Windy City Limousine & Bus CEO George Jacobs was certainly no stranger to chauffeured ground transportation when he decided to add motorcoaches to his Chicago-based fleet more than 10 years ago, but he was in the right place and the right time.
"In 2007, none of the limousine companies had motorcoaches," he says. "We had to contract work from the local bus companies, but they usually closed at 5 p.m. during the week and weren't open at all on the weekend. The customer service and professionalism were often lacking."
But something even more important was also missing.
"The quality of their vehicles was lacking, too," adds Kathy Kahne, president of Windy City. "We were providing minicoaches since day one, and our limousine, sedan, and SUV customers had grown accustomed to experiencing luxury service. Eventually they came to us and said, ‘Hey, if you can put 39 in a vehicle, why can't you get motorcoaches and give us that same experience?' We became confident that we could make it work."
With the customer demand secured, notably through Windy City's strong relationships with local DMCs, corporate clientele, and sports teams, Jacobs and his team set forth to bring coach work to the business, but with a difference.
"First and foremost, we're a limousine company," Jacobs says. "From the get-go, we wanted chauffeurs driving the coaches, not just bus drivers. We wanted them dressed neatly in a uniform with an understanding of luxury customer service. They represent the company and we're proud of them."
Having a groundbreaking strategy, an outstanding team, and existing clientele in place, it was imperative that Jacobs purchase the right vehicles for the company's ambitious motorcoach business. Jacobs needed buses that were reliable, safe, and eye-catching, and fortunately, he notes that they weren't far from his reach.
Motor Coach Industries (MCI) is one of the longest-standing brands in the ground transportation industry. Founded in 1933, the motorcoach manufacturer—located in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines—has been a leader in building and supplying buses for the private sector, including charter and tour operators, as well as public transit, where they supply equipment to states and cities around the country. Jacobs said it was their rich history, along with their vehicles' stellar reputation in reliability and comfort that made it an easy decision to purchase two refurbished MCI J4500 coaches as his inaugural buses.
"When we got those first two MCI coaches, Chicago was a wide-open market for a quality bus company," says Kahne. "It was kind of a Field of Dreams situation—build it and they will come. Things exploded quickly. We had rolling billboards with beautiful, black, sexy buses and one of the most amazing logos in the industry. They would roll up and down the streets of Chicago, catching everyone's eyes. Word of mouth spread like wildfire."
When Kahne gives advice to operators looking to add motorcoaches to their existing fleet, she always suggests that they consider starting with two coaches if they can swing it because, in her words, "if you can book one bus consistently, odds are you'll be able to book two." Undoubtedly, this comes from her experience with Windy City's early days of providing coach service.
"We wound up getting a contract with a casino, and we were forced to purchase several additional motorcoaches very quickly at a ‘reasonable' price—unfortunately, we went down the road with a company that wasn't MCI," laments Jacobs. "They eventually went out of business. We started with MCI and then tried a cheap substitute, which brought us right back to MCI."
Their vehicles are far superior to many others that are on the road, but their customer service is bar-none.” – Kathy Kahne, President of Windy City Limousine & BusBoth MCI and Windy City are quick to refer to their business relationship as a "partnership." The two companies not only provide valuable service to one another, but also have earned each other's respect.
"We go back with Windy City over 10 years," says Brent Maitland, MCI vice president of marketing and product planning. "They've been a consistent and important customer to us, and they were one of the first limousine companies to enter the market. We still get excited to see their buses on the road in our home town."
Kahne is a fan of MCI's products and service alike. "Their vehicles are far superior to many others that are on the road, but their customer service is bar-none. They're local to us, so if we need parts and service, it's literally a half hour from our facility. They are just a good company. I like to say that they're a giant company with a family feel to it."
"All buses break down eventually, we get that," adds Jacobs. "But when we've had something happen with an MCI vehicle, we'll have that part in a half hour. Or if something happens that we can't fix in-house, they're going to give us a loaner. They're customer-focused—and their warranty and service is worth its weight in gold. MCI is willing to stand behind the bus."
Maitland recognizes the importance of living up to client expectations, particularly with a weighty investment like a motorcoach, and MCI is looking to delivering superior service. "A huge factor in our success, and a big piece of our focus, is on our service and support. After we sell a vehicle, it's all about keeping it running and maximizing up-time. If it's not working, operators are not earning money. We realize that companies shifting from cars to coaches may not be equipped in their shops to handle these large vehicles, so we will offer them service contract options and place an emphasis on training their maintenance staff. We also have service facilities in seven major markets across the country."
