night. Soggy socks? No, thank you.
  • Clean up after yourself. A clean bus is a happy bus. You're living on top of each other in a mobile hallway. Be respectful of your space and other's space.
  • Turn off your bunk light if you're not using it. A top bunks light can shine directly into the eyes of a passenger beneath you.
  • Getting off the bus in the middle of the night? Leave your laminate on the bus driver's seat so someone knows you got off the bus. Don't become a grease spot.
  • If something is going bad in the food department, throw it out. Don't ignore it and bury it in the back of the fridge. That stuff starts to stink.
  • Keep an eye on bus supplies. Nothing worse than realizing you don't have coffee filters first thing in the AM. See something running low? Tell your tour manager.
  • Always make sure you have clean ice and bay ice. Something simple, but makes a lot of people happy.
  • Have an issue with the bus driver or someone on the tour? Let your tour manager know. They can't fix it unless they know there is an issue. Close quarters are a breeding ground for small things becoming big things.
  • Sleep with your feet facing the nose of the bus. Ever been in a vehicle when they have to slam on the brakes? Don't let your bus bunk give you the Stone Cold Stunner in your sleep and break your neck.
  • Be mindful of noise in the bunk area. As much as you miss your hunny bunny, please take your call elsewhere, schnukums.
  • Wipe your feet off! Super duper muddy? Take your shoes off upon entering the bus.
  • Remember to purchase the bare essentials of bus stock prior to your first show. This'll get you through until the first show.
  • Smokers can normally smoke in the buddy seat with the window open, but I personally think smoking on the bus sucks. It's up to the vibe of the tour you're on.
  • If you're going through a known checkpoint, remind folks to get rid of anything that shouldn't be on the bus.

By no means is this a catch-all document, but hopefully, you'll be able to glean some useful info from it and put it to use on your tour. Things are always changing, and I'm curious to see what the future of touring in a coach looks like in the next 25 years! Have I left something out? Have questions? Get in touch and let me know.

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