Chauffeured ground transportation operators who have expanded into the motorcoach business, like Jacobs and Windy City, are a rapidly growing part of MCI's business. "We've seen many operators began to ask: One, how they can expand their business, and two, how they can get better control of their value chain? Many companies weren't comfortable having a lack of control in their business when farming out work. So, in the past four years, we've seen traditional black car operations really start to look into getting a motorcoach, with the coach having the same look, feel, and branding as their other vehicles," says Maitland.
As limousine companies started to become a growth market for MCI, the builder anticipated that the rookies in that sector would prefer to test the waters with used coaches, but Maitland says that wasn't necessarily the case.
"When we first started working with the limousine companies, we thought that [the industry] would tend to be focused on pre-owned coaches," says Maitland, "but we've ended up putting an emphasis on both the new and pre-owned coaches. This market is very similar to the tour and charter: Many customers want vehicles that are custom and freshly branded to them, with warranties."
By far, MCI's best-seller among luxury ground transportation companies is its J4500 coach. The 45-foot vehicle, which seats up to 56, first entered production in 2000 and has remained the number-one seller for almost 13 years, though it's continually been updated and tweaked over its history.
"As limousine operators grow into coaches, we've found their needs and requirements to be a little different than what we've traditionally had—so we've set ourselves up to be flexible in order to offer new and innovative things that appeal to them," says Maitland.
Because operators tend to worry about exterior aesthetics as much an interior amenities, Maitland says MCI spent a good deal of time learning what chauffeured transportation operators desired in a coach. Certainly every bus owner, regardless of industry, wants passenger-accessible power outlets and WiFi, but Maitland points out that the company made every effort to accommodate the needs of their new client base, whether it's supplying custom seating, exterior branding, or interior configuration. One of the most notable adjustments was in 2015 when they shifted to an independent front suspension, thereby improving roadhandling and allowing the coach to turn tighter—which is certainly mighty valuable in cities like Chicago.
For 2018, MCI introduced a new J4500 into the market, with sweeping upgrades designed to appeal to the limousine market. "When we set out to do the project, we saw a trend toward customization. So we looked to our customer requests as well as what's happening in the automotive sector, particularly in regard to our interior lighting. Also, some of the automation trends are making their way into our vehicles, such as radar-based adaptive cruise control and collision mitigation. We also refreshed our interiors to make them truly best-in-class. Compared to our competitors, in an MCI, you're always going to get more legroom, which is really a huge driver of comfort."
Windy City recently added one of the 2018 J4500 MCI coaches to their fleet and Jacobs couldn't be happier with the vehicle, although it has caused a bit of strife within the company. "When we get a new MCI, our chauffeurs fight over them; they actually get in line to drive them," jokes Jacobs. "But seriously, our chauffeurs have a lot to say about what buses we buy—and MCI is the vehicle of choice. They feel like a crown prince when they're behind the wheel of the new MCI. They're in the best equipment, they're comfortable, and they know it's reliable."
Kahne also raves about the newest model. "The 2018 model is the sexiest motorcoach on the road right now, hands down. The redesign, with that front end and cabin—there's no coach out there like that. And from a safety standpoint, the way they build it makes MCI one of the safest motorcoaches on the road, which is something we never take for granted."
Being firmly entrenched in a major metropolitan city affords Windy City with the opportunity to deliver service to an increasingly wide spectrum of clients. From DMCs to corporations and schools to sports, the company takes full advantage of the immense amount of motorcoach work that's available to them in Chicago—and beyond.
"We've figured out how to manage and execute large group movements with buses," says Kahne. "Part of it is having the equipment to do it; if you don't have the coaches and you're relying on others, it's more difficult. We have the infrastructure so we've become the go-to company for giant group movements."
One case in point: McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America, located in downtown Chicago, generates a million and a half trips per year in bus work for area operators. Windy City's vehicles are regularly seen moving convention-goers to and from the venue.
"The folks that handle McCormick Place often come to us and ask how many we can handle," says Kahne. "We will fill up as many buses for them as we have—we just make it work."
The company also has secured licenses with the city of Chicago to provide transportation for the area schools' field trips to the state capitol building in Springfield. And lest anyone think that prom work is regulated to small or upstart operators, Windy City provides motorcoach transportation for local post-prom events.
However, some of Windy City's biggest clients include the who's who of corporate America. Companies such as Motorola and Kraft regularly utilize the company for group moves and shuttle work, and recently Jacobs contracted with one of the world's most recognized restaurant icons.
"We just signed a multi-million, multi-year deal with McDonalds," reveals Jacobs. "They're moving their corporate headquarters from Oak Brook to downtown Chicago. We're going to be doing all the transportation for their employees from the train station downtown to their new offices."
It's virtually impossible to discuss Chicago without mentioning their love of sports. As it is arguably the preeminent American sports town—with no fewer than five pro sports teams—it comes as no surprise that Windy City's coaches are as ubiquitous in sports arena parking lots as tailgating fans. Its partnerships include teams in the NCAA as well as the pros
"We started with a contract with a company that handles all the NCAA championships—regardless of what sport it is—and we transport most of the teams in coaches," says Kahne. "We also have contracts with Northwestern, Loyola, University of Chicago, Dominican University, and IIT University. "
The company also works with Anthony Travel, a university and sports travel management company that handles 200 college teams. However, it's the work for the pros that brings Windy City a high level of prestige. "We provide transportation for the Chicago Bears, the Bulls, the Cubs, and the White Sox," says Jacobs, who is a regular fixture at many of the teams' home games.
"Recently, I was at a White Sox game, and the owner [Jerry Reinsdorf] comes up to me and says, ‘I got a bone to pick with you,'" recounts Jacobs. "It seems that he was out driving and he saw the Cubs logo on the back of our bus. He said, ‘Where's the White Sox logo?'"
To which Kahne quipped: "Where's the World Series?"
Kidding aside, Jacobs is grateful that the company has those MCIs ready and available for high-profile clients. "Very often we have pro teams, like the Bears, that request six identical vehicles to move their players. Fortunately, we have enough MCIs that we can deliver those coaches for the players."
Thanks to its partnership with the sports teams and NCAA, Windy City's coaches commonly travel far from the city limits of Chicago. "We send more and more coaches over the road," says Jacobs. "When there's a Notre Dame home game, it's not uncommon to see 45 of our buses at the stadium. This year, when Loyola suddenly made it to the final four, they wanted to send two coaches to San Antonio. We sent two MCIs to take care of them, knowing the confidence we have in those buses.”
In fact, it was a recent out-of-town event that ended up providing Windy City with a truly unforgettable experience: Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.
"Normally February is our ‘slow' month, but this was our biggest single event ever in the history of the company—and it was 400 miles away from home,” says Jacobs. "We had more than 100 vehicles: We had about 35 motorcoaches, 75 SUVs, a bunch of Sprinters, and smattering of minibuses.” He's looking forward to providing transportation for Super Bowl LIII ... even though it's being held 700 miles away in Atlanta.
"Our buses go everywhere. Our chauffeurs have a page on Facebook, where they post pictures of their location. They let us know when and where they see a Windy City bus with the hashtag #WindyCityisEverywhere.”
Jacobs recognizes that Windy City would not be anywhere without his team. Kahne essentially serves as his right hand, and is crucial to the health of the company. She was invaluable when the company was expanding into the motorcoach market. "We have an account that's been with us for ten years, and I've never met them,” confesses Jacobs. "Kathy took control and has worked with them, even before she was in her current position.”
Kahne credits the "magicians” in Windy City's in-house repair and detailing shop for keeping their coaches on the road and looking good. "Our mechanics work magic with those buses. The things they accomplish to ensure that our vehicles are on the road each day—I don't know how they do it.”
The pair is also quick to recognize the work of Dave Lahr, director of operations. "The puzzles he solves every day would break anyone else. Just when you think we can't eek out one more ride for a client, he makes it work. And he does this ten times, every day,” says Kahne.
"Depending on the day, you're fearful to walk in the office. He might be in there pulling out his hair,” laughs Jacobs. "But he's been here from the very beginning, and we couldn't do it without him.”
Chicago residents can count on seeing those familiar Windy City logos winding the streets for a long time, and the company looks forward to continuing their strong relationship with MCI. "We are in this together,” says Jacobs. "Time and time again, MCI has worked with us creatively in ways that other bus companies aren't willing or able to do. They've gone beyond to be a great partner with us.”
The sentiment is shared by MCI. "From my dealings with George Jacobs and Kathy Kahne, it is no wonder that they've grown and prospered like they have,” says Rich DeYoung, MCI vice president of sales. "Their high standards and professionalism are obvious in the way they run their business, how they treat their employees, and the vehicles they choose for their fleet, often opting to spend more for a premium product for their clients.” [CD0518]